Reading “Cinderella Story” In Peatlands Use For Oil Palm

Peatlands can still maintain ecological function and even increase it in degraded ones if they are sustainably used to cultivate oil palm plantations to get their economic and environmental benefits.  But apparently, many people have been trying to “hide” the potential by hyping the negative side through their subjective and biased environmental campaigns.

Supiandi Sabiham, a professor of land science with Bogor University of Agriculture (IPB), told participants of a webinar on maximizing oil palm productivity in peatlands organized by the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (Gapki) last week, said that the productivity of oil palm plantations in peatlands can be maximized by applying the right technology. “Even the oil palm plantations will improve the ecological quality of the degraded peatlands if the growers ensure to implement all principles of sustainability,” he told the webinar, which was moderated by Gapki’s Executive Director Mukti Sardjono.

Indonesia has around 15 million hectares of peatlands, mostly in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Of the total, around 4.0 million Ha used for industrial forests, agriculture and oil palm plantations, around 6.0 million hectares are degraded, and the rest still intact as peatland forests.

Supiandi said that in many certain areas growers, especially the smallholders, have no other choices but to use the peatlands as a means to improve their public welfare. There are also degraded peatlands in other areas that will see their ecological function improved after being used for cultivating the oil palm plantations as the oil palm trees can actually function like the trees in the forests.

“The key factors here are right management, discipline and compliance with sustainability principles,” Supiandi said, adding that the right management includes the good water management through a good system of drainage.

He said that in many European countries  pearlands have been used for agriculture during the last 300 years, or extracted for making planting media in gardening and biomass briquettes to generate power plants.

The Head of Agronomy of PT Abdi Budi Mulia, Syahril Pane told the webinar that what is important in cultivating oil palm in peatlands is the growers’ compliance with all principles of sustainability, including the compliance with the government’s prevailing regulations on the use of peatlands.

Syahril said that the problems usually faced by planters, such as the slanting oil palm trees, fires, and diseases, can be prevented by applying the best practices, which include water management system, right choice of seedlings, and other good cultivation practices.

He said that by implementing the sustainability principles, planters can maximize the productivity of oil palm plantations in peatlands. “In our case, we can reach oil palm productivity between 23 – 26 tons of FFB per hectare per year,” he added.

The Sarawak Tropical Peat Research Institute’s Director Lulie Melling, said in the webinar that 48 percent of the oil palm plantations in Sarawak, Malaysia, are developed on peatlands. The growers can maximize their productivity and prevent fires in peatlands by implementing the sustainability principles.

She said that Indonesia and Malaysia are highly dependent on the oil palm plantations. For Indonesia, the palm oil industry has become the largest contributor of foreign exchange and it is the source of livelihood for around 25 – 30 million Indonesians. “Malaysia has three times survived the economic crisis due to the oil palm plantations as a large number of smallholders also involve in the industry. So, as long as implementing the principles of sustainability, peatlands can be used for cultivating the oil palm plantations to improve our public welfare,” she said.

But she echoed what was stated by Gapki Chairman Joko Supriyono in his opening statement of the webinar, regarding the negative campaigns of certain green NGO groups against the oil palm plantations. “The negative environmental issues of the peatlands have been very often hyped by certain groups without trying to see the peatland issue objectively. But the government and all stakeholders have agreed on the sustainable peat management,” Joko said.

Lulie likened the growers’ oil palm cultivation in peatlands to the story of Cinderella. The classic Western fairy tale tells about  the jealousy of Cincerella’s stepmother and stepsisters who kept trying to hide the beauty of Cinderella from the King and the Prince. But they totally failed.

Seemingly, such is the fate of all the negative campaigns as many oil palm growers have proven them wrong. More and more growers have managed to “unlock the beauty and productivity” of oil palm cultivation in peatlands by implementing the sustainability principles. (*)

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