Sun, Nov 25, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Carbon dioxide oozes from damaged peatlands

Indonesia's swamps absorb greenhouse gasses when healthy, but once they dry out they become climate vandals


Viewed from the air, the vast, cool forests of the Kampar peninsula on Indonesia's Sumatra island are a world away from China's belching factories or America's clogged freeways.

But appearances can be deceptive.

Most of this 400,000 hectare peninsula is peatland: dense, swampy forest that, when healthy, efficiently soaks up greenhouse gases from the world's worst polluters.

When drained, cleared or burned, however, this wilderness transforms into one of the worst climate vandals, releasing six to nine times the amount of carbon stored in regular equatorial forests.

Swamps have not traditionally held the same ecological sex appeal as, say, doe-eyed wildlife. But as nations prepare for a major global conference on climate change in Indonesia next month, the world's focus is changing.

The Dec. 3 to Dec. 14 UN summit on the resort island of Bali will see international delegates thrash out a framework for negotiations on a global regime to combat climate change when the current phase of the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012.

A figure from the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research puts deforestation at around 25 percent of all man-made carbon dioxide emissions.

Avoiding emissions from deforestation has so far been left out of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which focuses instead on reducing emissions from sources such as industry and transport.

Widespread deforestation has made Indonesia the third largest emitter of carbon in the world, the contribution coming most dramatically in the form of near-annual forest fires on islands such as Sumatra and Borneo.

The fires, which send choking smoke as far as Singapore and Malaysia, are for the most part caused by the clearing of peatlands. And the destruction of Indonesia's peatlands accounts for four percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to Greenpeace.

Peatlands are not just a threat when they are burning. A flight over Kampar reveals scars of cleared land gouged from the forest, linked with canals built to transport legal and illegal logs to inland mills.

Much of the carbon released from peatland swamps is the result of draining so the land, or the logs, can be used, says Jonotoro, a peatlands expert at the forestry ministry and an independent consultant.

As the water level drops, more and more of the stock of carbon is released into the atmosphere.

In clear-cut areas, the temperature can rise dramatically in the dry months between July and September to around 70°C, up from a usual cool average of 28°C.

"If the peat is already dry, it's impossible to make it wet," Jonotoro said.

Peatland is made up of a waterlogged store of semi-decomposed vegetation, which squelches underfoot. The deeper the peatland - it can stretch to a depth of more than 15m - the more carbon it holds.

If set on fire, dry peatland can burn for weeks - the fire can be extinguished on the surface, only to continue burning underground and reappear the next day.

In Indonesia, the main driver for the destruction of peatlands is the world's appetite for wood, pulp and palm oil.

The best place for plantations is dry land, but as the rush for Indonesia's last wildernesses continues to turn much of the countryside into a landscape of industrial uniformity, any land will do.

At the western end of Kampar sits Pangkalan Kerinci, home of a massive pulp and paper mill belonging to Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL).

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