The home of the orangutans is one of the most carbon rich ecosystems in the world, containing up to 20 times more carbon underground than conventional rainforest, but this ecosystem is, like the great ape, under great pressure of human alteration. Reversing the trend of deforestation and degradation on peatlands, will not only save the home of the orangutans, but also save the world from the promise of catastrophic events, imposed by a warming world.
Underneath the palms of the red-haired anthropoid lies a world of carbon richness. Build-up over thousands of years, stretching as far as the eyes can see, on in the Central Kalimantan region of Borneo, rest one of the greatest carbon reserves found in land: the tropical peatlands. The carbon storage potential of these lands is only beginning to be unrevealed (World Resource Institute).
A unique ecosystem
Peat is formed in low-lying areas, where dead organic material is unable to fully decompose due to water logging. The partially decayed organic material in the soil is able to withhold water, like a sponge, which means that it will with time rise above water levels, reaching a depth of up to 20 meters. It has been estimated that the tropical peatlands, home to the endangered orangutan, contain one of the highest amount of carbon found in the soil anywhere in the world (WRI). On Borneo, the peatland covers an area of 3,799,999 Ha, and even though it has been reduced by more than 1/3 since the beginning of 1990´s (a loss greater than the area of Israel), it still constitutes nearly 10 per cent of total tropical peatland area in the world.
A ticking carbon bomb
Peatlands are more than ever vulnerable to deforestation and drainage, and experts have classified the ecosystem as “threatened”. In Indonesia alone the peatlands are believed to contain around 57.4 GT of carbon (Page et al, 2010), equivalent to almost six years of total world´s CO2 emission (Oliver et al, 2015). As peatland forests are drained for agricultural uses the organic matter in the soil begins to decompose, lowering the ground surface, creating a need for further drainage. This means that one hectare of drained peatland will on average emit 55 t of CO2 each year (WRI). If the remaining peatland areas on Borneo were drained, it would emit 208,945,000 tons of CO2/year (excluding the loss of above ground biomass), exceeding the emissions of more than 150 countries in the world (Global Carbon Atlas, 2016). This CO2-emission would continue year after year, as long as the peat remains above the water table, making UN´s target of a temperature rise below 2 ° C impossible to reach.
Picture: Sustainable Management of Peatland Forests in Southeast Asia
Peat as the new frontier
This scenario may be closer than one might think, as the unstoppable demand for timber and oil palm is increasingly pushing degradation and deforestation onto the land of the peat. Studies have e.g. found the growth in forest loss to be greater on peatlands than the drier lowlands (Margono et al, 2014), and more than half the 125,000 fires this fall were occurring on peatlands, as they are easy to ignite and difficult to extinguish. Besides the great potential for sequestering carbon and mitigating climate change, the peatlands of Borneo also provides the perfect living conditions for the humans of the forest, orangutans. These have seen a steady decrease in recent decades, with the population being reduced by as much as 80 per cent over the last 100 years (BOS, 2012). It is estimated that 3,000 orangutans are killed each year due to habitat loss and land conversion (National Geographic, 2014). By saving the tropical peatlands we will not only save one of our closest relatives, but also spare the world the costs of an even more unpredictable and hotter climate.