Skip to main content

The value of preserving tropical peatlands

Blog | Mon, 04 Sep, 2023 · 11 min read

Tropical peatlands are unique ecosystems found in several regions across the world, including in major tropical river basins in Southeast Asia, the Congo and the Amazon. They are also found in tropical highlands in New Guinea, in the Andes and in the Nile basin.

By definition, peatlands are areas characterized by the accumulation of thick layers of organic matter (peat) over thousands of years. This can happen in forested areas under waterlogged areas and through the build up of moss in highlands. Peatlands are important in the global carbon cycle as they play a critical role in climate regulation, biodiversity conservation and water management. However, infrastructure development, drainage and cultivation of commodities like palm oil and soybeans have made significant negative impacts on these fragile ecosystems.  

When peatland hydrology is disturbed, they become very vulnerable to fires. This was seen in 2019, when fires in the Amazon peatlands put around eight billion tonnes of carbon at risk.

Let's explore some of the impacts of the unsustainable use of tropical peatlands:

  1. Carbon Emissions: Tropical peatlands store vast amounts of carbon. When these peatlands are drained, they become highly vulnerable to fires and when exposed to wildfires, they release large amounts of carbon. After clearing the vegetation and drainage for logging or agriculture, the organic matter in the peat starts to decompose, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere at a rate of 400 tons CO2e per hectare This contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating climate change. 
  2. Biodiversity Loss: Peatlands are home to unique and diverse plant and animal species, like the orangutan, and to unique fauna like orchids. The unsustainable use of peatlands, particularly through land conversion for agriculture and infrastructure development, leads to habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity. Many species that depend on these specialized ecosystems are at risk of extinction.
  3. Land Subsidence and Flooding: Draining peatlands for agriculture or other purposes causes the land to subside due to the oxidation of peat, leading to increased vulnerability to flooding. Subsidence can result in substantial economic losses and negatively impact local communities. A recent study showed that drained peatland subsidence at a rate of five centimetres annually puts coastal areas in major deltas like the Amazon, Mekong and in Borneo and New Guinea at risk of flooding.
  4. Loss of Ecosystem Services: Peatlands provide essential ecosystem services, including water regulation, water purification and flood control. Unsustainable use disrupts these services, affecting both local communities and the broader environment and economy. Fires, and the consequent erosion of peatlands, leads to increased carbon in adjacent seas, which then leads to acidification and reduced productivity of coastal waters.
  5. Haze and Air Pollution: Peatland fires, often set intentionally to clear land, release vast amounts of smoke and haze into the air. The health impact of these fires is serious and long lasting. These fires can spread rapidly and cause severe air pollution, leading to health problems and economic disruptions in nearby regions. Fires in Indonesia emitted at least 708 million tons of CO2e in 2019,
  6. Water Quality Degradation: Drainage and degradation of peatlands can alter water quality, leading to increased sedimentation and nutrient runoff into rivers and water bodies. This can harm aquatic ecosystems and reduce the availability of clean water for human use.

Sustainable Use Measures:

  1. Peatland Restoration: Implementing restoration projects to rewet and rehabilitate degraded peatlands can help reverse some of the environmental damage and restore ecosystem functions. This can be done through agri-silviculture projects using paludiculture species that are adaptive to peat soils and tolerant to acidic conditions and inundation. This revegetation can result in effective results that support peatland restoration.
  2. Responsible Land Use Planning: Developing and enforcing land use policies that protect peatlands from conversion and encourage sustainable practices can help preserve these ecosystems. Through jurisdictional REDD+ Results-based Payments, UNEP will execute an integrated approach  in Indonesia to help local communities, through village planning processes, restoring peatlands and using them for sustainable and economically viable purposes.
  3. Fire Prevention and Management: Implementing fire prevention strategies and employing early warning systems can help minimize the occurrence and impact of peatland fires. UNEP and its partners have developed clear procedural guidelines on how to establish clusters. Clusters are a fire protection multi-stakeholder platform involving public, private sector, NGOs, communities. These clusters bring together land users and related government departments. Core elements of clusters are establishing anticipatory capacity to respond to emerging fire risk through a fire risk motoring system. The fire risk monitoring system manages the related hotspot data and information on fire risk locations. These clusters are gender sensitive and socially inclusive and can be adapted to all jurisdictional levels and enable effective collaboration with relevant government agencies.
  4. Peatland Management Techniques: Sustainable land management practices that consider peatland hydrology, such as the construction of canals and bunds, can help maintain the water table and prevent peat degradation. Handils are Indigenous land-use systems which are generally recognized as a good practice for collective resource management. Like the Dutch water boards, they are relatively autonomous and have great potential to function as institutions for regional water management and to be adapted into a peatland conservation management framework.
  5. Education and Awareness: Raising awareness among local communities, stakeholders and policymakers about the importance of peatlands and their sustainable use is essential for long-term conservation efforts.
  6. Market Incentives: Encouraging the use of sustainably produced products, such as certified sustainable palm oil, can create market incentives for responsible land use practices. Furthermore, the inclusion of peat-related emissions in domestic carbon markets, as is being developed in Indonesia, will provide incentives for land users to improve the management of peatlands.

By adopting sustainable use practices and implementing conservation measures, tropical peatlands can continue to provide essential ecosystem services, support biodiversity and help mitigate climate change impacts. Indonesia is in the process rehabilitating its peatlands, starting with restoring about 2.6 million hectares of drained and degraded peatlands in seven provinces by 2030. UNEP is working with relevant government ministries in Indonesia to support this endeavor as part of its ongoing REDD+ work. This is aimed at providing sub-national jurisdictions, through assessing REDD+ financing, with the capacity to start restoring peatlands in order to stop peat fires and decomposition and to restore hydrology and vegetation to enable peatlands to act as a carbon sinks. In addition, Indonesia is working with four tropical countries in the Congo basin and in the Amazon basin to share lessons through knowledge exchanges and a series of publications.

Learn more about the value of tropical peatlands at the Africa Climate Summit