Indonesia is pushing to protect peatlands and mangroves from annual fires that are disastrous for the world’s carbon emissions. The efforts are key to the global climate struggle but face a major challenge from the palm oil, pulp and paper and logging industries.
Indonesia’s annual fires have become a climate embarrassment and an economic disaster as each year, land degraded by palm and paper plantations burns, pumping carbon into the atmosphere and costing the country billions of dollars. In the face of this crisis, the Indonesian government has moved to expand one of its efforts to slow the fires and keep carbon in the ground.
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has decided to continue a sweeping initiative that aims to restore and conserve peat forests and mangroves, both of which are vital to slowing climate change.
In late December, Jokowi extended the mandate of the Peatland Restoration Agency until 2024 and expanded the agency to take on mangrove rehabilitation. The agency, renamed the Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM), is tasked with restoring around 2 million hectares of peatland and mangroves.
Peatland and mangroves are some of the world’s largest carbon sinks; peat bogs and forests trap twice as much carbon as normal forests, while mangrove forests can trap up to four times more. In Indonesia, peatlands store an estimated 60 billion tons of carbon and mangrove forests hold around 3 billion tons.
Indonesia has the third-largest area of peatlands in the world after Canada and Russia. The country has the most mangrove forests of any country—almost three times the area of runner-up Brazil—accounting over a fifth of the world’s mangroves.
As Indonesia continues to be wracked by fires year after year, these burning landscapes become massive climate liabilities. The majority of the land fueling Indonesia’s fires is degraded or developed—76% in 2019—much of it peatland. This contradicts the common narrative that the fires come from burning tropical forests. The chief drivers of the land degradation that causes Indonesia’s fires are plantations for palm oil and pulp and paper, as well as logging. By one estimate, over half of Indonesia’s peatland has already been deforested.
Protecting both peatlands and mangroves is crucial if Indonesia is to meet its obligations under the 2015 UN Paris Climate Agreement, as the country has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 29-41% by 2030.
The burning of peatland and mangroves is also a public health disaster; Indonesia’s fires put out a haze that drifts across Southeast Asia most years and are a major source of the particulate air pollution that kills millions of people per year—upwards of 120,000 people in Indonesia alone in some years.
The Indonesian government’s conservation efforts are key to the global climate struggle but face a major challenge from the palm oil, pulp and paper and logging industries. As these industries have become firmly entrenched in the Indonesian economy, the Jokowi government will have to work with local communities to build sustainable alternatives. If not, Indonesia’s engines of growth will continue the widespread land degradation that drives the country’s annual fires, pumping out smoke and carbon.
Indonesian government continues conservation push in an uphill battle
The first iteration of the BRGM was established in 2016 in response to Indonesia’s devastating fires with the goal of restoring over 2.6 million hectares of already degraded peatland. Around 900,000 hectares of the targeted land was outside of land concessions; in these areas the agency was largely successful and restored 94% of it, protecting it from further damage and setting it up to continue trapping carbon.
But the agency has struggled to approach conservation inside land concessions and still has 1.2 million hectares left from its original goal, according to Indonesia’s Deputy Environment Minister Alue Dohong, former chair of the agency.
The BRGM is now also tasked with restoring 600,000 hectares of mangrove, including land in North Sumatra, Riau Islands, Bangka-Belitung, East Kalimantan, North Kalimantan and West Papua, according to reporting by Mongabay.
Indonesia also created a new wetlands management team in October, under its Ministry of National Planning or National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas), to plan policies and coordinate data and reporting around wetland conservation. The team will collaborate with civil society groups, including the Center for International Forestry Research and Conservation International Indonesia, as well as BRGM.
The Jokowi government’s moves to address mangrove destruction aren’t entirely new and the expansion of the BRGM comes after threats that it would be dissolved in an anti-bureaucratic shuffle last July. Similar initiatives, including an agency tasked with reducing emissions and deforestation dissolved in 2015, have previously been short-lived.
Indonesia’s peatlands and mangroves are central to the world’s climate crisis
The destruction of peatlands and mangroves releases a dangerous amount of carbon into the atmosphere and makes their protection crucial to mitigating climate change.
Peat forests are flooded areas that contain millennia of dead plant matter, long decomposed and transformed into carbon. These water-logged deposits can be up to 19 meters deep and, by some estimates, hold 42% of the planet’s soil carbon.
Mangroves, like tidal marshes and seagrass beds, grow in coastal ecosystems where tidal waters and the mangrove root systems trap sediment and organic material, forming deep layers of carbon-rich soil. Mangroves are facing critical decline globally—between 1980 and 2000, we lost over a third of the planet’s mangroves. Between 2000 and 2015, Indonesia, Myanmar and Malaysia accounted for over two-thirds of the mangrove forests lost worldwide.
The Indonesian government’s efforts signal a commitment to protecting these landscapes from continued decline. But as the country’s palm oil and pulp and paper industries show no sign of slowing, it will take more than business-as-usual to truly address the country’s climate liabilities.