The impact of conflicts on peatland conservation

Peat areas have played a pivotal role in conflicts globally, and have also been a point of contention during post-conflict recovery. A classic example is the U Minh Thuong National Park that functioned as a hidden place for the Viet Cong during the conflict with the Republic of South Vietnam. After the end of the conflict, local communities infringed on this land, and this led to drainage and fire. While fire had been used as a tool to reduce the movement of guerrillas in the early 70’s, after the large fires in 2002, the Government of Vietnam embarked on a programme to restore the area. Since then, the area has been fire free.

Photo credit: Henri Huet/AP (source:

In the post conflict era, the increasing demand for land has been a key driver of peatland degradation. As Vietnam recovered from conflict, the government started to expand its fiscal base, and land was needed to resettle displaced communities. This happened elsewhere in South East Asia as well, especially Indonesia. A good example was the resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons from Madurese – victims of the Dayak-Madura conflict in Sambas, West Kalimantan – who were resettled in coastal peat areas in West Kalimantan. These people cultivated crops like pineapples for their survival. Another example of large-scale clearing of peat lands to meet immediate national development needs is the Kalimantan Polder Plan in the 1950s that led to the clearing of 800,000 ha of primary peat forest. The intention was convert this land into polders to meet Indonesia’s food needs, as the country faced a shortfall in food after world war II and the Indonesian Independence War.

This plan was not implemented – besides 2 pilot polders, with one polder functioning to this day. In the aftermath of the 1965 political crisis in Indonesia, the need for development led to large-scale logging from 1967 onwards. This logging caused large-scale degradation of forests, which ultimately fuelled the disastrous fires of 1997/98.

The countries of the Congo are facing similar challenges as finding political solutions for some of the conflicts that have affected communities in the Cuvette Basin Region. These conflicts are fortunately moving to political solutions as resolutions are falling into place. An important lesson can be learned from U Minh Thuong National Park, which was severely degraded by the year 2000, but has now nearly fully recovered. the lesson to learn here is that post conflict use of peat lands can trigger peat degradation and fires. As in Vietnam, the Government of Indonesia in response to the widespread 2015 fires, initiated a large-scale effort to rehabilitate degraded peatlands. This is costing over USD 4 billion as these peatlands were logged and converted into other forms of land use – including palm oil and industrial forestry. Complete conservation of peat lands is hindered due to these pressures triggered by economic needs of post-conflict recovery. In response to accelerated economic growth – with a consequent need for restoration – a sustainable pathway (like in Vietnam and Indonesia) is required to break the cycle of degradation driven by extraction.

Displaced communities depend on rural livelihoods that demand land while economies need land to grow to provide employment and taxes for governments to function. Recent insights have shown that these needs can be met through paludicultural commodities that are currently being piloted in Indonesia and Vietnam. While avoiding extensive logging, reduced-impact logging can allow sustainable use of primary forests for timber production. This can be combined with improved water governance and the maintenance of hydrological integrity of peat domes through appropriate governance structures. Peat Hydrological Units can also assist in improving local government capacity to manage peatlands sustainably while providing essential ecosystem services to both local and global communities.

In an effort to support the Provincial Government of Central Kalimantan in planning for peat restoration, a systematic dynamic assessment has been conducted. This looked at natural capital and GDP growth as indicator of swamp agriculture – better known as paludiculture. Planting jelutong (Dyera costulata; a latex producing tree) versus conventional palm oil-based development showed very positive outcomes for the former in the case of less degraded peat land. This could be an ideal development pathway for the cuvette basin as it will generate growth while conserving the peatlands with the carbon in it; thus, mitigating climate change and providing livelihoods for conflict-affected populations.

About the author

Johan Kieft is Regional Technical Specialist with UN Environment and can be reached at

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