Saving Indonesia’s peatlands

by Isabella Frew

UQ Bachelor of Environmental Management student Isabella Frew recently took part in the PEATLI Project, looking to restore peatlands by engaging local communities in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. This is her story.

Asia is no stranger to air pollution. Whether it’s car or industrial pollution, countries throughout Asia have been battling pollutants that damage human health and affect the climate. But one culprit is often overlooked – peat.

So what exactly is peat?

Peat is a dense, muddy substance that is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter. It’s unique to natural areas called peatlands – known also as bogs, mires, moors, or muskegs – and can be found from temperate to tropical regions.

In 2015, Indonesia suffered from devastating fires. Locals in communities like Kalimantan, Sumatra and Papua reported air so thick with smoke that visibility at times was around one metre. Planes weren’t able to fly into the region for months. Even the neighbouring countries of Malaysia and Singapore had an increase in pollution and smog.

It took three months for the fires to burn out. Due to the peat soil’s nutrients and makeup – effectively making it ‘young’ coal – the fires had burned with little reprieve. The peat, in some instances, had continued burning underground.

To help tackle this problem, the Indonesian Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) offered a multidisciplinary group of University of Queensland students, partnering with Universitas Indonesia, the opportunity to work with local communities on real-life solutions to the problem. This was the creation of the PEATLI Project and I was lucky enough to be one of those students.

The BRG aims to help communities in Kalimantan, Sumatra and Papua through the three Rs – Revitalisation, Revegetation and Rewetting. We were tasked with going into these community groups to understand what individual issues they were facing, the different livelihoods and how the Agency was assisting them.

We had to develop a community engagement strategy to support the BRG’s peatland restoration program, with amazing support provided by the BRG’s field staff, as well as UQ’s Associate Professor Elske van de Fliert and Ratu Sovi Arinta from UQ Indonesia.

My village – Buntoi, Central Kalimantan – was primarily employed in rubber farming. It was an incredible opportunity to view the different dynamics within the village of men, women and children, as we ran focus group discussions with each of these groups. The village was primarily Dayak, the indigenous people of Kalimantan. We invested time engaging and learning about the Dayak people, and tried on traditional head-dresses, watched traditional dances and visited Dayak longhouses.

I was so nervous completing the first focus group discussion, my hands were shaking. Having learnt about community engagement in my degree this was the first time I was able to use it in a real-life scenario. Thankfully, having both law and communications students involved in the project, we could call on a wide range of skills and experience to help develop a community engagement strategy and implementation plan.

With backgrounds in communications, law and environmental management, the team became a powerhouse of dynamic ideas and solutions.

With my environmental background and two other environmental management students, we were able to provide insight into how the peatlands and communities worked on the land and the importance these landscapes had on their livelihoods. We even addressed the Governor of Kalimantan with our community engagement strategy. And, having gotten over my nerves, I was able to make some new friends in the village and further my understanding of Kalimantan and the BRG’s efforts, by having meaningful, one-on-one conversations.

With my new friends I had the chance to experience some particularly unique travel experiences, like visiting a catfish farm, seeing orang-utans and enjoying Dayak food, including dried beef lung, catfish and beef liver.

It was all-in-all an incredible experience, and I highly recommend eligible UQ students  consider the program in 2020 and in the years beyond. I hope to return to Indonesia to complete more work in the peatlands!

The PEATLI Project is a collaboration with UQ’s School of Communication and Arts, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and the TC Beirne School of Law, along with the Indonesian Peatland Agency (BRG) and Universitas Indonesia. The project was also supported by New Colombo Plan funding at The University of Queensland.

Unfortunately, the Indonesian peatlands are experiencing more fires at time of writing.