Denial continues over long-term impacts of peatland drainage in Southeast Asia

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In August the 15th International Peat Congress was held in Malaysia in order to provide a platform for researchers and practitioners to congregate, share information and discuss their scientific results. During the Congress a clear message was sent by the international scientific community that current agricultural practices such as oil palm on peat are not sustainable. However, coverage of the event in national and regional media portrayed a very different picture.

Widely read media reported that the congress supported the view that current agricultural practices in peatland areas, such as oil palm plantations, do not have a negative impact on the environment. In response to this, a large group of authors published a letter in Global Change Biology, warning that denial of long-term issues as a result of agriculture on tropical peatlands will have devastating consequences. The 139 authors are comprised of representatives from various governments, academic institutions, industry and NGOs from 20 countries.

“Tropical peat swamp forests have sequestered carbon for millennia, storing a globally significant reservoir below ground in the peat. However, contemporary agriculture techniques on peatlands heavily impact this system through land clearance, drainage and fertilization, a process that too often involves fire,” according to the authors. But even without fires, the peat disappears as a result of oxidation caused by the drainage, resulting in a continuous subsidence of the peat soil.

The resulting peatland subsidence brings the soil surface gradually down to sea level, which will lead to increasingly frequent and prolonged flooding in the coming decades. This will ultimately cause the loss of productivity and will create a socio-economic disaster of tremendous magnitudes in the lowland areas of Southeast Asia. Wetlands International has helped develop the knowledge to quantify these impacts and conveyed the messages to civil society, companies and governments, amongst others though the IPC.

Wetlands International is disappointed that the International Peat Congress was wrongly cited as supporting current agricultural practices such as oil palm on peat. The letter signed by over 130 signatories shows that there is clearly large and multi-sectoral support for the science based view that the production of palm oil and other drainage based production on peat is not sustainable. The media must provide a more balanced message to reflect this wide support for science based messages.