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12 Feb 07
Smoking out the world's lungs
By Lucy Williamson BBC News, Kalimantan
Getting into the rainforest in Kalimantan requires a bit of travel. A few kilometres by boat; another kilometre or so by hand-built rail-cart. As you move in under the canopy of trees, clouds of butterflies dart into the path, and the sounds of insects cluster in the air.
But this is no virgin forest. This is a 10-year-old project to rehabilitate an area destroyed by logging. Pak Alim is one of those involved. This project is important, he said, because it is perhaps the only research site in Central Kalimantan where the conditions of the rainforest have been reproduced.
This is a peat forest - built on metres of thick, high carbon soil. Peat is important because of its ability to process greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Pak Alim's favourite name for them is "the lungs of the world". But those lungs are shrinking.
According to the conservation organisation Wetlands International, 48% of the country's peatland forest has been deforested, and most of the rest degraded by illegal logging.
And that has caused some major problems. Marcel Silvius, a senior programme manager for Wetlands International, believes we are looking at one of the biggest environmental disasters of our age.
"From the drainage of its peatlands alone," he told me, "Indonesia is producing 632 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. "But from its annual forest fires, it produces another 1,400 million tonnes. That's a total of 2,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. The Netherlands emits 80 million."
Indonesia's annual forest fires are a major problem, and have been increasing over recent years. Sometimes they are caused by companies wanting a fast, cheap way of clearing the land for planting.
Sometimes, though, it is local villagers, eking out a living from small patches of land hewn out of the forest. Ratni has lived here for 30 years. She arrived as part of a government transmigration scheme, to put farmers to work in the southern peatlands of Kalimantan.
"At first it was very difficult," she said. "There were no roads, and the soil was very difficult. When you put a cigarette out on the ground, it would just burn. We had to work very hard to transform it into the agricultural land you see today."
Ratni and her neighbours say they still use fires to clear their land each year. But the peat forest round here has already been dried out by water channels, dug to drain the land for agriculture, or to transport timber, and fire spreads easily. Last year's blazes have left much of it blackened and sooty.
But one area of this forest is still green, and slim trees are beginning to fill out the landscape. This is the site of a pilot project by Pak Alim and his colleagues to rehydrate the peatlands.
He showed us a small dam, built to block one of the channels and keep the water in. "Since the dam was built," he said, "we're seeing more green here. Without it, the water level in the soil is very low and the area can't recover from the fires."
But he said, they had to be careful. "If we take drastic measures and flood the whole area, yes we might see more trees, but we'll also kill the local community be flooding their agricultural land," he explained.
"Before, the thick trees would keep the water in during the wet season, now it would flood in all directions."
The Indonesian government agrees that there is no simple solution for the peatlands. Agus Purnomo, a senior official at Indonesia's environment ministry, believes there are two major causes of the problem - big companies and local farmers.
For the big companies, the solution is to enforce the law, he said, and that is the easy part. "For the second problem, the issue we're confronting is poverty," he said. "To prevent people opening up peatlands for agriculture or whatever, we need to come up with development projects that directly benefit the local poor, and that is a challenge that has to be solved by the government as a whole."
People like Ratni may be one of the causes of the destruction, but they are also the first to feel its effects.
Each year, smog-like haze, caused by forest fires descends over this community for weeks at a time. It is bad for Ratni's breathing, and her crops. Rehydrating the peatlands nearby would help stop the fires - and the haze - but it could also put an end to Ratni's home and livelihood.
And it would limit the government's plans for expanding the country's bio-fuels industry.
Global demand for alternative forms of energy - such as palm oil - is putting pressure on Indonesia's shrinking carbon sinks as plantation companies vie for land. It is an irony that the global community will need to address if green energy is going to help stop climate change, rather than accelerate it.
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