Peat bog destruction highlights major flaw in Kyoto Protocol
The destruction of peat bogs in Indonesia, partly to grow supposedly 'green' biofuels, releases more carbon dioxide every year than India or Russia and three times as much as Germany.
During the summer dry season, when fires lit to clear the jungle for palm oil plantations sweep the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, the peat bogs can burn for months.
According to recent research by Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, 'the emissions in 1997 alone', which was a particularly bad year, 'were estimated to have reached 40 per cent of global
When the destruction of peat bogs is taken into account, Indonesia rises from 21st position to become the world's third-worst greenhouse gas polluter.
As the dry season gets under way, environmentalists in Central Borneo are waiting to see how bad this year will be. Last year, smoke covered much of Indonesia and Malaysia.
In Central Borneo 'it was impossible to see from one side of the road to the other', said Nordin, of the Save Our Borneo Campaign, who uses only one name. Everything was covered in ash. A third of local children have respiratory diseases.
Peat is made up of ancient plant material which never decomposed fully due to wet conditions forming a carbon bank which continues to slowly store more carbon under natural conditions.
According to Wetlands International, a conservation group, the world's peat lands hold enough carbon for two thousand million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to 70 years of global emissions at current levels. Nearly half of it is in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and Indonesia. Burning the peat is only the most dramatic and rapid way in which the carbon is released.
Alue Dohong, who runs Wetlands International's operation in Central Borneo, says peat is like a sponge. When canals are cut through the bogs to drain them for agriculture the water rapidly flows out, drying the peat and making it flammable. But even if the peat doesn't burn, the carbon is oxidised and escapes into the atmosphere, releasing the same greenhouse gases more slowly. The earth shrinks, collapses and blows away.
Every square kilometre of drying peat produces an average of 8,600 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year through oxidisation alone.
One of the biggest environmental disasters on Borneo is the Mega Rice project, a 10,000-sq km area of former peat bog once covered with tropical forest that was felled, drained and burned by former Indonesian president Suharto for rice cultivation in the mid-1990s.
A tight grid of canals was cut through the area, destroying the peat, but rice never grew here. Suharto had ignored advice that the crop would fail in acidic soil.
'Who dared challenge Suharto at that time?' said Mr Dohong.
Today, the devastated area is strewn with the burned remains of trees and dusty soil. Ronald Vernimmen, a consultant from the Dutch engineering firm Delft Hydraulics, meanders down one of the canals in a motorised canoe.
He is involved in a survey to design a system of about 200 dams to prevent water seepage. Each one costs only about US$800 but, so far, just 12 have been built. Although the dry season is the best time for dam building, construction has stopped for lack of funds.
Although the existing degradation of peat lands in Borneo is alarming, there is economic pressure for even more bogs to be drained. Indonesia and Malaysia, which rule most of this giant island, are the world's top producers of palm oil, which is in growing demand for use in bio-diesel.
According to Wetlands International, each country grows about a quarter of its palm oil on peat lands. For the crop to flourish the land must be drained, resulting in carbon emissions that far outweigh any supposed environmental benefit.
In the Mega Rice area, which conservationists want to flood to preserve the peat, the district government has drawn up plans to plant 1,140 sq km of oil palms.
In all, Indonesia has allocated more than 100,000 sq km of Borneo for palm oil plantations by 2010. But campaigners say the official data is too opaque to know how much of this will be on peat land.
Ketut Sudiatmaja, the manager of a palm oil plantation, denied that his industry had any environmental responsibilities.
Moses Nicodemus, the director of environmental management for the Central Borneo provincial government, said he did not have data about palm oil plantations on peat bogs, and insisted that it was government policy to make the island 'the lungs of the world'.
It is also Indonesian government policy to surpass Malaysia to become the world's biggest palm oil producer, a goal it expects to achieve this year. The industry is booming, sparking mergers and takeovers among growers. Palm oil futures on the Malaysian exchange hit a record high of US$798 a tonne in June.
Supporting this growth is a guaranteed rise in demand for palm oil to make bio-diesel. European Union legislation requires that 2 per cent of all diesel must be vegetable oil, rising to 5.7 per cent in 2010 and 10 per cent by 2020. Elsewhere, governments including the US are promoting bio-fuels.
Palm oil is used in many products besides fuel, from food and toothpaste to shampoo. 'The world is thirsty for palm oil,' said environmentalist Hardi Baktiantoro from the Centre for Orangutan Protection. 'Who doesn't need palm oil for food and cosmetics? I think everyone does.'
Under the Kyoto Protocol, which set up carbon trading mechanisms to help limit greenhouse gas emissions, carbon released into the atmosphere through the destruction of forests and peat bogs is not included.
Environmentalists are pinning their hopes on a major UN climate conference in Bali in December. There is growing pressure, including from some governments, for a new carbon trading system to take account of carbon stored in peat and forests, thus creating an economic incentive to preserve them.