The way forward...

Changes in the management both tropical and northern peatlands is required if the carbon is to remain stored in peatlands and land use, biodiversity and socio-economics are to be maintained. In Southeast Asia, continued degradation, and repeated wildfires and increased risk of flooding, will lead to increasing loss of economic returns, heightened poverty for indigenous communities, and pressure on the remaining resources. The most effective measure to prevent this is conservation of the remaining peatland forests, alongside restoration or rewetting of degraded peatlands, particularly in critical landscapes (e.g. adjacent to remaining blocks of peat swamp forest) and improved management of plantations and agricultural areas to ensure responsible use. In all cases – conservation, rewetting and appropriate responsible management – the water table should be raised through improved water management (e.g., through less severe or no drainage) (Fig. 1).

Rewetting tropical peatland

Fig. 1: Simple dam for rewetting a tropical peatland. Image: wageningenur.nl

Research and practical knowledge on the approaches to and consequences of the removal of active drainage and rewetting of peatlands is at a much less advanced stage in the tropics than in either Europe or North America. Nevertheless, this lack of knowledge is urgently needed, given that it is set against the background of a continuing trend of drainage of tropical peatlands with an estimated 47% of peatlands in Southeast Asia being deforested by 2006, of which 17% had been drained intensively for large-scale agriculture (Fig. 2).

Tropical peatland deforestation and drainage

Fig. 2: Deforestation and drainage of a tropical peatland for the development of palm oil plantations. Image: panda.org

The promotion of responsible use of peatlands and restoration, where appropriate, should be advocated. A critical element of any management strategy is to raise user awareness; to highlight the important role that peatlands play in global climate regulation and, perhaps more importantly, the local implications of disturbance and over use. The challenge is to develop mechanisms that can balance the conflicting demands on the global peatland heritage to ensure its continued wise use to meet the needs of humankind. This can be achieved by distributing information or generating centres, where ample opportunity exists for public and commercial engagement (i.e., with stakeholders).There is a need for understanding of peatland processes in the first instance, understanding (and the willingness to understand) different viewpoints driven by the needs of the stakeholders, and more importantly actually seeing and understanding the impacts of peatland drainage and subsequent degradation. Responsible use and management should focus on the need to integrate and optimise economic, social and ecological functions.

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