Pangkalan Kerinci, Indonesia (AFP) Nov 23, 2007
Viewed from the air, the vast, cool forests of the Kampar peninsula on Indonesia's Sumatra island are a world away from China's belching factories or America's clogged freeways.
But appearances can be deceptive.
Most of this 400,000-hectare (988,000-acre) peninsula is peatland: dense, swampy forest that, when healthy, efficiently soaks up greenhouse gases from the world's worst polluters.
When drained, cleared or burned, however, this wilderness transforms into one of the worst climate vandals, releasing six to nine times the amount of carbon stored in regular equatorial forests.
Swamps have not traditionally held the same ecological sex appeal as, say, doe-eyed wildlife. But as nations prepare for a major global conference on climate change in Indonesia in December, the world's focus is changing.
The December 3-14 UN summit on the resort island of Bali will see international delegates thrash out a framework for negotiations on a global regime to combat climate change when the current phase of the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012.
A 2007 figure from the Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry Research puts deforestation at around 25 percent of all man-made carbon dioxide emissions.
Avoiding emissions from deforestation has so far been left out of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which focuses instead on reducing emissions from sources such as industry and transport.
Widespread deforestation has made Indonesia the third largest emitter of carbon in the world, the contribution coming most dramatically in the form of near-annual forest fires on islands such as Sumatra and Borneo.
The fires, which send choking smoke as far as Singapore and Malaysia, are for the most part caused by the clearing of peatlands.
And the destruction of Indonesia's peatlands accounts for four percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to Greenpeace.
-- 'If the peat is dry, it's impossible to make it wet' --
Peatlands are not just a threat when they are burning. A flight over Kampar reveals scars of cleared land gouged from the forest, linked with canals built to transport legal and illegal logs to inland mills.
Much of the carbon released from peatland swamps is the result of draining so the land, or the logs, can be used, says Jonotoro, a peatlands expert at the forestry ministry and an independent consultant.
As the water level drops, more and more of the stock of carbon is released into the atmosphere.
In clear-cut areas, the temperature can rise dramatically in the dry months between July and September to around 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit), up from a usual cool average of 28 degrees.
"If the peat is already dry it's impossible to make it wet," Jonotoro said.
Peatland is made up of a waterlogged store of semi-decomposed vegetation, which squelches underfoot. The deeper the peatland -- it can stretch to a depth of more than 15 metres (almost 50 feet) -- the more carbon it holds.
If set on fire, dry peatland can burn for weeks -- the fire can be extinguished on the surface, only to continue burning underground and reappear the next day.
In Indonesia, the main driver for the destruction of peatlands is the world's appetite for wood, pulp and palm oil.
The best place for plantations is dry land, but as the rush for Indonesia's last wildernesses continues to turn much of the countryside into a landscape of industrial uniformity, any land will do.
-- Happy hunting grounds for illegal loggers --
At the western end of Kampar sits Pangkalan Kerinci, home of a massive pulp and paper mill belonging to Asia Pacific Resources International (April).
The mill -- and the manicured company town that surrounds it -- is the nerve centre of a sprawling acacia plantation, much of which is on peatland.
April is keen to boost its environmental credentials, running a tagging system to prevent illegal logging. Two of its security guards were killed in a 2002 confrontation with illegal loggers.
Still, seven of April's partner companies are under investigation for illegally cutting forests.
A cornerstone of April's green efforts is water management in its peatland plantations. At its nearby Pelalawan plantation, a 1,100-kilometre (684-mile) network of canals regulates water levels over 100,000 hectares of planted forest.
The goal of the management is to reduce emissions from the peatland beneath, explained Jouko Virta, head of April's global fibre supply. By keeping the water table at the highest level tolerated by the plantation trees, Virta says carbon dioxide emissions from the peatland can be reduced by 80 percent.
The company is now pursuing an audacious plan to push into Kampar, converting more than 100,000 hectares around the peninsula's perimeter into more plantations, while leaving the centre untouched.
April says the move will reduce carbon emissions, since much of this perimeter is already heavily degraded, either by illegal loggers or old concessionaires.
By installing their own plantations and managing them responsibly, they believe they will keep illegal loggers from penetrating further inland.
"National parks are the happiest hunting grounds for illegal loggers, and the only way you can protect them is by building barriers," Virta told AFP.
WWF reserved judgement on April's plan, saying they needed to see evidence that the Kampar ring is really as degraded as the company says, and that emissions can actually be reined in as much as they say.
"I think we need to see the scientific analysis," said Nazir Foead, WWF's policy and corporate engagement director, adding that the organisation was aiming to complete its own analysis by December's Bali meeting.
Consultant Jonotoro is unconvinced by April's optimism and said acacia plantations will never be a success on Kampar's nutrient-poor peatland.
"The main point of why they chose this area is because they need natural timber, big hardwood timber" for their mills, he said, referring to their legal practice of felling and processing the trees from their concessions before planting.
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