RIAU: A mammoth task is underway in Indonesia to repair degraded peatland forest in Sumatra, an area twice the size of Singapore.
Located in the Riau province, the 150,000 hectares of peatland on Kampar Peninsula peek out from oil palm and Acacia tree plantations that turn out palm oil and paper products.
The peatland stores several gigatons of carbon, which if released in the atmosphere could have a catastrophic impact on the climate.
Singapore and Malaysia – just across the Straits of Malacca – would potentially bear the brunt of the environmental catastrophe, which could be many times more than the haze that enveloped the region last year.
Said Mr Brad Sanders, deputy head of Conservation at the April Group - Indonesia's second largest pulp and paper company: “This area of the Kampar Peninsula is very critical to maintaining the integrity of the hydrology for the rest of the peninsula. If this area was disturbed through canalisation, logging or fire there’s potential of releasing gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere, which of course, would contribute to climate change.”
In 2013, the April Group was awarded a 60-year license to restore the ecosystem of the Kampar Peninisula. The project, Restorasi Ekosistem Riau (RER), will cost the April Group US$100 million over the next decade. It includes the painstaking tasks of planting specific species of trees in the degraded forests.
Since 2015, more than 5,000 trees have been planted – covering over eight hectares.
“But it is still far from done," said April Group's Forest Ecology and Rehabilitation manager Muhammad Iqbal. "We need maintenance. We need to keep them from damage, say from another fire. Restoring the ecosystem is something very unique here, so we are all learning."
Fire is the biggest threat to peat beds, some of which can be as deep as 18 metres. The threat has been made worse by these canals dug by previous concession owners to transport their logs. These canals drained water from the peat land.
“This area will be dried up if we don’t put up blockades in this canal," said the group's water management specialist Roni Las Silaen. "One of the functions of the dam is to raise the water level in the area and make it damp, so the possibility of fire is very small."
Restoring the peat land forest ecosystem also means preserving the biodiversity of its waterways.
Four rivers criss-cross the restoration area. Around 50 species of plants and animals including the endangered Sumatran tiger have been documented in the area. Trap cameras have so far spotted three.
The restoration project is also a collaborative effort with communities living in the area. They have been taught alternative farming methods for their crops.
"Previously, the farmers here would burn the land according to their needs. For example they would burn 10 to 20 hectares of land to plant maize," said Mr Syairoji Hamid.
It will be a number of years before the benefits of restoration are felt. For now, there is at least some assurance that the possibility of a devastating fire in the peat forests of Kampar Peninsula has been greatly reduced.