In the tropics, peat swamp forests are often logged and converted to oil palm and pulp wood plantations. This results in adverse effects on the natural resource base of local communities and impacts the biodiversity, water regulation and carbon storage functions of peatlands. As an alternative, paludiculture is a sustainable form of agriculture which enables the productive use of rewetted peatlands. It will prevent the oxidation of the peat carbon, thus preventing the massive natural organic carbon store from turning into the greenhouse gas CO2.
The few remaining pristine peatswamp forests are home to a wealth of wildlife species such as the endangered tiger, tapir and orangutan. They supply local communities with a great variety of timber and non-timber forest products and water in support of their livelihoods.
Over the last three decades millions of hectares of tropical peatlands have been drained for oil palm plantations (photo above) and pulp wood production, increasing the occurrence of fires and floods, and releasing each year hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 emissions.
Drainage causes peat soil subsidence (featured above) at a rate of 5 centimeters per year as a result of compaction and the loss of organic matter (CO2 emissions). As the peatlands developed in a period of sea level rise, 8000 years ago, their base lies generally below sea level. Continued drainage will therefore eventually lead to flooding, salt water intrusion and the loss of arable land and productivity. Pump-operated drainage systems combined with extensive and expensive systems of dikes will be very difficult if not impossible to establish. In the longer term land subsidence will pose a major threat to the livelihoods of local people and the economic stability.
Sustainable development in degraded peat landscapes requires blocking of drainage ditches, and restoration of a vegetation cover with peatland adapted plant species. This may involve restoration of peat swamp forest or paludiculture: the establishment of commercial plantations of useful peat swamp forest species in rewetted peatlands.
Paludiculture provides communities with income, maintains the natural water regulation and carbon storage services of peatlands and protects communities against fires and floods. The picture above features latex harvesting in a swamp jelutung (Dyera polyphylla) plantation in Jambi, Sumatra. The latex has a variety of uses, ranging from rubber to biological chewing gum production. The timber is suitable for pencils, carving and model making. (Photo credit: Wim Giesen).
The latex from the Jelutung tree is a commercially viable product that can be sold to rubber factories exporting it to the global rubber market. (Photo credit: Wim Giesen).
Integrated land-use involving a combination of peat swamp forest conservation, REDD+, paludiculture, fisheries and tourism development, can enhance the social-economic value of peatlands and help sustain high biodiversity rates in vulnerable landscapes like in Riau, Sumatra where this picture is taken. The picture shows harvesting starch from the sago palm (Metroxylon sagu) which requires cutting down the palm tree to reach the inner kernel. The wood track is used for transportation. The harvest is processed into noodles, cookies and breads.
Fisheries are a customary land-use in peat swamp forests. After rewetting of degraded peatlands, blocked drainage ditches can be used as fish ponds providing an important source of protein and income to the local communities.
Tengkawang or Illipe nut (Shorea spp.) produces an edible oil nut. It can be grown in plantations on rewetted peat (paludiculture) or applied in enrichment planting in degraded peat swamp forests. The oil can be used, similar to palm oil, as cooking oil and processed in food products and cosmetics. Seed production of Tengkawang varies from year to year; with on average every five years a top fruiting year providing a harvest that can out-compete palm oil.
Examples of paludiculture in temperate climates are cultivation of cattails and reeds (featured above) for roofing, biomass or production of insulation materials, sphagnum farming for horticulture and black alder for timber. In the tropics, paludiculture development is just starting but it is envisaged that it can make a major contribution to the development of climate-smart land-use planning in peat landscapes.