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Indonesia urged to review peat forest usage

Indonesia Times - October 10, 1997

Jakarta – Indonesia was urged on Thursday to carefully preserve and manage its peat forests to avoid environmental disasters such as that which has covered much of Southeast Asia in choking smog.

The Secretary-General of the Bogor-based Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Jeffery Sayer, told a news conference that burning such forests to clear them for agriculture could pose longer term problems.

He was addressing the Asia-Pacific launch of the World Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) regional forest map, which showed 88 pct of the region's original forest cover had been lost, Reuters reported.

Sayer highlighted the case of peat forests in Central Kalimantan where President Suharto in 1995 commissioned a mammoth one million hectare (404,694.5 acre) project to convert peat forest into a new rice bowl for his nation of more than 200 million people.

"You can understand that a senior policy maker likes to make a big gesture of putting a million hectares of rice somewhere. It sort of looks good and the intention is probably quite good," Sayer told reporters.

"But what you should really be aiming for is getting a real fine pattern of appropriate use of those areas that are good for rice and forests, but these areas don't come in million hectare lots. They come in little bits," he said.

Sayer said fire had been used to clear the peat swamps in Kalimantan and Sumatra for agriculture in recent months, contributing to the smog covering much of Southeast Asia.

"Part of the strategy should be to impose a moratorium on the use of fire in land clearing by commercial estates and development projects until an effective fire control management system is implemented in the fire-struck areas of Kalimantan and Sumatra," the WWF offices said in a statement.

Sayer said burning peat could send thousands of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

He said the swamps, which were metres thick, had a key role as they acted like giant sponges absorbing monsoon rains in the wet season and releasing it slowly during the dry season.

"If all those peat lands or even a large proportion of them burn or are otherwise destroyed there will be many long term implications for the hydrological cycles of the areas concerned," Sayer said. "People living downstream will have floods and droughts that are much more severe than they have in the past," he said.

Indonesian Planning Minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita said a year ago the government planned to plant 640,000 hectares of rice in the special zone to maintain self-sufficiency, with the rest used for other crops and infrastructure.

More than 10,000 families from other over-crowded islands such as Java and Bali would be brought in under the government's transmigration scheme to work the first 20,000 hectares, he said.

Sayer said the government was planning to import two tonnes of rock phosphate per hectare to Central Kalimantan to make the former peat swamp forest fertile.

"It is known that the peat swamps are very difficult to convert to sustainable agriculture as they need huge inputs of fertiliser as if the peat does not burn it oxidizes as you dry it up and you eventually get down to sand acid soils underneath," he said.

"Maybe the investment would be better spent intensifying agriculture on other lands with more potential ... (such as) ... parts of Java and Sumatra?" he asked.