RSPO adopts palm oil standards developed by Wetlands International to limit peatland degradation

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The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has adopted new standards, developed by Wetlands International, to help curb the degradation of tropical forests and peatlands that would contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.

The RSPO, a trade body that certifies palm oil across 3.89 million hectares in south America, west Africa and Indonesia, will use the Drainability Assessment (DA) procedure to limit how far the ground water of a plantation can be drained, after which palm oil planting must be phased out.

Plantations that must be phased out under the assessment guidelines can either transition to paludiculture — the cultivation of more water-tolerant crop types — or be restored to natural vegetation, before the peat in the plantations subsides to river or sea level.

Dipa Rais, Technical Officer Hydrology at Wetlands International Indonesia, who worked on the assessment with the RSPO since 2017 said: “Global production of, and demand for, palm oil has increased rapidly in the last decade. A huge part of it comes from drained peatlands. Without careful planning for the future of these peatlands, reaching drainability limit will be inevitable along with numerous associated damages associated.”

“The official adoption of the assessment can contribute in preventing future irreversible damage to hydrology, ecology and economy of peatlands and communities at landscape scale. Permanent flooding, salt water intrusion, pyrite oxidation, increased land use and management costs, are just few examples of these foreseeable harm,” he added.

Arina Schrier, Associate Expert of Wetlands International, who also worked on the assessment added: “This procedure enables land owners to analyse and evaluate — and to adjust their management in case it turns out that a plantation is close to the natural drainage limit. It is important that for future generations the peatland will be saved from fires and further degradation.”

Going up in smoke

The major issue with draining peat for growing palm oil is that the peat, comprising partially decayed plant material, oxidises as it dries out, releasing the carbon into the air as carbon dioxide. The soil literally goes up in smoke, causing the land to subside.

Over 25 years a hectare of oil palm plantation on peat will emit more than 2000 tonnes of carbon dioxide amounting to about 500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year in Indonesia alone — more than half the country’s total emissions, according to Kristell Hergoualc’h, a scientist at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

The problem is made worse by fire – either those that occur naturally, or those that are deliberate to clear existing forests. Fires often ignite the drained peat and burn below ground, making them very difficult to control. In the dry season of 2015, fires in Southeast Asia produced more emissions in a few months than the annual output of Japan or Germany; on some days, fires exceeded the daily emissions of the United States. Wet peat does not burn because the moist conditions prevent oxidation and keeps fires from starting.

New threats to Indonesia peatland

But, while the RSPO has taken positive steps to curb peatland degradation through drainage, peatland in Indonesia, in particular, is facing a new threat. The Indonesian government’s relaxation of regulation protecting carbon rich peat landscapes now only requires land concession holders to maintain the water table in the highest point of a peat dome. This opens the way for exploitation of previously protected areas less than 3m deep with peat.

The resulting peatland degradation is expected to jeopardise the goal set by the Indonesian Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) to restore 2.4 million hectares of peatlands by 2020.

Paludiculture as an alternative 

The Drainability Assessment Procedure is a step towards a production system based on peat where water levels will be close to the surface and subsidence will be close to zero, according to Arthur Neher, Senior Technical Officer Climate Smart Land Use at Wetlands International.

“The phasing out of oil palm on peatlands is our ultimate goal. Concurrently, the private sector is encouraged and supported in their commitment to maintain sustainable peatlands. An important  next step is the inclusion of guidelines to aid rehabilitation of peatlands and/or the transition by the concession holders to alternative options such as developing paludiculture,” said Neher.

Paludiculture is the practice of maintaining productive land use on rewetted peatlands with peatland-adopted crops. Peat swamp forest species are used traditionally and there are over 400 species known which have productive use. The local population is accustomed to such paludiculture species and cultivation techniques. Crops, such as sago as starch for noodles and cookies, rattan for furniture and “purun” grass  for thatching and basketry are examples, according to Neher.