© Tay Juhana Foundation

Sustainable Peatland Agriculture Is Not a Daydream

“Wetlands and peatlands in Central Kalimantan cover more than 900.000 ha. We have prepared 300.000 ha where 200.000 of it under the state enterprise,”

Last week, the President of Indonesia decided that it is time to expand the rice production area to prevent food crisis due to this prolonged pandemic period. While it sounds logical, many people are concerned when they learn the expansion will involve hundred thousands of peatland conversion. The last time we heard about government-initiated food production in peatland was in the 90s which ended up in disaster. The Mega Rice Project (MRP) was mayhem—it damaged more than a million ha peat ecosystem and contributed to the largest peat fire in 1997 that released an estimation of 0.81-2.57 gigatons carbon to the atmosphere [1].

Modifying peat soil to be able to grow paddy takes a long process and numerous experiments depend on the landscape, water management, species variety, and cropping techniques. Even with the best scenario, it takes at least five years for peatland to finally be able to consistently grow rice with the desired result. In addition, successful practice in one region cannot be just copied to another due to the varying characteristics of peatland. This is an unrealistic solution at times of pandemic like this. Hence, the fear and disagreement upon the decision are reasonable. 

Let us have another perspective to understand this issue. Food security is a perpetual problem, but it is certainly more prevalent now. Many approaches used to ensure everyone has food on their plates: improving productivity, promoting food diversification, and naturally, opening new agriculture land. The problem with converting land use is there is always a competition. In reality, farmers often sell their lands for development. The national government has been doing this with many infrastructure projects, i.e. tolls, roads, airports. Consequently, the agriculture part needs to be done somewhere else. This is where ‘exotic’ land comes to the equation. The Ministry of Agriculture has estimated 91.9 million ha of potential lands for agricultural purposes, including acidic dry land, dry land, tidal swampland, lowland swamp, and peatland [2]. These suboptimal lands are usually overlooked, but local people have utilized them for food production for a long time.

Among the suboptimal lands, peatlands are infamous due to the conflict of interest that is attributed to them. Being the largest terrestrial carbon stock, many measures are taken to conserve peatlands. The word ‘agriculture on peatland’ is often associated with unsustainable practices of oil palm and acacia plantation, which drains the land and resulted in average subsidence of 50 cm in the first two years and higher risk of forest fire [3]. However, research and studies are conducted continuously to identify ways for sustainable peatland agriculture. At least three principles should always be considered:

  1. Water management. Ensuring the quality of peatland is synonymous with regulating water resources. Draining peatland is undesirable, instead, we need to have an integrated system (e.g. canal, dam, water gates) to manage the cultivated area.
  2. Soil management. In modifying peatland, that is commonly acidic, lime ash (e.g. dolomite), salt, rice husk, sawdust ash, and crop biomass can be used to raise the alkalinity.
  3. Adaptive varieties. To maximize productivity, selective breeding is used to construct new varieties that are adaptive to peatland characteristics such as flood-tolerant and high acidity (Fe and Al) tolerant.

Definitely, these principles should be adjusted and tailor-made to each specific region. Copy-paste of a successful practice is not a guarantee for the same result elsewhere. The failed MRP in Kalimantan is a harsh lesson-learned. Moreover, any plan for peatland utilization should also be communicated to the local people in or near the peatland area. Local and indigenous people usually have lived and utilized their surroundings for a long time so that they develop local wisdom. They would know local ecology aspects, land characteristics, and suitable crops. It is vital to co-create the plan with the locals. This will ensure the longevity of the measure and further support the effort for food diversification and for improved resilience.

In the case of degraded peatland, improvements could be made by focusing on water management. The Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) has three principles for restoration: rewetting, revegetation, and revitalization of livelihood. Food crop cultivation might be incorporated here, as planned by the government with local involvement. 

Until now, efforts are being conducted and studied to ensure the sustainability of peatland agriculture, especially for rice production. Beyond the pandemic context, sustainable rice cultivation on peatland is a feasible idea for long-term efforts in securing food production. In Pulau Mendol, Riau, rice productivity ranges from 3.8 to 4.2 ton/ha [4]. Rice production has also been proven sustainable in Kapuas and Pulang Pisau districts in Central Kalimantan [5]. While it shows good progress, it should be underlined that finding fitting practices will take time before the yield can be harvested-and this is different for each specific peatland region. The government realizing agriculture potential of peatland is a step closer to the right direction since political muscles are indeed essential. Yet, it would be better if the government based the decision-making on more scientific and sound evidence. All considerations above are indispensable to understand and implement the proper approach to avoid detrimental effects on nature and human living within the ecosystem.

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