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
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
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?
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.