The Facts About Peat Soils in Sarawak, Malaysia

March 4, 2014 | 1:10 pm
Calen May-Tobin
Former contributor

As you may have seen, there has been a lot of news from the palm oil industry in recent months, with companies like Hershey’s, L’Oréal, Kellogg’s, and Unilever committing to source deforestation- and peat-free palm oil.  But it’s the announcement by Wilmar, the largest trader (and one of the largest producers) of palm oil, that is likely to have the greatest impact on the palm oil industry.

Wilmar’s “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation Policy” requires that all of the palm oil it produces and trades is free of deforestation, peatland destruction, and exploitation. However, not everyone is enthusiastic about Wilmar’s announcement and particularly its peatland protections.

I asked my colleague, Lael Goodman, an analyst with the Tropical Forest Team and our resident peat expert, to explain the situation. Here’s what she had to say:

Wilmar’s announcement had three main points relating to peat soils.

  1. Wilmar will not buy palm oil from plantations that have been established on peat soils of any depth after its December 5 announcement.
  2. Wilmar will continue to buy palm oil from plantations that were established on peat soils prior to December 5, 2013. However, these plantations must follow a certain set of best practices guidelines by the end of 2015.
  3. Wilmar will explore options for peatland restoration in some areas.
Sarawak peat

The peat swamp forests of Sarawak are being cut down to make way for oil palm plantations, releasing thousands of years of stored carbon into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases. Photo: flickr/Wakx.

One of the most vocal groups concerned with these new policies is the Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owner’s Association (SOPPOA), which represents oil palm plantation owners in the Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. Sarawak is rich in peat soils, so this new policy could have real implications for where oil palm plantations can expand in that state.

The SOPPOA is making claims that currently there are no credible scientific studies to justify the policy of ‘No Peat’ planting because all planters in the Sarawak adhere to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board’s Best Management practices for planting on peat, which they claim are scientifically sound and sustainable. Additionally, in a newspaper article, a SOPPOA spokesperson is quoted as saying that there is not a scientific consensus that peat has either high carbon stock or releases high levels of carbon dioxide. All of these statements are scientifically untrue.

Peat soils contain high levels of carbon

Tropical peat is formed when vegetation, such as dead branches or leaves, does not decompose fully, storing carbon in dead organic matter. High water tables in peatlands limit the amount of oxygen that reaches the organic material. In total, Malaysia alone is estimated to have 9 Gt of carbon contained in its peatlands.

Draining peat soils releases carbon dioxide

While high water tables are responsible for preventing the organic material from decaying, the flipside is that when these peat soils are drained, they are again exposed to oxygen.

As organic material decays, the embodied carbon, much of which has been building for thousands of years, is released as carbon dioxide. While intact peatlands also emit carbon dioxide, it has been shown that disturbed peatlands lose carbon not only from the upper levels of soil and from plant growth, but also the carbon that has been stored in the soil for centuries. And many studies (like this one) have shown that planting oil palm on peat soils leads to carbon dioxide emissions.

If all the carbon in Malaysian peat soils were to be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it would be equivalent to the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 2008-2012.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) guidelines for oil palm cultivation do little to protect peatlands

In its introduction, these guidelines make the point that, “It is the prerogative of any government to develop its land resources for the socio-economic benefit of its people.” However, it does not then necessarily follow that these practices are, as stated previously, “scientifically sound and sustainable.”

peat worker

A worker carries an oil palm sapling onto smoldering peatlands in the Indonesian province of Sumatra. Drained peat soils are particularly flammable, and peat fires can burn for weeks or even months. Photo: Paul Hilton Photography

By far the largest problem is that these guidelines do not take into account the enormous importance, both in terms of carbon and biodiversity, of these lands. Other than recommending that a survey “study” the biodiversity, hydrology, peat soil characteristics, potential yield, and social impact on local communities, there is very little on which areas of land should be left undeveloped.

The only explicit guidance is that it is recommended that the “top part of the peat dome be not developed, but kept as a high conservation value forest and water catchment area.” This shows a lack of understanding of the hydrology of peat domes. Peat domes are sensitive ecosystems, such that changes (e.g. draining for agriculture) in one part of the dome could have cascading effects elsewhere.

The MPOB guidelines also allow for controlled fires. However, drained tropical peat soils are extremely flammable and in the past have gotten out of control, causing fires that have raged for months, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere and causing health concerns. During particularly dry years, such as 1997, fires burning peat and vegetation in Indonesia released an amount of carbon equivalent to 13 to 40 percent of mean global carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Just this year, it has been reported that there have been more than 7,000 bush and peat fires in Malaysia since the beginning of February.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Board states that Sarawak has about 1.6 million hectares of peatlands. By the early 2000s, Sarawak had already lost about 100,000 ha (~247,000 acres) of peatlands to oil palm plantations. It is estimated that only 10 percent of peatlands from Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo, and Sumatra are either intact or only slightly degraded.

Wilmar’s peat-free palm oil policy does not mean it will stop sourcing palm oil from Sarawak, but rather that it recognizes that peatlands are a valuable resource to be protected. Around 71 percent of oil palm plantations in Sarawak are located on non-peat soils, so Wilmar can continue to source from those plantations. Further, Wilmar’s policy doesn’t prohibit it from sourcing from the 29 percent of palm plantations currently established on peat, only that those plantations use best management practices to reduce carbon emissions and environmental damage.