Copyright: Panos

[MANILA] This year’s Global Landscapes Forum, held mid-May in Jakarta, focused on peatlands, described as “one of the least-understood ecosystems” by Tim Christophersen, senior programme officer for Forests and Climate Change with the UN Environment Programme.

Led by the Centre for International Forestry Research, the Forum, an annual event since 2013, aims to shed light on the importance of peatlands not only for climate change mitigation, but also for community development and livelihoods.

Indonesia’s hosting the 2017 Forum is not surprising. The 2015 forest fires that spread toxic haze across South-east Asia had drawn attention to the country’s vast peatlands exceeded in size only by Brazil’s.

A new global wetlands map suggests that more peatlands exist in the tropics — at least three times more than previously estimated. Developed by scientists from the Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Programme, the map shows South America housing most of the world’s peat by area and volume.

Wetlands and peatlands play a vital role in climate change management as they store huge amounts of carbon. Knowing where they are located helps protect them against draining for cultivation, an activity which results in the release of vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Read more: Conserving one of the least understood ecosystems


A villager carries buckets of compost on a farm in Pemongkong village in East Lombok, eastern Indonesia, May 17, 2017. The farm practises conservation agriculture which encourages the use of organic fertiliser. — Thomson Reuters Foundation pic

PEMONGKONG, June 5 — In early 2016, when fellow farmers were despairing over plummeting yields linked to a major drought, Hamdi was busy harvesting maize from his land.

He got 5.6 tonnes instead of the usual 4 tonnes from his one-hectare (2.5-acre) plot, despite living in West Nusa Tenggara, one of Indonesia’s driest provinces where agriculture is at the mercy of extreme weather such as that brought by the El Nino climate pattern.

“El Nino did not affect those practising conservation agriculture, but those who weren’t suffered a lot,” the 38-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a sunny afternoon in Pemongkong village on Lombok island.

Hamdi, who goes by one name only, was among the first in his village to adopt the natural farming method in October 2015, just before El Nino hit.

He was initially attracted by talk of possible savings because conservation agriculture requires less fertiliser, as well as less labour for weeding and preparing land.

But the greatest benefit so far has been its ability to help Hamdi weather the long drought.

Lombok farmers who practised conservation agriculture were more resilient to the effects of El Nino, harvesting about 70 per cent more than those using traditional methods, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

“Conservation agriculture is about renewing the life of the soil,” said John Weatherson, an advisor to the FAO. “It’s about stabilising yield so when the shocks come, the farmers are sitting pretty.”

The method has always been around, but rising pressures from a changing climate, growing population and shrinking arable land have prompted “a search for more sustainable, ecologically conscious practices”, said Catherine Chan-Halbrendt, an expert on the issue at the University of Hawaii.

In conservation agriculture, soil disturbance is kept to a minimum, using permanent planting holes fertilised with compost instead of chemicals.

The soil surface is covered with crop residues as mulch, and farmers rotate crops or inter-crop between cereals and legumes.

These practices help reduce erosion and water run-off, and increase soil fertility and crop yields, experts say.

Pemongkong villagers, who have tried the method for two planting seasons, say yields have risen. Alongside lower costs for fertilisers and labour, they have more money in their hands.

Read more: Indonesian farmers befriend soil to protect harvests from climate stress


What can we do to break the cycle of the haze over the long term? How might we address the underlying drivers and achieve sustainable solutions?

Children in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan wear masks when playing outside. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/ CIFOR

Indonesia - Fire in agriculture is a mixed blessing. A cost-effective tool for poor farmers, fire has been key for food production for millennia. In 2000, vegetation fires covered 350 Mha – or about 3% of the global land area – most of which were in Sub-Saharan Africa. The benefits of these fires must be recognized. Indeed, appropriately managed fire has an important role in many landscapes and ecological settings.

Read more: Preventing fire & haze: sustainable solutions for Indonesian peatlands


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