• How an Indonesian peatland project is offering a new way to curb forest fires

    Environment, Environmental Design

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    Pulang Pisau, Central Kalimantan. The residents of Jabiren faced a nervous wait in October last year as fires raged in the peatlands around their village, Jakarta Globe reported news. “Fire stormed this area — including that land across from here,” said Muhrizal Sarwani, the head of the Agricultural Land Resources Agency (BBSLDP), pointing at an abandoned field across a nearby ditch. “All other places were affected by the fire, except for this site.” While other tranches of land in the area — peat, mostly — were degraded by a particularly uncompromising fire in 2005 that laid waste to the forest covering, this five-hectare plot is still standing. Now, the government and environmentalists believe that the lessons learned here can be put to work at lessening the impact of one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems — Indonesia’s ticking carbon time bomb. The Sustainable Peatland Management project began in 2010 across five different pilot sites in the archipelago after it was proposed by the Ministry of Agriculture and had its funding approved by the Indonesian Climate Change trust Fund (ICCTF). Jabiren was one of the locations chosen — the Central Kalimantan arm of the project is scheduled to run until 2014. “[Peatlands] here have been degraded for quite a long time, and have repeatedly fallen victim to fires,” Muhrizal said during a visit to the project site in Jabiren last Thursday. He puts the success of this project, so far, down to three focuses that depart from the status quo— raising the level of the water table, the use of peat ameliorants and inter-cropping. Fahmuddin Agus, a soil expert with the BBSLDP, places a particular emphasis on addressing the level of water below the ground. “We need to keep the water table at a level as shallow as possible,” Fahmuddin said. “If it’s too deep, more soil will burn when fire strikes.” Project staff installed a water gate on an edge of the ditch encircling the site to keep the water table at a depth of between 50 and 85 centimeters, Muhrizal said. The Jabiren peat layer is around six meters deep. In addition to fertilizers commonly used as nutrients for plants, the project used peat ameliorants to reduce acidity — peat frequently registers around 3pH. A level of at least 5.5pH is required for plants to grow. While the healthy water table and use of ameliorants are largely invisible to the untrained eye, the third factor that sets this project apart is easier to spot. In contrast to the usual mono-cultural assembly lines, the rubber plantation columns here are punctuated by rows of pineapple trees. In addition to making the land more productive, intercropping makes the land less flammable. “Planting the pineapples also means weeding the rubber plantation, which minimizes competition for water and nutrients between rubber trees and weeds,” Fahmuddin said. “But it also minimizes the ‘fire bridge’ where weed grows between rubber trees, as often happened in the conventional system.”

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