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Opportunities and Challenges for Sustainable Rice Agriculture on Peatlands

Jun 23, 2020 by Eli Nur Nirmala SariBanner Image By : Sapariah Saturi/ Mongabay Indonesia

This article was previously published by Mongabay.co.id on June 22, 2020.

Pros and cons surround President Joko Widodo's suggestion to utilize the peatlands in Kalimantan for rice cultivation to prevent threats of a food crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The biggest concern is repeating the failure of the one million hectare peatland development project in 1995 which had drained a lot of funds but failed to significantly improve food supplies. On the other hand, wet peatlands that store a lot of carbon, which can prevent a climate crisis, are becoming damaged due to water drainage

Peatlands can be used for crop cultivation under certain conditions. First, the peatland must be located in a cultivation zone as stipulated in the Minister of Environment and Forestry Regulation Year 2017.

The utilization of abandoned shallow peatlands in the cultivation zone can add economic value while protecting peatlands from damage. Second, crop cultivation practices must comply with peat-friendly principles, namely by not damaging the ecology of peat by avoiding water drainage, not burning peatland, and not polluting the environment. Although farming on peatland is possible under certain conditions, it is not without challenges.

From a social aspect, people in peat areas have a habit of preparing land by burning before planting rice. The burning method was chosen because it is practical, inexpensive, and is believed to be a way to improve soil fertility. For example, peatlands are usually overgrown with dense undergrowth which requires extra effort to clear. All vegetation can quickly be cleared by burning. However, this burning culture produces large amounts of carbon emission, and repeated burning will result in peat loss.

Behavior change, from burning to not burning, cannot be easily achieved due to lack of capacity in terms of science, expertise, or method.

The main challenge of planting rice on peatlands is water supply. Canals have been built in many peatlands to drain peat for a monoculture plantation, e.g. oil palm. Droughts will occur during the dry season and it would not be ideal for planting rice.

Opportunities and Challenges

Several agricultural opportunities can be explored in peatlands. First, agricultural practices shall be carried out in accordance with sustainable peatland management principles. Namely, by not burning and not draining peat. Land clearing can be done manually, i.e. by cutting vegetation using a machete and not using heavy equipment (excavators).

Excavators will damage peat because the surface will be eroded. Manual land clearing can be done more carefully without eroding the peat surface layer, although this method takes longer.

To make the land conducive for cultivation, options can be made by administering biological fertilizers and soil fertilizers. In 2017, a community group in Sebangau Jaya Village, Sebangau Kuala Sub-District, Pulang Pisau District, Central Kalimantan attempted to grow rice in one hectare of shallow peat by implementing manual land clearing and administering biological fertilizers. A cultivation cycle consists of 102 days, starting from building the nursery to harvesting.

This pilot produced 4.5 tonnes of dry grain per hectare, higher than cultivation by burning, which based on information from the community only produces at most 2.5 tonnes of dry grain per hectare.

After the pilot, the villagers independently carried out their agricultural practices. The result was 10 hectares of independent rice cultivation within two years, achieved without burning. This example indicates that the community needs to be equipped with sufficient knowledge and skills in sustainable agriculture.

Second, from an ecological perspective, the recommended peat depth for rice cultivation is shallow peat (less than one meter) as it poses a lower environmental risk and has a relatively higher fertility rate.

Peatland with a depth of more than one meter is not recommended for rice cultivation, but shall instead be utilized for restoration purposes by planting native trees. The planting of native trees shall be supported by peat re-wetting to restore the peatland to near-natural conditions.

Third, the water level of peat must be maintained at all times to avoid peat drainage due to agriculture practices. In peat areas, canal blocking is important for peat re-wetting and for ensuring sufficient water supply for agriculture.

Fourth, selection of suitable rice varieties that can grow well in wet or inundated peat is crucial to ensure that the peat remains wet. Peat drainage can be avoided by choosing swamp rice varieties, such as Impara 3. Swamp rice rotation takes about 3-4 months, hence three rotations can be optimized throughout the year as long as there is sufficient water supply.

Opportunities for sustainable agriculture on peatlands are available but it requires synergy and cooperation between the relevant institutions and ministries.

The Ministry of Public Works and Public Housing plays an important role in building canal blocks for irrigation. The Ministry of Agriculture plays a role in transferring peat-friendly or wet farming methods on shallow peatlands to potential partner communities. Technical guidance and supervision, counseling, and the provision of infrastructure and facilities will also be required.

Peatlands, when utilized appropriately and carefully, can be used for agriculture to increase food supply without exacerbating the current climate crisis.

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