A climate threat, rising from the soil

Lucrative slash-and-burn farming practices in the Indonesian island of Borneo are uncovering and drying out carbon-rich peat moss, causing fires that burn for weeks and gush carbon into the atmosphere.
By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 19, 2009

TARUNA JAYA, INDONESIA -- Across a patch of pineapples shrouded in smoke, Idris Hadrianyani battled a menace that has left his family sleepless and sick -- and has wrought as much damage on the planet as has exhaust from all the cars and trucks in the United States. Against the advancing flames, he waved a hose with a handmade nozzle confected from a plastic soda bottle.

The lopsided struggle is part of a battle against one of the biggest, and most overlooked, causes of global climate change: a vast and often smoldering layer of coal-black peat that has made Indonesia the world's third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States.

Unlike the noxious gases pumped into the atmosphere by gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles in the United States and smoke-belching factories in China, danger here in the heart of Borneo rises from the ground itself.

Peat, formed over thousands of years from decomposed trees, grass and scrub, contains gigantic quantities of carbon dioxide, which used to stay locked in the ground. It is now drying and disintegrating, as once-soggy swamps are shorn of trees and drained by canals, and when it burns, carbon dioxide gushes into the atmosphere.

Amid often-acrimonious debate over how to curb global warming ahead of a critical U.N. conference next month in Copenhagen, "peat is the big elephant in the room," said Agus Purnomo, head of Indonesia's National Council on Climate Change. Dealing with it, he said, requires that the world answer a vexing question: How can protection of the environment be made as economically rewarding as its often lucrative destruction?

Carbon trading was meant to do just that by allowing developing countries that cut their emissions to sell carbon credits. But this and other incentives for conservation developed since a U.N. conference in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 have done nothing to protect Indonesia's abused peatlands.

Dwindling forestland

Less than a quarter of a century ago, 75 percent of Kalimantan -- which comprises three Indonesian regions on the island of Borneo -- was covered in thick forests. Gnawed away since by loggers, oil palm plantations and grandiose state projects, the forests have since shrunk by about half. Each year, Indonesia loses forest area roughly the size of Connecticut.

Fires, meanwhile, have grown more frequent and serious. For centuries, Kalimantan locals have burned forestland to create plots for farming. But what used to be small, controlled fires have become fearsome conflagrations as dry and degraded peat goes up in smoke.

Estimating carbon emissions from deforested peatland is a highly complicated and inexact science. Even when not burning, dried peat leaks a slow but steady stream of carbon dioxide and other gases. Once it catches fire, the stream becomes a torrent.

In 2006, according to Wetlands International, a Dutch research and lobbying group, Indonesia's peatlands released roughly 1.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide -- equal to the combined emissions that year of Germany, Britain and Canada, and more than U.S. emissions from road and air travel. When particularly bad fires raged across Kalimantan in 1997, according to a study led by a British scientist, the amount was up to four times as high -- more than the total emissions by the United States in that period.

Economics vs. ecology

How dirt became so dangerous -- and why reversing the damage is so difficult -- is on grim display here in Central Kalimantan, inhabited by about 2 million people and a rapidly dwindling population of orangutans. Economic logic here is firmly on the side of those wrecking the environment.

For example, Hadrianyani, the firefighter in Taruna Jaya, also has another job: He clears peatland of trees and scrub for cultivation -- a task done most easily by burning. That work earns him about $8 a day -- twice what he gets for putting out fires.

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