Guest blog Matt Williams, Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project
I’m writing this with a backing track of singing gibbons and the curt electric buzz of van Hasselt’s sunbirds. My desk is in an office in a wooden building with a corrugated metal roof, which makes a musical din when it rains – and it usually pours most nights. I’m at the northern edge of the Sabangau rainforest in Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.
To the south of me are 60,000 square kilometres of tropical peat-swamp forest. This is Borneo’s largest remaining peat-swamp forest and it’s home to the world’s largest population of orangutans, as well as a huge range of bird species, from wrinkled hornbills to the internationally Endangered Storm’s stork, of which only 500 remain globally.
Photo: Matt Adam Williams/OuTrop
While it’s easy to get distracted by the incredible wealth of wildlife that’s to be found here, it’s important to remember that these peat-swamp forests serve another extremely important function, that scientists have only really properly understood in the last few decades, and that isn’t still recognised or valued by everyone. Having worked for the RSPB’s climate change team last year, I am well aware: the peat that lies beneath our feet here, on which the trees grow, above which the orangutans travel and the gibbons swing, is packed full of carbon. It’s estimated that Indonesian peatland store 35,000 megatonnes of carbon.
That’s around seven times as much as the entire UK emitted in all of 2012. These ancient tropical forests store huge amounts of carbon that, if released, would hugely add to climate change.
Daily life in Indonesia is not responsible for many greenhouse gas emissions - until you take deforestation and forest fires into account. When the forest and the peat burns the carbon is turned into carbon dioxide and it escapes into the atmosphere in huge quantities. When these emissions are accounted for the country one of the world’s biggest polluters.
In the area where I live and work forest fires have occurred on many occasions in recent decades. The Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project supports a Community Patrol Team, part of whose work is to patrol for fires and to fight them when they occur.
And such fires are likely to become more frequent. One consequence of climate change is that we’re likely to have more El Nino years, which have effects on weather the world over. Here in Southeast Asia they mean hotter and drier summers - which means more forest fires, and bad news for forests, their wildlife and the climate.
But not all fires are acts of nature. In some cases, fires are illegally started deliberately as a way of clearing forest and making it available for conversion to oil palm. But it’s not all bad news. Programmes like the UN’s REDD+ are increasingly recognising and rewarding countries like Indonesia for keeping forests intact and the carbon in the ground. In return for money from Norway under the REDD scheme, the Indonesian President imposed a moratorium in 2012 on new forest concessions (for conversion or logging) where there’s peat that’s more than just a couple of metres deep and so particularly important for storing carbon.
Despite this, abuses continue and the moratorium is ignored in many cases. I'll explore this, and the perversity of replacing forest with oil palm, in my next blog in this two part series
Matt Williams is the Communications Manager for the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project. You can follow him and find more of his work @mattadamw and mattadamwilliams.co.uk.
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