Reaping Rewards from Peatland in Indonesia: From Ruin to Riches

United Nations

The efforts made have already been fruitful: a schoolhouse was saved from being burned down, farmers are earning 50% more incomes, and healthier peatland is reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Since its inception in 2019, the program, which includes training for locals and essential infrastructure upgrades, has significantly reduced the chance of fires and provided the citizens of 121 villages in West Kalimantan with new techniques and resources to benefit their communities.

“We learned how to cultivate the land without burning the bush and crop residues and, at the same time, found ways to grow crops we can sell for more,” said Suprapto, a farmer in the village of Limbung, near Pontianak, the provincial capital.

“The training we received was so simple,” said Sumi, who leads a women farmers’ group in Jongkat. “Thanks to the market research by BRGM and its partners, we also learned which crops we should be growing for money.”

Limbung and Jongkat are on peatland, wetlands whose soil is mostly composed of organic matter derived from the remains of dead and decaying plant material. Under certain geological conditions, peat eventually turns into coal.

Like coal seams, peatland stores vast amounts of carbon dioxide until it catches fire. Fires not only destroy villages and farmers’ livelihoods, but they also release a substantial amount of carbon dioxide.

Burning bush to clear land and crop residues after harvest caused 245 fires in the district around Limbung in 2021, an overwhelming number given that a 2009 government decree prohibited farmers from burning on peatland. “But without knowing any other methods to farm, we had no other options,” Suprapto said.

Expanding farmers’ options has had a profound effect, helping to reduce the number of fires that broke out last year to just 21.

But, that’s still 21 too many, says Jany Tri Raherjo, who heads BRGM’s operations in Kalimantan and Papua: “We need to reach zero fires and completely restore peatland.”

Thanks to BRGM’s interventions, much of the peatland around Limbung is moist again, allowing farmers to grow vegetables such as cucumber, tomatoes, chili, and eggplants.

“Horticulture is really profitable,” Suprapto said. “The income of the villagers who are part of the program has increased by half.”

The additional income, Suprapto said, has in just one year assisted families to renovate their houses, buy new motorbikes, and finance their children’s education.

In Jongkat, local farmers identify which crops are best suited to their land and to non-burn farming, with support from BRGM and a non-governmental organisation (NGO) employed by UNOPS as part of a project funded by the Government of Norway.

Around 20 families received training, on non-burn agriculture and on the use of natural fertilizer, and are now demonstrating the methods to their friends and families in other communities. “There is a joke that it is beneficial to marry someone from Jongkat because then you learn more profitable ways of farming,” Sumi said with a smile.

Training villagers in non-burn farming methods is essential to making West Kalimantan’s coastal villages more sustainable. Equally important is improving irrigation infrastructure to keep rainwater in peatlands.

UNOPS provided design and financing for the construction of a few pilot canal blockers – concrete structures that retain water in the canals that crisscross the area, making it available year-round for firefighting and irrigation. Better irrigation prevents the land from cracking, drying out, and decaying, thereby reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Peatland restoration also includes re-vegetation of the area, which in turn keeps the soil moist and decreases the chances of fires and decomposition.

With Government financing and a design based on the UNOPS model, BRGM and its partners have constructed 179 canal blockers in 27 villages in the area.

“Know-how from the UN was a great launchpad,” Raharjo said. “We have adapted it to local conditions and enhanced the designs year after year. We are now rolling out canal blockers that cost about half as much to build as the original.”

BRGM, with the support of UNOPS, the Ministry of Forestry, and other players, has carried out restoration projects in 852 villages in Kalimantan, Papua, and Sumatra. But, thousands more remain.

“The results are good, but not enough,” Raharjo said.

Community involvement is key to their success at every stage, said Akira Moretto, acting Country Manager at UNOPS Indonesia. 

“Policing fires is hard,” he said. “Giving the community a stake in non-burn agriculture is a much more successful way of protecting peatlands and fighting climate change while improving livelihoods. This requires long-term commitment from all sides.”

You might also like
Open chat
Need help?
Scan the code
Hello 👋
Can we help you?

Mark Silaev
Glosema Account Manager