Widespread damage to Southeast Asia’s peatlands confirmed in satellite study

BANGKOK: A new breakthrough study powered by satellite technology has enabled researchers to measure the widespread damage to Southeast Asias peatlands, which are vitally important in capturing and reducing carbon emissions.

For the first time, inSAR satellites have been used to remotely scan vast vegetated areas – 2.7 million hectares of peatland, mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia. Typically, researchers would have to physically traverse difficult terrain to make these measurements.



Peat is the accumulation of generations of organic matter in naturally occurring wetland areas. They store huge amounts of carbon, which is released into the atmosphere once the land becomes degraded. In fact, about 6 per cent of annual global CO2 emissions is the result of damaged peatlands.

The mapping by a research team at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology shows this happening at an alarming rate.

Ninety per cent of the peatlands examined are sinking – on average by 2.24cm a year and up to 5cm in some areas. It means these carbon-rich areas are drying fast, increasing the risk of dangerous fires sweeping through them.

Satellite data helps show damage caused to peatlands across Southeast Asia. (Image: Alison Hoyt)



The outcomes are worrying, particularly for Indonesia, home to about 70 per cent of the regions peatlands. Dangerous fires plague the country on an annual basis, bringing severe health risks to the population and the destruction of protected wilderness, especially in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The country, as a result of the carbon being released from damaged peat, as well as expansive fires in those areas, was the fourth biggest CO2 emitter in the world in 2015.

“Regional carbon dioxide emissions from peat loss during a typical year are much greater than total fossil fuel emission from Singapore, and an important component of emissions from Indonesia and Malaysia,” said Charles Harvey, the principal investigator at SMART, and a professor at MITs Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“Emissions from peatlands can surpass regional fossil fuel emissions during particularly dry years when there are widespread peat fires,” he told CNA.

Peatland is highly prone to fires, which typically over a large scale in Indonesia every year. (Photo: Jack Board)

This was land that just a few decades ago was covered in pristine forest. Since then, the conversion of forest and peatland to oil palm plantations has been rapid.

The SMART study found, however, that it was not only large concessions causing subsidence, but also other small-scale agriculture, the construction of canals and the preparation of land for “failed large scale rice-farming experiments”.

The latter is significant at this juncture. Negotiations are underway to create a vast new rice bowl to help feed Indonesians during the COVID-19 pandemic and address national food security issues.


The Joko Widodo administration has proposed opening up a 164,000ha area – potentially peatland – in Central Kalimantan, to be converted into agriculture. It follows a similar scheme in the mid 1990s, which resulted in the mass clearing of land for rice farming and huge internal worker migration, but little food.

Rice is not a native species in peatlands, and can only grow once the land is drained of its water and cleared. Even then, there are considerable complications and expenses.

Massive amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere when peatlands are burnt. (Photo: Jack Board)

A “living document” to that failed experiment, Nyoman Suryadiputra, now the head of non-governmental organisation Wetlands International, experienced firsthand the difficulties of attempting to convert wet peatlands during extensive field work at the time.

He saw forests being destroyed and farmers turn to illegal logging, as they went hungry in the wetlands of Borneo.

He does not want history to be repeated but doubts the Indonesian government will make the same mistake.

“Even though I heard the area will be opened up, I dont think it will be in the peat area. It will be a swamp area. But I also have to be very critical of it,” he said.

“We have to look at this type of ecosystem and see comprehensively if this area is connected to the peat area. They (the government) are aware how complicated it is and they already failed in 1995."

Canals for agriculture built through peatlands contribute to land subsidence. (Photo: Jack Board)

The attempted conversion of peat-rich land in Papua into the “future breadbasket of Indonesia” in a project launched in 2011 is also testament to the troubles associated with such schemes.

“Its not only economic loss from making the same mistake but its to do with the ecosystems. The condition now is already bad. So if we open up again, it will get worse. The implication will be a long period of disasters," Suryadiputra told CNA.


In 2016, President Jokowi announced the establishment of the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) to try and bring the about 2.5 million hectares of the countrys peatlands back to health within five years, a majority of it located in economic concession areas.

“I have tasked this agency with creating and implementing an action plan so that we canRead More – Source