By Joe Lo
The burning Amazon rainforests, with their jaguars, monkeys and colorful birds, have grabbed global attention in a way the destruction of the world's mossy peatlands never has.
Peatlands, also known as bogs, are created when the remains of plants are submerged in waterlogged lands, turning them over time into peat with the plants' carbon still stored inside. They cover around 3% of the world's land and are found in 175 countries, mostly in northern Europe, North America and Southeast Asia.
Scotland has a particularly high coverage, with bogs amounting to 20% of its land (roughly 1.7 million hectares) mainly in its lesser-populated north and western islands.
Decades of Degradation
However, the Scottish government estimates that roughly a third of the country's total — roughly 600,000 hectares — have been degraded. Scotland's peatlands, created mostly in areas left water-logged from the melting of Ice Age glaciers, lay untouched for thousands of years until farmers began to drain the land, building ditches so the water would run downhill into rivers.
While such ditches date back to Roman times in parts of Britain, their building intensified in Scotland in the 1950s with the advent of new machinery and government grants aimed at improving grazing.
Peatlands in Scotland cover roughly 20% of its land.
Without the bogs' acidic water there to preserve them, the dead plants in the peat start to degrade, releasing their carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. The degradation is sped up by the sun and wind they are exposed to without their water coverage.
To correct past mistakes, landowners are being offered grants by the Scottish government to block the drainage ditches their predecessors were encouraged to dig. A total of €16.3 million ($18 million) has been made available this year. The hope is that 50,000 hectares will have been restored by the end of 2020, and 250,000 hectares by 2030.
The restoration happens in two ways according to Andrew McBride, who works for Scottish Natural Heritage, the government agency responsible for handing out grants. It can either involve a ditch being filled in with peat from nearby, or a wooden dam being built inside the ditch to slow down the loss of water and spread it across the bog.
When the ditches are blocked, rainwater increases the water level, erosion stops and within two years, plants such as moss return. Within five to fifteen years, the bogs are back to fully functioning, McBride said.
Speed Is Key
"We want to do things as quickly as possible," he told DW, "because obviously there's a climate emergency."
McBride says that landowners are often keen for restoration on their property as the farming benefits of drainage were not as great as previously thought. It only really improved the land right next to the bog, he says, adding that the drainage of ditches cause its own problems. On large estates, wandering sheep often fall into the ditches and can't get out.
Peatlands can store up to twice as much carbon as forests.
Scotland is also trying to restore bogs by cutting down trees. In the 1980s, the UK government introduced tax incentives encouraging landowners to drain bogs to plant trees. This was a double hit — first drainage dried the land and then the trees sucked out even more of the moisture.
Although the trees absorbed carbon as they grew, that didn't cancel out the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by the peatlands' destruction.
Protests from conservationists eventually ended the tax incentives and now even the Scottish government agency Forestry and Land Scotland is aiming to transform 2,500 hectares of forest back into peatland over five years.
Sheep and deer that eat and trample the plants are the third major threat to peat bogs. With natural predators such as wolves and lynx, long exterminated, deer have overrun much of Scotland, damaging many of its ecosystems. To try and control their numbers, deer management groups have been set up across Scotland.
The groups are set up by neighboring landowners who work to keep deer numbers down, mainly by shooting the older animals. "Increasingly, deer management groups are expected to coordinate peatland projects and woodland extension projects as a contribution to the climate change agenda," said Richard Cooke, chair of the Association of Deer Management Groups.
Firefighters dealing with peatland fire in Indonesia earlier this year.
In April 2019, Scotland declared a 'climate emergency' and its government aims to reach 'net zero' emissions by 2045. Emissions from peatlands are not currently included in the UK's official estimates but they will be in the future so unless they are restored, reducing Scotland's emissions will be much harder.
Bogs across the world, and particularly in Europe, face similar problems to Scotland. Hans Joosten, a leading researcher on peat bogs, told DW about half those in Europe have been drained, particularly in the densely populated western, central and southern regions.
Across the world, countries are trying to restore their bogs like Scotland. In South Africa, conservation has been combined with poverty relief as the government's €56.6 ($63 million) 'working for wetlands' program has created 15,000 jobs in rewetting and controlling the erosion of 20 bogs.
Restoring peatlands is key to reaching Scotland's climate targets.
While there has been no major new drainage in Europe since 1990, it continues elsewhere. Malaysia and Indonesia now account for half of the world's peatland emissions. Their tropical bogs have been drained so that products like palm oil can be grown, leading to frequent wildfires. In Uganda and Peru's Western Amazonia, peatlands are also increasingly being drained for agriculture.
Joosten dedicates his life to restoring bogs but is keen to emphasize that natural solutions will only ever be part of the solution to climate change. "Peatlands are not going to save the world," he said. "We have to reduce our emissions ourselves, that will never be compensated by peatlands or by other ecosystems."
Reposted with permission from our media associate DW.
By Hidayah Hamzah, Reidinar Juliane, Tjokorda Nirarta "Koni" Samadhi and Arief Wijaya
In the midst of the second-worst year for tropical tree cover loss in 2017, Indonesia saw an encouraging sign: a 60 percent drop in tree cover loss in primary forests compared with 2016. That's the difference in carbon dioxide emissions from primary forest loss equivalent to 0.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide, or about the same emissions released from burning over 199 billion pounds of coal.
New data from the University of Maryland, released on Global Forest Watch, calculated tree cover loss—defined as the loss of any trees, regardless of cause or type, from tropical rainforest to tree plantation—within Indonesia's primary forest and protected peatland. The decline in tree cover loss in Indonesia was at odds with other countries' experiences last year, with record-high loss of tree cover in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the second-highest level in Brazil, a spike in Colombia and forest disruption caused by storms in the Caribbean.
The decrease in Indonesia's tree cover loss is likely due in part to the national peat drainage moratorium, in effect since 2016. Primary forest loss in protected peat areas went down by 88 percent between 2016 and 2017, to the lowest level ever recorded. Additionally, 2017 was a non-El Niño year, which brought wetter conditions and fewer fires compared to past years. Educational campaigns and increased enforcement of forest laws from local police have also helped prevent land-clearing by fire.
Kalimantan and Sumatra experienced the largest reduction in primary forest loss between 2016 and 2017 by 68 percent and 51 percent respectively, with the largest reduction seen in South Sumatra, Central Kalimantan and Jambi. On the other hand, West Sumatra and North Sumatra saw an increase in forest cover loss.
Protecting Indonesia's Peatlands
Protected peat areas, made up of over 3-meters (10-foot) deep carbon-rich organic soil, covered 12.2 million hectares (30 million acres), half of Indonesia's peatland hydrological area. The avoided emission from peat decomposition and peat conversion is equivalent to emission from burning 630 billion pounds of coal. Provinces with the greatest decrease of forest cover loss in protected peat areas are Central Kalimantan, Jambi and South Sumatra, provinces which experienced worst fires in 2015.
Such decrease may be partially driven by a longer wet season in 2017, resulting in fewer fires in peat and avoiding the 2015 fires crisis from happening again. However, the decrease also coincides with a number of government actions to curb land clearing in peatland and forests.
First, Indonesia's president established the Peatland Restoration Agency, tasked to coordinate the restoration of 2.4 million hectares (5.9 million acres) of peatland in Indonesia. Second, the government issued a regulation to ensure a suitable water level in peatland and ban all new land clearing and canal building on peatland, even in existing concession areas. Sub-national elections, which took place in June, may have also contributed to less peatland and forest fires as local politicians have greater incentive to prevent fires. This year's Asian Games, to be hosted in both Jakarta and Palembang (the capital of South Sumatra) in August, has also driven the government to intensify efforts to prevent the burning of forests and peatland.
Despite this progress, threats remain. Companies secured concession permits in large areas of protected peatland before recent protection efforts. More than a quarter of the 12.2 million hectares (30 million acres) of protected peatland has already got concession areas, dominated by pulpwood and palm oil plantations, or has the potential to be converted to plantations or agriculture.
To this end, the government issued a land swap program that obliges companies whose concessions contain at least 40 percent of protected peatland to protect and restore those areas of their concessions. In exchange, the government will compensate them with land elsewhere. The plan drew criticism from civil society organizations, which voiced concerns that more forests could be opened without clear and transparent data and land criteria, and from companies concerned that the regulations would be bad for business.
How Can Indonesia Leverage This Momentum?
First, international support for emissions reduction and green growth must be further strengthened, with this year's international climate meeting in Poland as a venue for all countries to evaluate and log a more ambitious emission reduction target. Indonesia's significant decrease in deforestation allows it to launch a more ambitious emissions reduction target and contribute to the global effort in raising ambition.
Second, sub-national governments need more political support for sustainable development. There is already evidence that this is on the rise in Indonesia, with the introduction of Lingkar Temu Kabupaten Lestari (sustainable district platforms) and green growth programs in South Sumatra and East Kalimantan.
Third, monitoring deforestation can be a valuable tool. Spatial data tools such as Global Forest Watch provide tree cover loss alerts in near real time, enabling the government and public to prevent the clearing of protected peat areas and forests. In Peru, weekly deforestation alerts help identify forest encroachment and construction of illegal logging roads in the Peruvian Amazon.
In Indonesia, monitoring government commitment to peatland protection is also part of the public's responsibility to ensure a healthy environment. Pantau Gambut, an Indonesian civil society coalition platform that provides information on the commitments from government, public, and companies, enables public to ask stakeholders to fulfill their pledges.
Finally, as a variation on the land swap, proposing a 'new scheme' of concessions by converting existing license on peatland into ecosystem restoration concessions could better meet the needs of all stakeholders, if it has a firm legal foundation and support from green business incentives.
If Indonesia keeps strengthening its forest protection and climate action, 2018 could be another promising year for Indonesia's primary forests, even when the dry season returns and the Asian Games are over.
Dora Hutajulu contributed to the analysis for this post.
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.