For years Indonesia has been struggling to cope with land and forest fires, which have not only raised health and aviation safety concerns but also triggered diplomatic rows with neighboring countries. The prevention and control of fires are even more challenging when peatland is involved.
Not only do smoldering peat fires produce haze and pollutants, but they also release a large amount of carbon dioxide — a heat-trapping greenhouse gas — as carbon-rich ecosystems are burned or oxidized. Unfortunately, we are not sure how long they will last as we do not know how deep the peat is.
Depending on how one defines peatland, procedures to estimate the extent and distribution of peatland are widely known and relatively assessable with prevailing technology. But effective tools to estimate peat depth or thickness is lacking. As a result, there is a high amount of uncertainty regarding information on peat depth.
Almost two years ago, the Geospatial Information Agency, better known as BIG, was called to host the Indonesian Peat Prize (IPP) to ensure that the IPP process was nationally relevant and allowed for further development under an appropriate government agency. The whole process of the competition is supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and facilitated by the World Resource Institute.
The international Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) was also formed to critically assess the performance of IPP competitors and provide recommendations to the government. Initially, more than 40 Indonesian and international institutions registered for the competition, but after going through robust and thorough assessments, the SAB recommended five finalists.
The criteria used to assess the performance of the competitors and their products included accuracy, affordability and speedy delivery of techniques and methodologies. Accurate methodologies were not accepted if the technology was too expensive, and if they were cost-effective and accurately estimated peat extent, distribution and depth but slow in delivering results, they did not compete with those that were able to map the vast Indonesian peatland speedily.
The winner of the IPP — the one who can innovatively reveal the treasure beneath the swamp — will be announced today during a gathering to mark and celebrate World Wetlands Day in Jakarta. The sole winner will receive US$1 million in prize money, showing how valuable the technology is.
The much-awaited tools to assess peat extent and depth will come up with applications. In the context of climate change mitigation, the technology is supposed to receive a warm welcome from all the stakeholders who have been involved in the efforts to meet the emission reduction targets the government pledged in its nationally determined contribution (NDC) as part of its obligation as a party to the Paris Agreement.
The NDC stipulates the government’s unconditional pledge to reduce emissions by 29 to 41 percent against a businessas-usual scenario by 2030. As part of the commitment, the government set up the Peatland Restoration Agency, which is tasked with restoring 2 million hectares of damaged peatland until 2020.
Conserving protected peatland and restoring degraded ones have been identified as a serious environmental challenge Indonesia is facing. The tools to locate and estimate the thickness of peat constitute low-hanging fruit for Indonesia to mitigate climate change. Furthermore, the knowledge about the volume of “black gold” buried deep down below the surface of peatland acts as power to bargain in the marketplace.
Better understanding of peatland extent, distribution and depth will enhance our appreciation of the ecosystem services that can provide local communities with sustainable livelihoods. These unique ecosystems have not been explored enough to unveil how strategic they are for climate change adaptation.
Lots of previous mapping exercises will largely refer to the deliverables of the IPP, especially when ones have to validate their estimates. The detailed IPP maps (scale 1:50,000) will be one of the major references as far as methodologies are concerned.
The IPP process helps Indonesia in managing its vast resources with more certainty, despite the huge challenges ahead in conserving and restoring peatland.
— By: Daniel Murdiyarso The writer is a professor at the Department of Geophysics and Meteorology, Bogor Institute of Agriculture and principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research, Bogor, West Java.