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Why Should We Conserve Southeast Asia’s Peat Swamp Forests?

Guest Bogger

David S. Wilcove, Professor & Xingli Giam, Ph.D. candidate
Princeton University

Princeton, New Jersey

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A fetid swamp filled with dangerous animals and diseases.  A vast expanse of muck serving no useful purpose.  A century ago, that was the way people viewed the Everglades in the United States, and they went about ditching and draining this amazing wetland until much of it had been converted to “useful” cropland and pastures, and the wildlife had been decimated. 

Decades later, we realized that, far from being a wasteland, the Everglades were actually one of the nation’s premier wildlife habitats, as well as an important nursery for the productive fisheries of the Gulf of Mexico.  Today, the U.S. and the state of Florida are committed to spending billions of dollars in an uphill struggle to revive and restore this remarkable ecosystem.

Joni Mitchell was right: Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?

Learning from our mistakes

Peat swamp forests are being converted into industrial pulpwood plantations (this photo) and oil palm plantations in Sumatra and other parts of Southeast Asia. There is a clear difference in structure between the Acacia monoculture plantation (grown for pulpwood) in the background and intact peat swamp forest in the foreground. Photo: Xingli Giam.

Peat swamp forests are being converted into industrial pulpwood plantations and oil palm plantations in Sumatra and other parts of Southeast Asia. There is a clear difference in structure between the Acacia monoculture plantation (grown for pulpwood) in the background and intact peat swamp forest in the foreground. Photo: Xingli Giam.

Sadly, a similar sequence of events is now unfolding on the other side of the world, in an ecosystem that few people know about and even fewer have visited: the peat swamp forests of Southeast Asia. To many people, these peat swamp forests are nothing more than a barrier to progress, inhospitable environments full of thorny plants, chest-high muck, and mosquitoes.

Unloved and unappreciated, the peat swamp forests are being turned into profitable oil palm and pulpwood plantations at an astounding rate. At least 64% of the region’s peat swamp forests have already been destroyed, and the remainder are disappearing at the rate of 3.7% per year, making this one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems.

Yet the more scientists learn about the peat swamp, the more apparent it becomes that Indonesia and Malaysia are repeating the same tragic mistake America made with the Everglades. They now understand that an immense amount of carbon is sequestered within the deep peat; once the trees are stripped away and the peat is drained, this carbon is “released” by microorganisms that can now metabolize it more quickly.

By some calculations, the decomposition of peat after the conversion of these forests has alone emitted 81 million metric tonnes of carbon per year over the last 2 decades or so. Carbon losses due to the removal of trees would further increase this figure. To put this in perspective, this equals the carbon emissions from 78 million passenger vehicles in the US each year.

Protecting unique biodiversity

The second author (Xingli Giam) sampling fish from a pool against the background of large and spiny Pandanus stand in an intact peat swamp forest in Brunei Darussalam. Photo: Chow Khoon Yeo

The second author (Xingli Giam) sampling fish from a pool against the background of large and spiny Pandanus stand in an intact peat swamp forest in Brunei Darussalam. Photo: Chow Khoon Yeo

Equally important, these peat swamp forests harbor a rich assortment of plants and animals, including many species that occur nowhere else. While the endangered Sumatran orangutan is surely the most charismatic inhabitant of the peat swamp forests, our focus is on the fish. Only relatively recently have scientists discovered that the peat swamp forests are filled with rare and localized fish: brightly colored fighting fishes, gouramis, barbs, and loaches, obscure catfish, peculiar half-beaks, and even the smallest fish in the world. They hide in the streams and pools and under logs and leaves, and may even swim through the peat itself.

We now know that almost every basin has its own unique assemblage of fishes and the conversion and drainage of peat swamp forests may result in their global extinction. Aquarium enthusiasts covet these strange and wonderful fish, and we can envision a time when rural Indonesians will be able to earn a little money by harvesting them in a sustainable way for the pet trade.

More importantly, we see an opportunity to tackle fundamental questions in biology by studying these fish: How did so many species evolve within the peat swamp forests? How do the different species get along with each other, and how do they manage to thrive in the acidic, nutrient-poor waters of the peat swamp? What roles do they play in the functioning of the peat swamp ecosystem?

Paedocypris progenetica – the world’s smallest fish – lives in the peat swamp forests of Sumatra, Indonesia and was only described by ichthyologists Maurice Kottelat, Ralf Britz, Heok Hui Tan, and Kai-Erik Witte in 2006 . The smallest mature female is only 7.9mm long.  Photo kindly contributed by Heok Hui Tan.

Paedocypris progenetica – the world’s smallest fish – lives in the peat swamp forests of Sumatra, Indonesia and was only described by ichthyologists in 2006 . The smallest mature female is only 7.9mm long. Photo contributed by Heok Hui Tan.

Of course, answering these questions and more (many of which have yet to be thought of) will require that there still be intact and healthy peat swamp forests around in the future. To this end, we urge the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia plus the major oil palm and pulpwood plantation companies to cease further conversion of peat swamp forests to oil palm and pulpwood plantations. There is no reason for these countries to repeat the tragic mistake the U.S. made with the Everglades.

Posted in: Global Warming, Tropical Forests Tags: , , , , , , ,

About the author: David S. Wilcove is Professor of Public Affairs and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the Woodrow Wilson School in Princeton University. He combines ecology, economics and policy research to find workable solutions to challenging conservation issues. David is a member of the Science Network. Xingli Giam is a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. His research aims to understand how land-use change impacts freshwater ecosystems in Southeast Asia and how we can mitigate or mediate these impacts.

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  • Lael Goodman

    I think your comparison of these peat swamp forests with the Everglades is very apt. It is stunning to think about the change in attitude towards the Everglades, from being reviled to appreciated. We can only hope that this transitioning viewpoint happens faster for these Southeast Asian ecosystems. Thanks for helping to spread the word.

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