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A climate threat, rising from the soil
Degraded peatlands in Indonesia unleash vast amounts of carbon

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.

Across Kalimantan, logging and palm oil companies deploy formidable economic, and real, firepower against environmental activists trying to protect the fragile peat. On a recent afternoon in Lamunti, a desolate Central Kalimantan settlement crisscrossed with fetid canals, the rival camps faced off. On one side of a wooden barrier at the entrance to PT Globalindo Agung Lestari, an oil palm estate, stood a dozen or so out-of-town environmental activists with a bullhorn. On the other side stood company security guards, local police officers and Indonesian soldiers with automatic weapons.

Villagers, though angry at the plantation, stayed away: They didn't want to lose their jobs tending oil palm. The pay is about $3 a day and the work is backbreaking, but "when you don't have anything, you have to support the company," said Budi, 21, who, like many Indonesians, uses one name.

Interviewed away from the company's compound, villagers accused its managers of stealing their land. The village chief, Syahrani, said he was trying to get compensation but didn't hold out much hope. Globalindo's bosses "have all the power. They control everything," he said. Of the 600 working-age people in his village, 75 percent work at Globalindo. Acting estate manager Karel Yoseph Rauy declined to comment on allegations that his company had pilfered land.

The uneven match of reality and good intentions has put Central Kalimantan's government in a bind. "The carbon here is huge. It should be safeguarded like Fort Knox," said Humda Pontas, the Maine-educated head of the economics department at the regional planning board. But palm plantations, though a serious threat to carbon-rich peatland, "are the only real investment opportunity. They employ people" and pay taxes. The rest, he said, "is just theory."

'Mega rice' disaster

The deforestation of Kalimantan began with loggers. Then, in 1995, Indonesia's authoritarian ruler, Suharto, launched a plan to turn nearly 2.5 million acres of peatland -- about twice the size of Delaware -- into a rice farm. Thousands of workers were shipped in to dig canals and drain swamps.

Suwido Limin, a local scientist, protested that the plan would never work. The government dismissed him as a communist.

Suharto's "mega rice" project turned out to be a disastrous flop. "It was supposed to produce rice. It just produced haze," said Limin, who runs a peat research center and has joined with American bank J.P. Morgan to develop a project to fight peatland fires -- and earn money from carbon credits.

A year after Suharto fell from power in 1998, Jakarta pulled the plug on his rice folly. Since then, Indonesian and foreign experts have struggled to figure out how to repair the damage. An Indonesian-Dutch plan to rehabilitate the area put the price tag at about $700 million.

The hope is that a big chunk of this might come from carbon trading if delegates at next month's Copenhagen conference agree to expand the system of conservation incentives to cover peatlands. The Indonesian-Dutch plan calculates that emissions reductions in the former mega-rice zone could fetch $50 million to $100 million a year on the global carbon market.

Agustin Teras Narang, governor of Central Kalimantan, likes the idea of earning big money from his region's vast peatland vault of carbon dioxide. But, with no sign of peat turning into a profit center anytime soon, the governor's big concern is getting Jakarta to let him turn more of Central Kalimantan's forests over to production -- primarily rubber and oil palm plantations.

When fires raced across his territory in September, Narang had seven firetrucks to cover an area bigger than Virginia and Maryland combined.

Schools shut down, the airport closed, and hospitals struggled to cope with thousands of patients suffering from respiratory problems.

Research camp razed

The fires also delivered a devastating blow to Limin, the peat researcher. Flames reduced his research camp to charcoal. Charred sardine cans, an incinerated bicycle and shattered glass now litter an apocalyptic landscape of smoldering peat and uprooted trees.

Before the fires started, Limin was working on a big experimental project to reduce fire risk and thus carbon emissions. Financing was to come largely from J.P. Morgan's ClimateCare unit, headed by British engineer Mike Mason, a prominent Oxford-based climate entrepreneur. Mason took the firefighting project to a U.N. climate committee in Germany that reviews emission-reductions ventures and decides whether they might qualify to earn carbon credits.

In June, the committee rejected the proposal, arguing that peat fires are a natural phenomenon and, therefore, are not eligible. (Most experts disagree and say the fires are not natural.) Limin put his ambitious firefighting plans on hold. When flames advanced on his forest encampment in September, he had just a couple of dozen men to battle them. After days of struggle, they retreated.

Shortly after his camp was gobbled up, Limin stood near a table on which a police-band radio crackled with reports from the forest of yet more flames. He groaned. Saving peat and the planet, Limin said, requires that people get paid: "Who will work without pay? Nobody."

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