Southeast Asia contains seventy percent of the world's total tropical peatland, mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia. But these vast peatland landscapes are under great pressure from years of resource exploitation and land development. Government policies promoting land conversion from peat swamp forest to agriculture have greatly reduced the area of the natural ecosystem. Ecologists have always understood the environmental degradation this brought about, but now the economic basis of the conversion is under challenge as well.
Until a decade ago there were still 2.5 million hectares of peat swamp forest in Malaysia and 25 million hectares in Indonesia. Most of this was part of the commercial forestry estate in both countries. This area has now been reduced to around one million hectares in the former and 17 million hectares in the latter. The land has mostly been converted to plantation use, especially oil palm, although small farmers from outside the locality have been used to open some parts to new settlements.
The largest of these land conversion schemes was the Mega Rice Project in Central Kalimantan. The brainchild in 1996 of former President Suharto, it was the most glaring misuse of tropical peatland in recent times. Suharto felt obliged to restore Indonesia's rice self-sufficiency. In 1985 the Food and Agriculture Organisation gave him a medal for such sufficiency. But since then about one million hectares of rice paddy in Java had been sold for commercial and urban development. To compensate, he decreed that an equivalent area be created out of lowland peat swamps in Borneo. In theory this proposal had much to commend it. However, the peatland soil characteristics in Central Kalimantan are completely different from those of volcanic Java. The project was doomed to fail before it started.
Knowing that international aid organisations and funding agencies would not agree to the Mega Rice Project, President Suharto authorised expenditure from internal Indonesian sources, especially the reforestation fund in the forestry ministry. The money was spent largely on excavating drainage and irrigation channels, done by companies owned by his cronies. The forest resource within the project area was allocated for clear felling, again by companies owned by Suharto's family and friends. No independent environmental impact assessment was done beforehand. Only afterwards did a team of so-called experts, of whom hardly any had experience of peatland ecology, carry out a minor one.
The Mega Project was an unmitigated disaster. Not one blade of productive rice was ever grown there, in spite of the removal of at least half a million hectares of primary peat swamp forest, the extermination of around 5,000 orangutan and myriads of other wildlife, and the creation of more than 4,600 kilometres of channels. This environmental folly, many believe, contributed to Suharto's downfall. His successor President Habibie stopped the project and handed over the land to be managed by the forestry ministry and the Central Kalimantan provincial government.
By the time the project was abandoned, major damage had been done to the regional and global environment. Forestry resources had been ransacked, government money had been misappropriated, and the economy and quality of life of indigenous people had been irreparably disrupted. Five years after the Mega Rice Project commenced, one million hectares of wetland landscape lie in ruins, a wasteland testimony to human greed and stupidity. The peat swamp forest is either gone or in terminal decay. The 60,000 settlers who were transferred to part of the area can grow neither rice nor enough substitute crops to exist. Disease and poverty are rife. Many have reverted to despoiling the nearest remaining forest for firewood. Others have joined the legion of illegal loggers, who are financed by a new generation of crooks replacing the Suharto cronies in raping this sensitive landscape.
The sad story does not end there. Rubbing salt in the human-induced wounds, nature has also contributed to the saga of destruction of the peat swamp forests of Southeast Asia. The combination of forest destruction, land clearance and an exceptionally severe El Nino climatic event in 1997 led to the severest forest and peatland fires ever known in this region. Between half a million and three million hectares of vegetation burned, much of it on peat. The fires penetrated into the dried-out surface peat to a depth of up to 1.5 metres.
At least one billion tonnes of carbon were released into the atmosphere - more than that released by the fossil fuels the European Union burns in a year. It undid an estimated ten years of carbon fixation by all of the world's pristine peat bogs. The radiative forcing generated by this sudden release of carbon could have added about 0.5 parts per million carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This is a significant addition to the global greenhouse gas concentration. It was a disaster of monumental proportions, yet governments and international environmental organisations have underplayed it. Why?
The answer to this last question lies in the relationship between the governments in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and business interests involved in land development and resource exploitation. These regimes and the companies that support them have vested interests in removing forests, draining peatlands, and establishing plantation crops, especially oil palm. Intensive logging, forest destruction and land conversion having been taking place in Indonesia and Malaysia for more than twenty years. Several severe fire and haze episodes occurred in that time. In developing countries, fire is the only effective tool for clearing land cheaply prior to converting it to agriculture. But the fires attracted little publicity, and nothing was done to stop the activities that caused them. Too much money was at stake for those involved, whose influence reached to the highest levels of government.
The Malaysian and Singaporean governments made no comment until the devastating 1997/98 fires occurred - a combined result of the extreme El Nino drought and the Mega Rice Project land clearance in Central Kalimantan. Even so they intervened only after the fires had been raging for more than six weeks, and initial comments were almost muted. Could this reluctance to condemn the lack of action by the Indonesian government be linked to the fact that companies owned by Malaysian and Singapore interests, including family members of prominent politicians, were involved?
A new scam
The eventual response of the Indonesian government was to cancel the Mega Rice Project. But in the absence of any real understanding of what do about the disaster, it rolled this failed scheme into an even larger proposal to develop 2.8 million hectares of tropical peatland in Central Kalimantan. An enormous sum of money had already been squandered in the failed attempt to create a vast area of rice paddies. Officials clearly believed that throwing even more money at it was the only cure. The infrastructure for this Integrated Economic Area within the Kapuas, Kahayan and Barito Catchments (Kapet Das Kakab) is now in place. Instead of rice paddy this plan favours oil palm and rubber plantations. The new proposal is yet another scam to justify removal of a further half million hectares of pristine peat swamp forest, as well as to launder money to certain business enterprises and government officials under the guise of land clearance, infrastructure provision and planting incentives.
In late 1999 Erna Witoelar, minister of public works and regional development in the new government (and a former environmental activist), put the Kapet on hold. On the one hand, this action was a positive acknowledgement that Central Kalimantan's peat swamps are special and difficult to convert to agriculture. On the other hand, it created a vacuum of indecision that will provide opportunities for unscrupulous developers to suggest further crazy schemes. They see the potential to make more money from land conversion and the provision of infrastructure. One thing is certain, however. They will not grow economically sustainable crops with any more success than did the Mega Rice Project.
The losers, as always, are the environment (because of irreparable loss of biodiversity and natural resource functions), the provincial government (who have to deal with the problems), and the poor farmers (who have been deposited in a bleak landscape without sustainable means to survive). The only glimmer of hope is the new democratically elected government in Jakarta and its stated determination to root out collusion, corruption and nepotism. International agencies are supporting (forcing!) it in this attempt. New laws are being enacted, but enforcement is slow to follow. It will be a long haul. Corruption is deeply rooted in all levels of society, and some of the worst offenders are the supposed law enforcers. By the time the problem is sorted out there may be no natural peat swamp forest left.
There must be a new approach to managing tropical peatlands. It must begin with a detailed evaluation of all its attributes, services and values, including biodiversity, ecology and natural resources. Land uses for nature conservation, landscape protection and sustainability of natural resources must be given equal weighting to agricultural development and human settlement.
Jack Rieley (Jack.Rieley@nottingham.ac.uk) is Director of the Kalimantan Tropical Peat Swamp Forest Research Project and Vice President of the International Peat Society. Further information from his web site www.geography.nottingham.ac.uk/~rieley/research.htm. Inside Indonesia first described the peat project in edition 48, October 1996.