Indonesia food estate threatens peatlands, with dire climate costs

Indonesia food estate threatens peatlands, with dire climate costs

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Carbon-rich peatlands in Kalimantan, Indonesia, have been cleared by the government to cultivate crops. (Video: Muhammad Fadli/The Washington Post)

BENTUK JAYA, Indonesia — Indonesia has been clearing tens of thousands of acres of densely vegetated peatland for farming, releasing massive amounts of carbon that had been sequestered below for centuries and destroying one of the Earth’s most effective means of storing greenhouse gases.

The country is home to as much as half of the planet’s tropical peatland, a unique ecosystem that scientists say is vital to averting the worst results of climate change. Government leaders have made halting efforts to protect peatlands over the last two decades, but three years ago, when the pandemic disrupted food supply chains, officials launched an ambitious land-clearance operation in a push to expand the cultivation of crops and cut Indonesia’s reliance on expensive imports.

By transforming 2,000 to 4,000 square miles of what environmental groups say is predominantly peatland into fields of rice, corn and cassava, the government projects that it will achieve self-sufficiency in food. Laws protecting forests have been amended to allow for the ongoing project. At the U.N. Climate Change Conference in November, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said his country wants to be a global supplier of agricultural products, feeding populations beyond its own.

But disrupting the peatlands comes with devastating, likely irreversible costs for the climate, say environmental experts and activists.

“To restore these vast areas of peat forest being destroyed will take years and huge investments in labor and funds,” said David Taylor, a professor of tropical environmental change at the National University of Singapore who has researched peatlands in Asia and Africa. To do it on the timeline that global leaders have set for the world to achieve net-zero emissions? “Near impossible,” Taylor said.

Peatlands form in areas that are too wet for dead plants and animals to fully decompose. While peatlands make up just 3 percent of the Earth’s land, they store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined, according to the United Nations.

When peatlands are drained, layers of aged biomass that are exposed to oxygen-rich air decay at an accelerated rate, releasing carbon from bygone eras into the atmosphere.

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Even worse, when the weather turns hot, unprotected peat dries out, becoming combustible. Already, environmental activists and villagers in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, say peatlands cleared by the government are fueling more-intense wildfires. Last year, according to data from Global Forest Watch, the number of fire alerts across Central Kalimantan province exceeded those of the three previous years combined.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the Food Estate project will even succeed. Research shows that tropical peatlands tend to be too acidic to grow crops. Indonesian environmental groups, including Pantau Gambut and WALHI, said they have documented widespread crop failures in areas targeted by the government’s project. Rice planted in some peat-rich areas has had less than a third of the yield of rice planted in mineral soil, according to the groups’ analysis.

Rawanda Wandy Tuturoong, a high-ranking aide to Widodo, said the government is experimenting with ways to more effectively cultivate peatland but can’t afford to wait for a perfect solution. Global supply chains are under threat, he said, citing the covid-19 pandemic and the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

“The challenge we have is real,” Tuturoong said in the capital, Jakarta. “This project needs to continue.”

The trace of wildfire at the peatlands in Dadahup, Kapuas, Central Kalimantan on Dec. 16, 2023. (Video: Muhammad Fadli/The Washington Post)

While peatlands are also found in temperate zones, including in the United States, Russia and the British Isles, it is those in the tropics that are of greatest concern, because they tend to be more forested, absorb more carbon, and are being degraded at a faster pace, according to researchers.

Wetlands in Africa’s Congo Basin, relatively undisturbed until recently, are being carved into concessions for oil and gas. New roads and infrastructure are disrupting the river system that floods Peru’s Amazonian lowlands.

Activists in other countries point to Indonesia as a cautionary tale. In 2015, huge fires across Indonesia’s degraded peatlands emitted more greenhouse gases than the entire European Union over several months, amounting to what the United Nations called “one of the worst environmental disasters of our century.” The fires blanketed Southeast Asia in a thick haze, causing the premature deaths of more than 100,000 people, estimated Harvard University researchers.

Left intact, peatlands are naturally protected against fire. Once degraded, however, they produce infernos that are notoriously difficult to put out because they can travel underground, feeding on dried biomass yards below the surface.

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Last year, as the El Niño weather pattern contributed to record-high temperatures, fires again erupted across Indonesia. Areas most affected included many of the villages involved in the Food Estate program, said watchdog groups.

In Bentuk Jaya, a spartan village of about 1,500 in Central Kalimantan situated almost entirely on peatland, fires burned from July to October, spreading on land that had been cleared and cultivated by the government in recent years, said village chief Muhammad Ibrahim, 35. Rows of trees with fire-blackened trunks stretch beside Bentuk Jaya’s gravel roads. “We’d put out a fire at night, and by the next morning, the very same spot would be ablaze,” said Ibrahim.

Pilang, another village on peat-rich land, escaped the blazes until mid-November, when land that had been cleared for the Food Estate project caught on fire. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘What if it doesn’t stop?’” remembered Sintuk K Ratu, head of the village’s volunteer firefighting group. “What if it destroys everything?”

The fires were eventually extinguished by heavy rains. But they’ll return, Ratu said. “They always do.”

A history of peat destruction

Even before the Food Estate project, peatlands in Indonesia had been degrading faster than virtually anywhere else, the result of government mistakes dating back decades, according to peatland experts.

From 1995 to 1998, Indonesian dictator Suharto led a project to cultivate nearly 2.5 million acres. To drain wetlands in Kalimantan, more than 2,000 miles of canals were dug, many of them so wide that they’re still visible from airplanes decades later. A group of visiting European researchers said at the time that it would take centuries for the ecosystem to recover. “Peatland destruction,” they warned, “is an irreversible process.”

The Mega Rice Project failed to reach its production targets and was terminated after Suharto was ousted. But large fires have repeatedly broken out on the peatlands cleared for the project, according to the World Resources Institute, a global research group. Even as the Indonesian government sank billions into firefighting, it promoted the rapid growth of the pulpwood and palm oil industries, further damaging the peatlands.

Immediately after the 2015 fires, Widodo set up a peatland restoration agency and promised to stop the clearing of new peat swamps. This agency says it has since restored about 9 million acres of peatland, but peatland experts and environmental groups say that figure has been impossible to verify.

Authorities have not said precisely where the restored peatland areas are located. Watchdog groups say the government has inflated its success and adopted a narrow definition of restoration as making dried peatlands wet again, even though this is only part of fully rehabilitating the damaged ecosystem. Taylor, the professor, said he has not seen any examples of damaged peatlands in Indonesia that have been fully restored. Researchers at the World Resources Institute said the same.

The peatland restoration agency did not respond to requests for comment.

Burnt and felled trees from fires in Central Kalimantan last year. (Video: Muhammad Fadli/The Washington Post)

In 2020, when Widodo launched the Food Estate project, scientists pointed to the failure of Suharto’s initiative. But officials said government researchers had found new, more resilient crop varieties and made advances in plant science that would produce different results. “The paradigm of peatland conservation is completely different,” Nazir Foead, head of the peatland restoration agency, told reporters at the time.

Three years on, however, local communities say the government’s efforts have been mixed at best.

People in Bentuk Jaya struggled for decades to grow crops on peat swamps and thought that when excavators showed up in 2020, help had finally arrived, said Ibrahim, the village chief. But in the last two seasons, much of the rice that was sown didn’t flower or produced far less grain than locals were told to expect. The land that the government cleared is bigger than the local population has been able to handle, and at least a third has been abandoned, said Ibrahim. “The politicians come and look at the paddy fields and they say, ‘Good, good,’” he added. “But people know it’s not good.”

In the village of Gunung Mas, several hours away, Pantau Gambut has documented more than 1,700 acres that were cleared for cassava plantations and left to wither away.

Southeast Asia bureau chief Rebecca Tan traveled to Indonesia as the country clears peatland for farming, risking the massive release of greenhouse gases. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

And in Pilang, where satellite imagery analyzed by Pantau Gambut shows that the Food Estate program has cleared more than 700 acres of peat forest, unused bags of fertilizer and agricultural lime powder have piled up on street corners. Government contractors cleared land and conducted brief workshops on rice-growing before abruptly leaving, said village officials. Some local farmers have given up.

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Indonesia’s financial audit board said after an investigation in 2022 that the Food Estate project failed to abide by environmental regulations mandating “sustainable food agricultural land planning and agricultural cultivation systems.” Nonetheless, Widodo has promised that it will proceed.

The government has not disclosed how much peatland has been razed so far for the project. But watchdog groups say more land, including peat swamps, is set to be cleared in Central Kalimantan as well as on the western island of Sumatra and in the eastern region of Papua.

Already, the Global Peatlands Initiative found two years ago that Indonesia’s peatlands were responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other peatland system in the world.

One recent afternoon, Tawu, a 72-year-old woman in a hijab and muddy clothes, padded along a tract of land in Pilang where she said she had tried and failed to grow rice several times. Officials had promised they would set up irrigation channels and walking paths, she said. “But they didn’t,” Tawu said under her breath. Instead, a wasteland extended out in front of her.

Pilang’s village chief, who goes by one name, Rusli, said he didn’t know whether the government’s project would succeed. Many here are members of the Indigenous Ngaju ethnic group, which has lived in harmony with Kalimantan’s peatlands for centuries.

“We have our own local wisdom,” Rusli said. The Ngaju believe, he said, that when a peatland ecosystem is disturbed, when its trees are slashed and swamps drained, the land will remain barren and fires will be its revenge.

Dera Menra Sijabat in Central Kalimantan and Winda Charmila in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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