Feeling the burn: Restoring tropical peatlands following the 2015 fires

Conservation Blog

Written by Pau Brugues Sintes (BNF Conservation Scientist)

The forest fires in 2015 had severe effects on the peatlands in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. There are many questions – the why’s, who’s and how’s this ecological disaster actually happened. But, our focus now is to understand how we better manage and restore the degraded and burnt peatlands, and prevent fires in the future.

<center>Burnt area in Sabangau Forest/<italic>Photo by Pau Brugues Sintes</italic></center>

Burnt area in Sabangau Forest/Photo by Pau Brugues Sintes


Measuring Seedlings/Photo by Pau Brugues Sintes

This month the Reforestation Team, from our OuTrop programme, planted 1,800 seedlings in a burnt area in the Sabangau Forest. With this new planting experiment, we want to achieve the following goals; to identify the species with high reforestation potential and to determine the factors that cause mortality of the seedlings. To achieve our goals the OuTrop Reforestation Team will be monitoring these seedlings very carefully. The data collected will also be highly valuable for other reforestation projects across Borneo.

But, the reforestation of a burnt peatland is not enough and by itself is not effective. Reforestation has to be a part of a more holistic conservation approach that aims to restore the whole ecosystem. Our approach is habitat restoration, as it involves two key aspects: hydrology restoration (by blocking the illegal logging canals, which are draining the peatland) as well as reforestation. OuTrop has been working on habitat restoration in Sabangau since 2010.

Under natural conditions, tropical peatlands are a reservoir of freshwater. Tropical peatlands moderate water levels and maintain river flows. The peat acts as a buffer, preventing droughts and floods. Degraded peatlands are highly likely to suffer severe droughts and floods. These areas are likely to burn during periods of drought, as dry peat is very susceptible to fire. At the same time, no natural forest succession will occur.

Peatland degradation has severe short-term and long-term consequences for the nearby communities. During the dry season, severe droughts increase the fire risk. In the case of a peat fire, the community will suffer from the hazardous haze. During the wet season, because of the peat-loss, the flooding of villages will increase. The community’s livelihoods will sadly decrease as habitat is lost close to villages.

Habitat restoration is therefore important to recover degraded peatlands. It is important for the future of peatlands, for the future of people in Kalimantan and, in the end, for the future of our world.



OuTrop team planting trees on burnt areas

Photo by Pau Brugues Sintes