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Researching Peatland Restoration and Protection in Indonesia

Author: Dr Rini Astuti


Hosting 50% of the world's tropical peatlands, Indonesia once thought it has succeeded in shifting its vast hinterland coastal forest landscape into a lucrative agricultural plantation opportunity. Healthy and pristine peatswamps provide crucial water and drainage regulatory functions, store vast amounts of carbon, and provide a home to a unique and biodiverse tropical ecosystem. Despite this, peatland in Indonesia has often been viewed as a ‘wasteland’[1], as its swampy hydrological condition makes commercial cultivation extremely difficult. In Indonesia, the opening of peatlands for agricultural development was driven by competition over access to forest-land. As the availability of mineral soil for commercial plantations has declined, peat forest become an alternative of choice for the rapidly expanding palm oil and pulpwood industries. To render these landscapes suitable for intensive plantation development, a lattice network of drainage canals are typically constructed. However, such drained peatlands are prone to rapid dessication, and thus there is a vastly increased risk of damaging fires, that can burn deep into the soil profile. Development in Indonesia’s peat forest landscapes risk becoming not a lucrative financial opportunity, but rather a national environmental disaster and an economic debacle.

Peatland Biodiversity

In the aftermath of the 2015 forest and peatland fire crisis, the Government of Indonesia has issued series of stringent regulations, addressing the behaviour of the plantation business sector. The new regulations set a series of technical requirements for the palm oil and pulpwood industries, and practical benchmarks to adhere to in the sustainable management of peatlands. Some of the crucial requirements are: 1) for plantation operators to maintain the groundwater table level at a depth of 0.4 meters; 2) to vacate the plantation if it overlaps with a peatland protection area; and 3) for private sector developers to submit new business plans, that incorporate proper peatland management systems in their concessions.


Currently, there are approximately 125 companies with operations on Indonesian peatlands. In addition to 650,000 hectares for palm oil, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MOEF) data shows 1.7 million hectares of peats have been allocated for pulpwood plantations. Monitoring the peatland management practices of these companies, controlling more than 2.4 million hectares of concessions, is not an easy task. According to the new Peatland Protection Regulation No 57/2016, the concession owner has a responsibility to submit groundwater table data fortnightly to the MOEF. This mechanism requires strong monitoring and law enforcement, with incentives for those who follow the regulations and potentially punitive measures for those who do not.

Peatland forest in West Kalimantan

One of the TECSEA research objectives is to investigate how plantation industries are responding to new policy interventions formed under the new peatland protection and restoration measures in Indonesia. The research will take place in Riau and West Kalimantan Provinces. At these locations, we intend to study how national policies are being implemented, negotiated, shaped and contested by diverse peatland users, such as industries, local government and communities.


A scoping study in Riau Province

On the 17 – 20 April 2018, the TECSEA team consisted of David Taylor, Rini Astuti, Helena Varkkey, Michelle Miller and Tan Zu Dienle visited Riau Province of Indonesia for preliminary research. At the top of our agenda was a meeting with the Head of the Riau province Peatland Restoration Team, who is also the Chairman of the provincial Forestry Agency. The meeting involved intense discussions on the local government's strategy and priorities in restoring local degraded peatlands. The government's 2018 restoration plan focuses on six peatland hydrological Units, located in seven districts (Dumai, Rokan Hilir, Bengkalis, Meranti, Siak, Pelalawan, and Indragiri Hilir).

TECSEA researchers with the Peatland Restoration Team in Riau Province

Our second point of call was to visit the Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP) production facility, in Kerinci, Pelalawan District. The visit provided an opportunity to learn about RAPP's community-based initiative to prevent forest fires, through the ‘Free Fire Village Program’ (FFVP). The FFVP is the company's mechanism to provide incentives to villages that can maintain their landscape as ‘fire free’ over the course of a year. The RAPP’s fire management team identified and mapped the most fire-prone villages around their concessions to determine the locations for the FFVP implementation. According to RAPP’s report, the program has experienced a high degree of success in reducing peat fire outbreaks. Several villages received a full reward in the form of infrastructure development funds, while a few failed. According to interviews with RAPP’s staffs, the success of the program depends on village’s local power dynamic, the level of community awareness on the hazardous impacts of fire, and village’s dependency on fire for agricultural purposes.

Community’s rice fields in Pelalawan District

The rest of our scoping mission to Riau Province was lined with meetings with Civil Society Organizations, as well as with the Centre for Disaster Studies at the University of Riau. A fruitful discussion with Friends of the Earth Indonesia (WALHI) provided an insightful overview of inequality of land control and access in Riau Province. Tenure conflict is a common social phenomenon, where forest dwellers and indigenous communities are denied access to customary forest-lands. Lucrative forest concessions were handed out to big industrial plantations and mining companies, while rent-seeking activities are rampant at various scales of governance. JIKALAHARI, a local advocacy NGO, emphasised the need to monitor politicians’ ‘shady practices’ in influencing the drafting of Riau’s Provincial Spatial Planning. JIKALAHARI campaigner explained that it is common practice for lobbying and negotiations to occur between regulators and the private sector, particularly during the drafting of local spatial planning regulations. The political lobby has led to an over-allocation of Riau's forest-lands to powerful industrial actors, including the fragile peatlands.


An exciting meeting was held with the Riau Peatland Community Network (JMGR) in which TECSEA team learned more about the distinct characteristics and patterns of social conflict on peatlands. The JMGR leader shared the story of a land tenure conflict situation faced by peatland communities in Pulau Padang, when a pulpwood concession came to the island. An extensive advocacy effort, in which community worked together with NGOs including JMGR, has been successful in restoring the community's rights in Pulau Padang. The revocation of the pulpwood company’s license by the MOEF marked the success of this advocacy work.

Meeting with Centre of Disaster Studies at University of Riau

NGOs advocate for a diversity of approaches in managing human-environment relations in Riau province. One of these is the landscape approach championed by Yayasan Mitra Insani (YMI). Employing social forestry as its primary tool of advocacy, YMI organises communities in Kampar Peninsula to sustainably manage peatlands. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also chose a landscape approach in implementing their peatland restoration project in Bengkalis District. WWF and its counterparts stressed the need for collective hydrological management, to restore burnt peatlands. Collaborating with three local NGOs and the University of Riau, WWF proposes a new water sharing mechanism among they key peatland management stakeholders (including village governments, communities, and the private sector). The pilot project is currently being carried out in 2 villages for the village-level regulation that governs the rights and responsibilities of stakeholders in managing peatland’s water table and drainage system.


A preliminary visit to an industrial forest plantation in West Kalimantan

Another opportunity for a scoping study on peatland water management came for TECSEA researcher, Rini Astuti, to visit an acacia plantation industry in West Kalimantan. The acacia plantation owned by the Sumitomo Forestry and PT Alas Kusuma is situated within a peatland area, in which some of the areas are classified as a deep “peat-dome”. The plantation has been recognised for its advanced water management system by the Indonesian Peatland Restoration Agency and the MOEF. According to the company, the key to proper water management is to construct the drainage system based upon a detailed understanding of the topography and contour of the peatlands. The company’s canal-blocking system is designed to maintain the required 0.4-meter water table level. Following regulation on industrial forest plantation, the firm has dedicated 20% of its concession as a conservation area, and has allocated 400 hectares of the concession into a buffer zone, to delineate between conservation and production areas. During the visit, the company's staff claimed that since its operation in 2009 the area has never suffered from fires. Further research is required to better understand the effectiveness of proper water management to prevent peatland degradation and fires in peat swamp zones.

The irrigate control canal system in MTI/WSL concession

Ways Forward

The preliminary visits to Riau and West Kalimantan provided useful insights and critical background knowledge for further sharpening TECSEA's research on biomass burning and haze in Indonesia. The research will now continue to the next phase, with multi-sited ethnography studies planned in Riau and West Kalimantan. This research is being conducted while rapid changes are also underway in regulation and policies. Given this situation, this study is orchestrated toward understanding particular attempts to govern human-peatland relationships as they unfold during the research. A critical political ecology framework guides this study, and we are hoping to contribute to the struggle for social and environmental justice.


[1] See Vittoria Di Palma (2014). Wasteland: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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