Indonesian 1,000,000 has Peat Forest Mega-Project


Indonesia: 1,000,000 Hectare Mega-Project Planned for Peat Forests


In an extreme example of inappropriate forest development, the ecologically sensitive peat forests of Kalimantan, Indonesia are to be converted to rice plantations. This huge area of forest is rich in biodiversity, and its destruction will severely impact the native indigenous Dayak communities. The project is doomed to failure as the ecologically little understood peat forest's soils are extremely acidic. Down to Earth reports on this project in econet's act.indonesia conference. A major international campaign is needed to bring this area under a more ecologically and sustainable management plan (an email contact is at the end of the article). Such forests show potential for long-term sustainable forest management plans rather than conversion to a clearly unsustainable and biologically diminished land use.

Down to Earth

The International Campaign for Ecological Justice in Indonesia


Hundreds of thousands of hectares of pristine tropical peat forests in Central Kalimantan are about to be destroyed for a huge rice development project which experts say cannot work.

The million hectare scheme, fully sanctioned by President Suharto, aims to convert virgin and logged forests, as well as absorbing existing agricultural sites, into a vast area of irrigated rice-fields, horticulture and plantations. Over the next three years, it will destroy a huge swathe of forest rich in biodiversity and deprive indigenous Dayak communities of their livelihoods. Billed as a means to save Indonesia's rice self- sufficiency, the project is a political ploy to boost the President's popularity. As such, it has not been properly planned and the grave consequences for the environment and the local populations not duly considered. Despite this serious lack of preparation, work on the project has already started. In January this year diggers started work on the main canals which will drain the peat swamps.

The project is also a huge exercise in social engineering. Between 200,000 and 250,000 transmigrant families will be brought in to work on the rice- fields and plantations. This means anything from 800,000 to one and a quarter million people (depending on what is taken to be the average family size). The transmigrants will at least equal and very probably outnumber the local population, making them a minority in their own land.

A sure-fire failure

The project cannot be successful, according to scientists with intimate knowledge of the area. This is because a large part of the project land consists of highly acidic deep peat, which is impossible to cultivate. Areas of shallow peat (less than 3 metres deep), which are mainly along rivers and coastal areas, have been converted to agriculture with some success, but only with large amounts of fertiliser. This is no basis for assuming that deep peat areas can be similarly cultivated, however. Indeed when tried before in other countries, only two or three crops have been possible before acidification (acid sulphate), toxification and micronutrient deficiency make further cultivation impossible.(1) The soil then becomes a black acidic wasteland.

There is a fundamental lack of knowledge about the ecology of peat swamp forests in government circles, with few people quite realising the impossibility of developing deep peat areas for agriculture. Worse, those who do realise that the project cannot succeed and are in a good position to communicate the problems, are unwilling or unable to face the task of telling the President he is wrong -- and suffer the consequences.

Peat facts

Indonesia possesses the largest area of peat in the tropics. Estimates vary from 17 million to 27 million hectares, the higher placing Indonesia fourth in the world league table of peatland by area, behind the Former Soviet Union, Canada and the USA.

According to one 1988 study, the largest area of peat is in Kalimantan, followed by Irian Jaya (West Papua), then Sumatra. Another two surveys (RePPProt 1988 and 1990) found that Sumatra had the largest area, followed by Kalimantan, Irian Jaya, Sulawesi, then Halmahera and Seram in the Moluccas.

Just over half a million hectares of peatlands have been used for transmigration sites and by local inhabitants.

About 1.9 million hectares of peat swamp forest has been gazetted as conservation areas including Berbak National Park (Sumatra), Danau Sentarum Wildlife Reserve (Kalimantan) and the Lorenz National Park (Irian Jaya). Much larger protected areas are needed to maintain a viable peat forest since much of the best, undisturbed peat swamp forest is not included in these reserves. (See E. Maltby, C.P. Immirzi and R.J. Safford, Tropical Lowland Peatlands of Southeast Asia, IUCN Wetlands Programme 1996.)

No international funding, no EIA

An indication of this project's feasibility is given by the fact that no international funding organisation will touch it.(2) One reason is that no environmental impact assessment is being done before the project starts. Although large projects are required to conduct an EIA before going ahead, this project has been given such priority, and the planned time-scale of three years is so short, that the law is being flouted. Instead, the environmental impact assessment will be done as the project proceeds, defeating the whole purpose of conducting an EIA.

And this is a project that needs an EIA more than most. Environment Minister Sarwono has admitted that "our knowledge of the environmental still minimal..." (Media Indonesia 1/4/96)

One major concern is that the peat types in the target area have never been properly mapped, meaning that the project is being developed on unknown terrain. Project decisions have been made using maps based on aerial photos under the British ODA- financed RePPProT mapping scheme. These maps do not correctly indicate the land types in the peat swamp forests, however, and their use has major implications for the feasibility of the project.

Scientists taking part in an international symposium on tropical peatlands held in Kalimantan last year warned about the consequences of inappropriate peat development:

It is recognized that to secure food production, more tropical peatland may be developed for agriculture. It is, however, imperative that only the most appropriate peatland be selected for development in order to ensure long term success. Inappropriate conversion of peatlands can lead to both economic failure and environmental degradation.

They stress the need for sustainable development of peatlands adopting an ecosystem approach and point to guidelines for the integrated management of tropical peatlands being formulated by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

(Source: Statement prepared by delegates to the International Symposium on the Biodoversity, Environmental Importance and Sustainability of Tropical Peat and Peatlands, 4-8th September, Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan)

Who is involved?

It seems that Indonesian companies are also reluctant to get involved in the project. The land drainage is being carried out by the Salim Group, allegedly under pressure from the President. The Group, Indonesia biggest conglomerate run by Liem Sioe Liong, has been given to understand it will not get other lucrative government contracts if it refuses this one. There was no tendering process for this contract.

Meanwhile, the consultants will be the Dutch Government Agency for Land Drainage and Conservation, Wageningen. The agency, which should know better, has gone into the project with the familiar limp excuse: "if we don't do it, someone else less qualified will."

"Deforestation" fund

The costs of such a huge development will be enormous. Draining the peatland will call for an estimated 27,000 kilometres of drainage and irrigation canals. Along with other infrastructure to be provided by the government, the plan could cost between US$2 billion and $3 billion.

Since international donors seem to have shied away from this project, the funds will be drawn from various national sources, including the Presidential Fund (BanPres) and from the state budget.

One of the major sources of funding is none other than the Reforestation Fund. According to Forestry Minister Djamaludin, the Fund's contribution will amount to Rp 500 billion (around US$218 million). In the past this has been used to fund projects totally unrelated to reforestation, such as the state-owned aircraft industry. This year, as last, it is being used to help balance the state budget. But never before has the fund been used so blatantly to do the very opposite of what it is meant for. Instead of rehabilitating forests, it will destroy them.


The potential environmental and social impacts of this mega-project are proportionately large in scale. The peat swamps have a very special and relatively little-studied ecosystem. Potentially, many new species have yet to be discovered. In the deepest peat areas of the interior, furthest away from the rivers, the richness of fauna and flora is greatest. These forests are home to at least five species of primates, including orangutans - the highest concentration are now living in peat forests (probably because their other tropical forest habitats have been destroyed). More than 140 bird species have been recorded; six are in the Red Data Book of endangered and rare species.

The so-called "blackwater" rivers found in the peat swamps have very unusual ecology with several endemic species.

In the rainy season a large part of the forest floor is under water -- literally a swamp. When the forest floor is flooded, the swamps become river fish breeding grounds in the same way as mangroves are breeding grounds for ocean fish.

In the past, Indonesia has recognised the value of conserving this unique forest environment with a Presidential decree to protect deep peat areas (over 3 metres deep) from exploitation. This clearly conflicts with the decree which sanctions the rice-lands project and is being ignored in the rush to develop the project.

Indigenous communities

The indigenous Dayak communities who live in the area are dependent on fish for food. They live mainly along the rivers, as the forests are uninhabitable for much of the year. But they do make use of the forests in the dry season when they go further into the interior to collect forest products and hunt animals for food.

These communities will be severely affected by the loss of traditional fishing and foraging resources as well as by the influx of transmigrants of different culture to their own. In one newspaper article, the former Central Kalimantan Deputy Governor, HJ Andries, asked project contractors to go carefully when dealing with local communities, their customs and sacred sites. (Kompas 8/12/95) But without the recognition of their customary ownership rights, such words have little meaning.


The tropical peatlands are highly acidic and in the shallow peat areas alone, will require huge amounts of nutrients to make the soil fit for growing crops. The use of such large quantities of fertilisers is bound to take its toll on the environment, on the river systems which provide fish and drinking water for communities living in the project area, for downstream populations as well as the coastal areas near the river deltas. These include areas of mangrove swamps and may affect several existing and proposed conservation areas on the coast. The population of the South Kalimantan provincial capital of Banjarmasin, where one of the region's main rivers, the Barito, reaches the sea, is likely to suffer the effects of increased water pollution.


The peat swamp forests also act as a natural buffer against flooding in downstream areas. They do this by slowing down the drainage of rainfall (which is extremely heavy) into the rivers, like a natural water regulator. Without their regulatory effect, the rivers will be much more prone to flash flooding, putting downstream towns, villages, and agricultural land at a much greater risk of inundation.

The climate

Huge amounts of carbon -- one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for global warming -- will be released by the project. Both forests and peatlands have the ability to remove or "sequester" carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide. Their value as so-called carbon sinks has been recognised for some years by climatologists. According to Friends of the Earth, on a global scale, peatlands may well form a greater carbon sink than rainforests, although they cover little more than half the area of rainforests:

Because peatbogs continue to sequester carbon over long periods of time they have become remarkable terrestrial carbon pools. Peatlands may well contain between 329 and 528 billion tonnes of carbon. This is three and half times the size of the carbon pool of tropical rainforests...

(Peatbogs and Climate Change, Friends of the Earth Briefing Sheet, September 1992)

The Indonesian government's Kalimantan peatland conversion project will add to carbon levels in the atmosphere in four ways. First, the forests will be felled thereby destroying their function as a carbon sink. Then, when the peat is drained, a whole lot more carbon will be released. At the same time, the drainage will mean the loss of those parts of the peatlands which are still actively absorbing carbon. Finally, the rice paddies will release enormous quantities of methane, a powerful global warming gas.

Motivations: food and log security

So why is the government determined to take such huge risks and go ahead with a project doomed to failure? Why not first set up a pilot project on deep peatland that has already been cleared (and there are some areas like this) for, say, a small-scale ten-year trial? The reasons are both political and economic. The loss of rice-lands on Java is causing public concern as a decade of national rice-self-sufficiency draws to a close. Since this has happened largely as a result of rapid industrialisation on Java -- much of which has directly benefited companies belonging to members of the Suharto family -- the President must be seen to be doing something about it. The creation of rice-lands -- a million hectares in Kalimantan to replace the million hectares lost on Java -- is therefore an attempt to quell fears about food self-sufficiency. This tidy calculation does not stand up to the least scrutiny however. In practice, even in the unlikely event that the full million hectares were successfully converted to rice-fields, the yield per hectare would be far lower than it is on Java. Rice production on Java is equal to the highest anywhere in the world at 6 tonnes per hectare. The far lower yield on peat (if possible at all) of 1-2 tonnes/ha would mean that to replace a million hectares in Java, 3-6 million hectares of peatland would be required.

The project will also serve to cover up the crisis in the Indonesian forestry industry. A shortage of logs from Indonesia's production forests has been hitting some of the downstream processing industries which sell plywood and other timber products on the lucrative international markets. Late in 1995 there was talk of importing logs to make up shortfall. (See article on p.6). In January the President put an end to those ideas, however, saying that the supply of logs would be boosted by the Kalimantan project. The felling of the forests is expected to produce some 6 million m3 of timber over the next few years. (The timber-based industries have an estimated capacity of 44.5 million cubic metres each year). By preventing the need to import logs, the project therefore protects the nation (or rather President) from the accusation that it needs to import because it has destroyed its own forests. It is a tragedy that the log crisis should be covered up by sacrificing yet more natural forests.

Current peat forest logging

Until now, logging in the peat forests has mainly been done by hand, along the major rivers and has not penetrated very far into the interior. Some of the forest near the rivers has been clear- felled but in the interior the logging has left canopy gaps which could, in theory at least, regenerate.

One factor which has thus far prevented large-scale logging is the much lower density of large-diameter, commercially valuable trees in the forest which lie between the forest types nearest the river and the interior forests which contain the greatest number of commercial tree species, including the genera Agathis, Dipterocarpus, Palaquium and Shorea. At the same time, the swampy terrain makes access to the interior more difficult.

The forests also provide other commercial products like latex, rattan, medicinal plants, edible fungi, and gemur bark used in oil surfactants and anti-malarial products.

According to one source, the peat swamp forests could have a high potential for environmentally sustainable management under a suitable timber extraction regime. But changing the land use to either agriculture or intensive logging, both of which are non-sustainable in the medium to long term, threatens the peat resource and its natural functioning. Once converted to another land use, peat swamps have little if any buffering capacity against further change since deforestation, drainage and agriculture conversion bring about irreversible degradation.

The real motivation?

The fact that a huge area of pristine forest is being targeted for the project (rather than degraded land already available) is perhaps the key to the true motivation behind this project: the fortune to be made from logging the forests. It remains to be seen which companies will be given the task of clearing the forests and where the money they make ends up. One thing is certain: it will not be used to help the transmigrants stranded on infertile lands, nor the Dayaks whose forest resources will have been wiped out.

Notes (1) Toxification through aluminium and manganese, micronutrient deficiency in copper and zinc. (2) Foreign investment has been mentioned in one press report, but no further details have been given.

(Additional sources: personal communications and press: Kompas 8/12/95, 25/3/96 Media Indonesia 1/4/96, GATRA 13/1/96, Jakarta Post 29/11/95, Far Eastern Economic Review 7/9/95)

by Carolyn Marr August 1996

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