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Tropical peatlands can be restored without impacting oil palm farmers

Peat is a carbon-rich soil formed from partly decomposed vegetation in wet conditions. Tropical peatlands are crucial for storing carbon in the ground and providing habitat for exotic wildlife, such as tigers, birds, gibbons, fish, microbes, and specially-adapted plants.

Moreover, cultivating peatlands often supports humans’ livelihood. Many small-scale farmers use peatlands to grow oil palm. However, in order to make the land suitable for farming, peatlands need to be drained, which affects animal and plant habitats and can cause carbon emissions. In addition, the drained land can become prone to fires.

A new study led by the University of York has found that restoring drained peatland through processes of “re-wetting” – where canals draining water away are blocked or filled in – supports bird diversity while not affecting the viability of oil palm grown by farmers in Indonesia. This is where 47 percent of global tropical peatlands are located, mainly on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

 “Indonesia has been very successful in reducing deforestation and considerable effort has gone into peat restoration to avoid fires. But one of the big challenges is the trade-off between livelihoods of owners of small farms and ensuring biodiversity in these areas,” said Dr. Eleanor Warren-Thomas, a conservation scientist at Bangor University who led the study while working at York.

“What this new study shows is that retaining more water in oil palm farms to reduce fire risk seems to have no effect on yields, which is good news for farmers. In contrast to the concerns of some plantations, retaining water levels close to the surface (40cm or less) still enables oil palm cultivation.”

By also surveying the bird species in one of the remaining peat swamp forest areas nearby, Dr. Warren-Thomas and her colleagues highlighted the importance of protecting the remaining forest for bird conservation.

“These unique birds can also act as seed dispersers – crucial if in the longer-term forest restoration becomes an option.”

“One of the conclusions of the study is that larger-scale industrial farming organizations would be able to help further studies in this area, if they are able to publish their data and share their knowledge to inform sustainable oil palm production strategies.”

The study is published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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