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Encouraging first step, but still a long way to go for APP to stop peat destruction

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Jakarta – Wetlands International welcomes today’s announcement by Asia Pulp and Paper that it will retire 7000 ha of active Acacia plantations to protect carbon-rich peatlands. While this is an encouraging first step, significant additional efforts will be needed to prevent irreversible flooding and secure sustainable management of peatland landscapes in APP’s areas of operation.

Wetlands International welcomes APP’s acknowledgement of the impacts of its plantations on peat and its efforts to improve the sustainability of its peatland management. We recognize that retirement of active productive plantations gives an important signal. Nevertheless, APP’s announcement that it will retire 7.000 hectares from production, divided over 5 different concessions, is just a tiny dot in a vast landscape.

APP and its subsidiaries currently have extensive land-holdings in peatland areas in Sumatra and Kalimantan, amounting to over 600,000 hectares of peatland. Many of their concessions have been developed at the cost of primary peat swamp forests.  Over the last decade it has become abundantly clear that the conversion of peatland to land-uses that require drainage of the peat soil leads to serious environmental damage, including loss of biodiversity, high greenhouse gas emissions, disturbance to water regulation in surrounding areas and gradual soil subsidence.

As most of the peatland dominated landscapes that are managed by APP and its subsidiaries are located in lowland areas, soil subsidence will eventually result in flooding at an unprecedented scale. This will cause the loss of productivity and thus bode disaster for the local economy and the communities that depend on these land areas for their survival.

Marcel Silvius, Wetlands International’s Programme Head on Climate-smart land-use, said: ”It is encouraging to see that APP is committed to improving its peatland management. We welcome APP’s statement that the retirement of 7000 ha is just a first step in a long process. However, this is only a small step to address an enormous problem. Their hundreds of thousands of hectares of plantations on peat are not only causing major emissions, but are also continuously subsiding towards levels where flooding becomes inevitable. It is urgent for APP to take action over entire peatland landscapes to stop greenhouse gas emissions and prevent major flooding disasters.”

Wetlands International therefore calls upon APP to develop a plan for phasing-out drainage-based plantations from all its peatlands, including plans for rewetting and rehabilitation, and for truly sustainable management. This can also include the development of alternative economic land-uses, including plantations for pulp-for-paper production, but using alternative tree species adapted to the conditions in wet peatlands.

APP should provide clarity on how the retired areas will be managed. Wetlands International encourages APP to work with communities and other companies operating in the same peatland areas, with shared hydrological systems, to develop such peatland rehabilitation and sustainable use measures. We recognise that, in view of APP’s huge land-holdings on peatlands, this requires substantial effort, but it is essential to halt the creeping disaster of soil subsidence which will drown the extensive peat landscapes of Sumatra and Kalimantan. Bold and significant steps are needed to maintain the productivity of the land, both for APP as well as for future generations.

Wetlands International believes that the following steps are needed in APP’s land holdings:

  • Firstly: All remaining peat swamp forests should be considered of High Conservation Value (HCV) and conserved within APP’s land holdings in view of their valuable ecosystem services (including carbon storage, water regulation and biodiversity). Such areas should be set aside for protection and adequately managed, including rehabilitation measures in areas affected by illegal logging, drainage and fires;
  • Secondly: No new developments that require peatland drainage should take place on already deforested peatlands, in view of their value as mega carbon store  areas. Instead, these areas should be restored involving hydrological rehabilitation as well as reforestation. Reforestation may include paludiculture (i.e. commercial forestry or agriculture of indigenous peat forest species that require no drainage) but can also include restoration of natural habitat, especially in the vicinity of HCV areas;
  • Thirdly: Hydrological buffer zones should be developed to ensure that drainage of the active plantations will have no off-site hydrological impacts on any adjacent peatlands and protected areas;
  • Fourthly: As an interim measure towards more permanent solutions, existing plantations should minimise drainage, elevate the water table, curb the application of fertilizers and maintain a permanent soil cover to reduce the rate of peat soil degradation and enhance peat soil protection;
  • Fifthly: A plan should be developed for phasing out drainage-based plantations on peatland and to rewet and rehabilitate these areas either to natural habitat or to alternative land-uses such as paludiculture.
  • While following these steps, environmental and social safeguards must be implemented in all peatland development, restoration and conservation. To this end, APP should enhance the transparency of its operations and plans and provide maps of its land holdings, including the status of these land areas in terms of development stage, peat depth, conflicts with local communities and existence of HCV and HCS areas inside or near APP plantations. This will enable independent monitoring and  consultation with other stakeholder groups.

Wetlands International recommends as a key priority to retire the entire Tri Pupa Jaya Plantation in South Sumatra and turn it into a conservation buffer zone, as it is located in the catchment area of the Sembilang National Park, the largest protected mangrove area of South East Asia.  Peatland subsidence caused by APP’s continued drainage of the Tri Pupa Jaya peatlands will impact the hydrology of the area, which threatens the freshwater flow into the National Park. The freshwater flow is essential to maintain the Sembilang National Park’s high biodiversity and its important economic role as fish breeding and nursery habitat in support of the rich coastal fisheries along Sumatra’s east coast.

For additional information, please contact:

Marcel Silvius, Wetlands International’s Programme Head on Climate-smart land-use (marcel.silvius@wetlands.org; +31 318660910)

Notes to editors

Peatlands

Peatlands are wetland areas with a thick water-logged organic soil layer (peat) made up of dead and decaying plant material. Peatlands include moors, bogs, mires, peat swamp forests and permafrost tundra. They are home to many threatened species and globally store at least 550 Gigatonnes of carbon in their organic soils. This is twice the amount of carbon stored in all the world’s forests.

Peatlands and GHG emissions

When drained for agriculture, forestry and peat extraction, the organic carbon that is normally saturated by water in peat soils is suddenly exposed to the air. The resulting oxidation leads to the release of the soil organic carbon in the form of CO2. Additionally, increased temperature, from removal of vegetation cover such as forest cover, enhances the rate of CO2 emissions from peat. The use of fertilizers also has an accelerating effect on the decomposition rate of peat soils.

Peat fires, such as those take place in Southeast Asia every year, release huge amounts of CO2 as well. Altogether global CO2 emissions from degraded peatlands amount to at least 2,000 million tonnes annually, equivalent to 5% of the global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. In Indonesia, emissions from peat soils due to logging and drainage represent circa 900Mtons per year, making Indonesia the largest global emitter of CO2 from peatlands.

Peatlands and soil subsidence

Subsidence is the lowering of the soil surface as the result of compaction, consolidation and loss of volume due to deforestation, drainage, oxidation and erosion. Peat soils are made up of 10% accumulated organic material (carbon) and 90% water. When the water is removed by drainage, the carbon in the peat soil is exposed to the air, turns into CO2 and is emitted into the atmosphere. The process continues as long as drainage continues and until all peat above the drainage level is lost.

In areas with polders, dykes and pump-operated drainage, the soil may subside below the gravity-drainage limit – this is the reason why large areas in the Netherlands, for example, are below sea-level. In South East Asia, with vast coastlines and long river systems and intense tropical rainfall, it will not be feasible to build dykes and pump-operated drainage systems in the large peatland dominated lowland landscapes. As the soil surface of the extensive peatlands continue to go down, it will become impossible to keep draining them and they will eventually flood. The resulting loss of production will have severe impacts on industry, local communities and the economy at large, as people will have to relocate and plantations will no longer be feasible in the region.

A recent study commissioned by Wetlands International and carried out by Deltares shows that under current trends vast areas in Indonesia and Malaysia will be frequently flooded by the middle of this century.

APP announcement

Read the Asia Pulp & Paper announcement.