A plug for peat

A peatland in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, where degraded peat swamp forest (left) abuts an area recently drained and converted into an oil palm plantation (mature plantings are visible in the background); pioneer species are regenerating in the foreground, amidst felled forest trees, ferns and young oil palms.  [Image taken by L.E.S.Cole.]
A peatland in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, where degraded peat swamp forest (left) abuts an area recently drained and converted into an oil palm plantation (mature plantings are visible in the background); pioneer species are regenerating in the foreground, amidst felled forest trees, ferns and young oil palms. [Image taken by L.E.S.Cole.]
The challenge of conserving tropical peat amidst the rising tide of oily palms

“Tropical peat swamps….what, like bogs?” asks a friend, hearing about my research for the first time.
“Yes, bogs with trees on top,” I reply.
“Why peat bogs?” they ask, entirely bemused.

Good question.

Tropical peat swamp forests are full of mosquitoes, infested by leeches, heavy with humidity and precariously unstable under-foot. Temperate peatlands are not an attractive proposition either: vast desolate wetlands/wastelands (delete as appropriate), near-impossible to traverse and with little to catch the untrained eye. Though in the UK, people fondly associate peat with childhood trips to Scotland, with the taste they savour in their whisky or with fresh strawberries picked from a peat-composted garden (at least until recently).

Tropical peatlands, however, cannot boast these remediating (yet unsustainable) delights. They do boast many others though. They are restricted to the tropics (a delight in itself for those from the chilly north), predominantly in Southeast Asia, but we are beginning to uncover the great expanse of peatlands in Central Africa and South America. Tropical peat develops under both waterlogged conditions and a full spread of forest canopy. A range of trees, lianas and understory plants create carbon-rich carpets that build-up, one on-top of the other, as the prevailing anaerobic conditions reduce decomposition to near standstill. Sago palms (Cycas revoluta) grow alongside Dipterocarp species (e.g. Shorea albida), whose roots are tickled by fish adapted to the acidic ‘blackwaters’.

Aside from their biodiversity assets, these ecosystems are key players in the global climate showdown. Tropical peatlands store approximately 30% of the Earth’s below-ground carbon, yet cover only 3% of her terrestrial surface. As well as a vast storage facility, an intact peatland can ‘sink’ atmospheric carbon via the photosynthetic activities of its floral allies coupled with a lack of carbon release through decomposition.

Unfortunately, intact peatlands are no longer common-place in Southeast Asia. Over recent decades, peat swamps across Indonesia and Malaysia have been logged, drained and converted into oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) plantations. In principle, logging and agricultural conversion can pass as reversible disturbances, but drainage is beyond an ecological disaster: it disrupts the entire structure of the ecosystem, destroying the tightly intricate and integral relationship between the vegetation, the peat substrate and the hydrology.

Yet draining peat is currently high fashion in tropical peatland management circles. “Why are local people not stopping this?” I ask with all the ignorance of my western-centric ideals. Surely they enjoy the sweet smell of pickled carbon, and the beautiful sight of climate change mitigation playing out in front of their eyes?

I would ask for answers on a postcard, but there’s simply not time. In some regions, peat swamp forests are experiencing deforestation rates 25% higher than those of other lowland forest types, driven by the insatiable national and international thirst for palm oil. The income generated by the past and current use of peatlands for activities such as sago cultivation, for fish nurseries and for other low-intensity resource extraction, pales in comparison to the potential revenue from palm oil or pulp-wood cultivation. Research I carried out for my doctorate demonstrated that the majority of local stakeholders regarded peatlands as a development opportunity, supporting conservation solely for the aim of securing that development opportunity on into the future.

So is there an argument for sustaining the forests in order to sustain the people? This is what we need to better understand. We need to learn exactly who uses peat ecosystems locally, what products and services these use, and how the different stewards of this ecosystem value it. Building on previous work1 we also need to understand more about the resilience of this ecosystem in the face of on-going drainage and conversion, and recurrent fire – geologically novel disturbances from which we have no evidence that peat swamp forests can recover. Our recent meta-analysis demonstrated how recurrent past disturbance in tropical forests led to more resilient ecosystems, but whether this peat swamp variety behaves the same is unknown.

Peatlands represent an under-studied and under-valued ecosystem, whose sustainable management warrants the consideration of multiple themes: people, biodiversity and ecosystem services, climate and water interactions. Peatlands everywhere are suffering the health consequences of a changing world. The hidden assets of peat are just that: hidden. More education, more research and a longer-term perspective is required to protect peatlands and all of us people who depend on them.

I hope that answers why I’m passionate about peat.

1Cole, L.E.S., Bhagwat, S.A. & Willis, K.J. (2014) Long-term disturbance dynamics and resilience of tropical peat swamp forests. Journal of Ecology. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2745.12329.

Written by: Dr. Lydia Cole
Affiliation: University of Oxford & Royal Botanic Garden, Kew
Country: United Kingdom


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