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NewsAsia 23 Feb 07
Indonesia's plan to revitalise peat land to have mixed results
By Channel NewsAsia's Indonesia Bureau Chief Sujadi Siswo
Jakarta's ambitious plan to revitalise a million hectares of destroyed peat land in Central Kalimantan will have mixed results, say conservationists.
The World Wildlife Fund believes that while peat fires will be reduced, it will be tough making the land suitable for rice production.
Indonesia has 17 million hectares of peat land, making it the country with the fourth largest concentration of such land in the world. The government believes most of this land can be developed for agricultural use and it has announced plans to revitalise a million hectares in Central Kalimantan.
The land had been destroyed in a failed farming programme in the 1990s. The attempt launched by former president Suharto had disastrous consequences - the drained peat land was not suitable for crops, emitted carbon dioxide, and easily caught fire during the annual dry season.
These fires are a main cause of the smoke that envelops Indonesia and its neighbours Singapore and Malaysia each year, resulting in health problems and economic losses of millions of dollars.
With US$5 million in funding from the Dutch government, the World Wildlife Fund and several conservation groups had successfully revitalised another portion of peat land in Kalimantan.
Nazir Foead, Director, World Wildlife Fund, said: "The canal was built to drain water from this peat land. If we can close the canal so the water accumulation starts again to some degree to a level to maintain the moisture of the peat including in the dry months, if we can reach that then the fire incidence will be much less."
The group is however sceptical about Jakarta's plan to use revitalised peat land for agriculture. Nazir Foead said: "The investment to turn peat land into productive rice fields will be very high - a lot of input like fertilisers. Also inputs to neutralise the PH - the peat is very acidic. I doubt that it will work long term - it might work only just for very short term."
Jakarta is preparing early for this year's dry spell, which is expected to last longer due to the El Nino phenomenon.
The programme to revitalise peat land in Central Kalimantan requires massive funding and is not expected to take place soon - definitely not before the next dry season due in 5 months' time.
The government is tapping regional and international expertise in its US$60 million plan to prevent forest fires.
Ong Keng Yong, ASEAN Secretary-General, said: "In Indonesia, it is not a question of lack of efforts. The question is how to coordinate across so many different agencies, so many different provinces and so many districts and villages."
A district in the province of Jambi in Sumatra is switching to zero-burning methods of land clearing with help from Singapore. - CNA/ch
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