Engaging Local Communities in S.E.Asian Peat Swamp regeneration

This note has been prepared for Eco Warrior Malaysia, a team of volunteers led by Matthias Gelber, in partnership with the Selangor Forest Department, Global Environment Centre and Plant a Tree Today, to replant the degraded peat lands at North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest(NSPSF). The NSPF covers about 70,000 Ha , one of the largest contiguous areas of peat swamp forest in Peninsular Malaysia.

March 21st 2009 brought in about 1000 volunteers to the area on the occasion of World Forestry Day when they planted about 10000 trees. The objective of the initiative is to rehabilitate 670Ha of deforested area, which would require about 4 million trees.

Why Peat swamps are so important for Global Climate Change

Peat swamps are tropical rainforests which are perennially waterlogged, creating depths of acidic peat soils caused by insufficiently decomposed organic matter. The layers of peat form over thousands of years and can even reach up to 20 metres thickness. Peat swamps exist between tropical lowland rainforests and mangrove forests along the coast. Here are some quick facts about peat swamps:

  • About 62% of the world’s tropical peat lands (of about 400 million hectares) occur in the Indo-Malayan region (80% in Indonesia, 11% in Malaysia and 6% in Papua New Guinea) (Wikipedia)
  • Although tropical peat lands cover only about 0.26% of the Earth’s land area (Wikipedia), they are the largest store of carbon close to the surface of the earth. According to Wetlands International, South Asian peat lands alone contain a carbon pool of 42 billion metric tonnes of carbon. Burning of peat lands has very important repercussions for global warming and climate change. They are what Greenpeace call “Ticking Climate Bombs” as these massive carbon stores become ready sources of emissions.
  • When peat swamps are drained of water through canals, the process releases carbon dioxide as peat is exposed to air and rapidly decomposes. When the dry peat lands are further cleared by fires to make way for timber or oil palm plantations, massive amounts of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere making a dense haze that often envelopes the region. Much of the demand for oil palm comes from food, cosmetics and biofuel industries.
  • In the dry season, illegal burning of peat swamps is a cheap way to clear land for plantations. In 1997-98, for example, particularly dry conditions made it really easy for illegal plantation companies to ignite peat swamp fires from Borneo, Indonesia. These fires released 2.57 billion tonnes (Gt) of greenhouse gases(GHG), which was more than the carbon emissions for the whole of Europe in one year. This also contributed 40% to the mean annual global carbon emissions from fossil fuels and the single largest increase since records began in 1957 (Opinionasia.org and Greenpeace).  It affected 70 million people in the region.
  • According to Wetlands International, the current total peat land CO2 emission from deforested and drained peat lands in SE Asia of 2 billion metric tonnes annually equals almost 8% of global emissions from fossil fuel burning.
  • Peat swamps are also home to several endangered species including the orangutans and the Sumatran tiger, and contain many rare species of fish and crustaceans. Clearing peat swams also affects the self-sustaining livelihoods of millions of indigenous peoples, as their ancestral communal claim to land is swept aside by government concessions to plantation companies.

How Local Communities traditionally use Peat Swamps
For many generations, peat swamps have been used by the local people to lead a simple and sustainable life. Introducing large scale plantations severely damage the peat swamp ecosystem. The self-sufficiency of locals is hampered as they depend upon the entire peat swamp ecosystem for sustenance. In all indigenous communities, the non-monetary value from NTFP or non-timber forest products (animals, fish, insects, plants, trees and tree products) that provide subsistence food and medicinal products is too important to be discounted. We take a brief look at the traditional ways by which indigenous communities sustain themselves.

  • Peninsular Malaysia : South Pahang
    The Jakun people (who belong to the Orang Asli tribe), like all indigenous tribes possess invaluable local knowledge of their forests, fruiting seasons and animal behavioral patterns, which are passed down through oral traditions. The Jakuns practice hunting, fishing and small scale agriculture. They gather forest products like rattan, bamboo, wood, resin, medicinal plants and root. Handicrafts like baskets, mats and pouches are weaved using Mengkuang and Rasau (Pandanus spp.) In recent times, they also supplement their income by trading with middlemen in wildlife and exotic species, for which they earn very little and consequently encouraged to over-exploit wildlife resources.
  • Indonesia: Kalimantan and Sumatra
    Local products of agro-forestry include construction timber, especially Jelutang (Dyera Costulata), wooden roofing, fuel woods, mixed timber, bamboo, rattan, resin(Sumatra in particular), paddy, sago, medicinal plants, roots, leaves and berries, deer, pig, singing birds, birds’ nest and fish.
  • Thailand: Phru Kuan Kreng, Southern Thailand
    Rice farming is the main occupation. Reed (Lepironia articulate) farming is also carried out for the purposes of weaving into baskets as containers for locally made shrimp paste, or as handicrafts. Cattle rearing is also popular. Commercial plant species include rubber, vegetables and fruit trees like mango and coconut. Malaleuca cajeputi or the paper bark tree is well suited to grow in peat swamps, and its timber is used in making houses and fences. Honey is also from the beehives of this tree. Modern methods of electro fishing and cyanide poisoning, however have led to degraded fisheries.

Why local community involvement is important for peat swamp regeneration
For any programme of peat swamp revival to succeed, the local communities need to become active stakeholders in implementing ecosystem regeneration as well as in sustainable livelihood schemes. Local communities help by:

  • providing invaluable indigenous knowledge about genetic resources, traditional methods of agro-forestry and fisheries and livestock
  • providing “inside” local knowledge of ecosystems, which can then be supplemented by “outside” technical expertise and applied through a process of participation and consensus
  • becoming stewards of peat swamp resources, they will have a stronger incentive to ensure the long-term regeneration of the ecosystem, especially when they perceive the linkage between their own sustenance and that of the ecosystem

Regenerating dilapidated peat swamps with local community involvement

We look at two projects in Indonesia and understand the mechanisms and approaches the NGOs have used to revive degraded peat swamps, with active local community involvement.

PROJECT 1 : Samboja Lestari by Borneo Orangutan Society (BOS), Indonesia
In 2001, BOS Indonesia started purchasing and obtaining clear legal titles to a dilapidated peat swamp land near Wanariset, for the purpose of conversion into a 2,000 ha reserve called Samboja Lestari. The objective of this project headed by Dr. Willie Smit, was to rehabilitate orangutans as well as provide a sustainable livelihood for the local populations.

The approach BOS followed was to divide the area into three zones with different uses:

  • an outer zone in a 100 meter ring is planted with sugar palms to act as a buffer zone and as a fire break. Each family gets harvest rights to one plot of about 3,000 square metres. The sugar palms get refined in a BOS built factory. Sugar palms provide 60 different useful products and ethanol for electricity. There are mixed teak and sugar palms towards the back, and mixed rubber, fruits and medicinal plants towards the front of the ring, all to provide income generation for about 650 families
  • a second zone, inside the outer ring, is the largest area being a reforestation zone for conservation and water harvesting. It is used for planting a variety of fruit trees, both slow and fast growing that will support Borneon wildlife. Till such time that the trees are mature, the locals will be allowed to plant and harvest their own fruit crops amongst the 1 million trees required to be planted for the reserve, which will also keep the newly planted trees free of weeds. Once the trees are tall enough, the area will become a permanent Nature Reserve, with no further crops allowed. The end result will be to obtain a multi-layered forest of biodiverse biomass
  • the third zone comprises of a small inner core of about 300 hectares for regenerating permanent plant cover. These include the establishment of a large arboretum, smaller forest sanctuaries for specific animals that cannot be rehabilitated, areas for forestry research, and a facility for protection of the area. This facility will be used for environmental education facilities for schools and special groups to learn more about conservation. More than 1700 different species of tree will be planted, using original tree species from the rainforest.

This is how local communities are involved and are benefited. The project:

  • enables the local population to become independent and self-sufficient through creation of local industries. This is the best incentive for them to preserve their forests and protect them in case of fire
  • enables people to receive income from the sale of the land, salaries by working in the rehabilitation area, money from sugar palm activities, income from sale of fruits and vegetables grown amidst the planted trees, and salaries for protecting the area
  • assists local people to learn technical skills such as aquaculture, rice cultivation, agro forestry and integrated farm management
  • provides education to children to learn about their environment and its conservation through community awareness and conservation programmes
  • enhances their health condition, as well as offers a perennial supply of better water for irrigating rice fields, with less flooding during wet seasons, and less shortages during dry seasons

As Dr Willie Smit says “In this way the people are given an alternative and so they do not need to destroy the forest any more. This means you can show the world that nature and people can live together and do not need to exclude one another.”

PROJECT 2: The Central Kalimantan Peatland Projects (CKPP) by Wetlands International, Indonesia

The ex-Mega Rice project in Central Kalimantan in Indonesia was a major agricultural disaster, turning vast swathes of biodiverse peatswamp rainforests into degraded areas. With the joint efforts of Wetlands International and other NGOs, this severely dilapidated area is being regenerated with local community involvement. They have restored about 50,000 ha of degraded peatland in Central Kalimantan reducing CO2 emissions by 4 million tons. Another 12 million ha of peatland are in urgent need of restoration. Such restoration would be a very effective way to reduce carbon emissions and global warming.

The approach

Bio-rights is an innovative financing mechanism for providing micro-credits to local communities. This approach is applied to areas of great biological diversity and importance, where the local population is poor and where the land is severely degraded. Under the Central Kalimantan project, the locals were paid Rp 1000 (roughly US$0.10) per tree planted. A micro-credit of Rp 1,000,000(or US$100) invested in poultry farming, for example, would be given on the condition that the farmer plants 1000 trees. The contract also stipulates that if 70% of the trees survive the first 3 years, then loan would become a grant. Funding is by international donors, who gain from environmental services derived from protecting natural resources.

The local communities are benefited as:

  • they are provided seed capital for their alternative agricultural/animal husbandry businesses like chicken and goat farms in return for peat swamp restoration, and in the process become self-sufficient
  • they are encouraged to stop logging and have the incentive to protect the remaining forests from illegal logging. They can plant valuable gum and rubber trees to provide further income
  • they are provided with technical help to restore their environment, by digging canals and dams to prevent peat swamps from draining out. They are increasingly supportive of this work once they see the positive impact
  • they have the incentive to provide after care for the forests and this is critical to preserving peat swamps. Locals are taught to dig deep wells and are trained to be firemen so that they can control fires that may arise in the area

As these two case studies have shown, engaging local communities is one of the most important parts of the jigsaw puzzle in regenerating peat swamp forests. These projects have also shown that it is possible to create a win-win for all, for local communities to gain sustainable livelihoods, for the environment as the peat swamp ecology is regenerated and preserved, and for the global community as greenhouse gas emissions are reduced at minimal costs.


1. Borneo Orangutan Society http://savetheorangutan.org/bos-projects/samboja-lestari/

2. Wetlands International http://www.wetlands.org/

3. Information on Bio Rights http://www.bio-rights.org/

4. Local community use of peat swamps in Kalimantan, Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia

5. Greenpeace Report : “How the palm oil industry is cooking the climatehttp://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/international/press/reports/cooking-the-climate-full.pdf

6. Friends of the Earth Report : “Malaysian palm oil – green gold or green wash?” http://www.foei.org/en/publications/pdfs/malaysian-palm-oil-report

7. http://www.opinionasia.org/PeatlandsClimateCrisis


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Posted by on Apr 9 2009. Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity, Carbon Footprint, Climate Change, Green Activism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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