In the fall of 2015 an incredible 100,000 smoldering peatland fires turned Indonesia into a hazy hellscape, air thick with smoke and chemicals. More than 500,000 people were hospitalized with respiratory, eye and skin ailments. In addition to the $16-billion price tag the country catapulted from the sixth- to fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide.

Sweeping changes in land use over 20 years fueled the fires. In the 1990s authorities built thousands of kilometers of canals to drain saturated peat swamps and cut down 30-meter-tall tropical tree stands, primarily to generate land to greatly expand oil palm and pulpwood plantations. Previously deemed worthless, the acidic wetlands had evolved over millennia as vaults that could store vast amounts of carbon. But when peatlands dry, microbes churn out gobs of carbon dioxide as they readily consume the drying organic soil matter; the landscape also becomes very combustible, with fires emitting carbon into the air. Drained peatlands are responsible for 5 to 8 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions as well as 25 percent of those generated from land use.

The solution? Make the regions wet again. Alarmed by the vast changes, the Indonesian government in 2015 released an unprecedented—some say unrealistic—plan (pdf) to restore roughly 2.5 million hectares of dry peatlands by 2020. “The fires and haze were horrible, especially for children and elders. Nobody wants to have that again,” says Nazir Foead, head of the Peatlands Restoration Agency (BRG). The two-year-old entity was created to block off 250,000 kilometers of canals, so water levels below the surface can rise back up again to rewet the peat—and, intriguingly, to find alternative crops able to keep these lands productive.

In 2017 BRG rewet an unprecedented 200,000 hectares of land. “What Indonesia is doing is amazing,” says Hans Joosten, a peatland expert at the University of Greifswald in Germany. In the last year, he says, Indonesia has rewet more land “than has been achieved in Europe in its entire history.” Still, that is only 8 percent of the country’s larger goal.

Furthermore, the true linchpin of the plan is restoring livelihoods. Thousands of land-dependent communities live on the edges of peat systems, many having moved there only after areas were dried to expand plantations that grew oil palm, or acacia trees for pulpwood. As the fields are soaked to keep fires and carbon-releasing microbial activityat bay, the country must figure out how to farm these swamps—a novel form of cultivation called “paludiculture”—to give local communities income.

Unfortunately, it is not clear what sustainable paludiculture might look like. Compared with 10,000 years of traditional agriculture, paludiculture is quite new, Joosten says. Research conducted so far has occurred on temperate peatlands in northern Europe. Tropical bogs are a different ball game. For agriculture, they are the most complicated ecosystem on the planet, says Lahiru Wijedasa, a peatland ecologist at the National University of Singapore. “Everything—from the water table to pH to nutrient levels—is in flux compared to mineral soils,” he adds.

Indonesia, home to roughly 36 percent of the world’s tropical peatlands, is taking on a Herculean task: identify viable crops, develop new farming practices and establish novel markets—possibly for carbon itself. And it is in a race against time. Without alternative forms of cultivation these lands will continue to lose carbon, so much that they will sink. “As long as the carbon going out of the system is greater than that being accumulated, peatlands will continue to subside to sea level or river level,” Wijedasa says. “When this point is reached, no peatland agriculture will be possible.”

Indonesia cannot do it alone. In 2017 the government allocated about $35 million for peatland restoration, combined with roughly the same amount from international sources, Foead says, but he notes the nation will need double that amount, annually. Global investment and expertise as well as a vested interest in the fate of Indonesia’s peatlands are needed.

Block the Canals

Developers have already drained more than halfof the country’s peat swamps in  lowland regions of Sumatra and Kalimantan and converted them to industrial oil palm plantations or pulpwood plantations. To grow these monocultures, engineers lowered the water levels to at least 50 or 60 centimeters below the soil surface for oil palm and up to a meter underground for pulp species, notably acacia.

The dramatic conversion increased runoff and prevented groundwater recharge. Newly exposed streams contained up to 550 times the sediment and were 4 degrees Celsius warmer compared with those winding through intact peat swamps. Local communities reported greater water scarcity in the dry seasons and more frequent flooding in the wet seasons.

A peatland forest in Kampar, Indonesia, is cleared for a plantation to grow acacia for pulp wood. Credit: Ahmad Zamroni Getty Images

Although rewetting peatlands will prevent fires and reduce the loss of carbon, the country must overturn the belief that the main use of the lands is for plantations of oil palm and paper pulp trees, says Jack Rieley, a University of Nottingham ecologist who has studied tropical peatlands in Southeast Asia for 25 years.

More than a dozen disparate field trials are underway to identify economically viable crops that will grow in wet peat. Of the 1,376 plant species recorded in Southeast Asian peat swamps, 81 have been identified as promising crops by Wim Giesen, a Dutch wetland ecologist working for the U.K.–based development consultancy Mott MacDonald. At a field site in Jambi Province, Giesen’s team has just installed 60,000 seedlings, including Jelutung (Dyera polyphylla), which produces the latex used in chewing gum and has a higher return on labor than oil palm, and gelam (Melaleuca cajuputi), a species that can generate a range of diverse products, including medicinal oils, honey, biochar and, notably, pulpwood.

The Asia Pulp and Paper Co. is also researching gelam, among other species. No single wild gelam specimen harbors all the desirable characteristics, however. Just as there are different crop varieties bred to express specific traits, there is quite a bit of diversity within wild “varieties.” For example, even the most productive undomesticated species that can grow in fully wet swamps will likely offer, at most, 30 to 40 percent of what pulp acacia provides, a crop whose yields have been bolstered by decades of breeding, Giesen says. The hurdle, he says, is getting companies to move from something that is totally unsustainable in the long-term to something that produces less, initially, on the short term.

To that end, researchers are eager to find high-value crops that could help pay for the cost of restoration. Biofuel crops, the focus of field research conducted by the Bogor, Indonesia–based Center for International Forestry Research, are one option. Species such as an evergreen laurel (Calophyllum inophyllum) or the legume tree (Pongamia pinnataare promising for biofuels, the latter even as aviation fuel, says Himlal Baral, a scientist at the center.

There are additional concerns. It is unclear what kind of machinery could be used to plant and harvest crops on a large scale; the heavy equipment used in traditional agriculture will simply get stuck in the muck. Researchers are exploring how to reduce machine weight as well as the number of trips necessary to harvest soggy ground.

Nyoman Suryadiputra, director of Wetlands International–Indonesia, also worries many drained peatlands are already too degraded to farm. He says around 20 freshwater fish species may offer a more profitable, viable plan. Low spots that are already permanently flooded could serve as man-made lakes for aquaculture. Fish prices are higher than oil palm and do not require years to harvest, he notes.

Find the Best Crops

Water levels, not surprisingly, may be the biggest trick of restoration efforts, given peat’s unique hydrology. Peatlands consist of numerous domes—carbon-rich mounds that are meters thick, which rise between streams. The conservation priority is to keep the domes forested and saturated. One “peatland hydrologic unit,” however, consists of a dome as well as the associated shallow peat that extends to the bordering water bodies. The shallow peat is where paludiculture would be most appropriate. But an agricultural ditch in one part of a peatland hydrologic unit can have an impact even kilometers away, so the water level must be managed systemically.

BRG has prioritized restoration in 84 of almost 500 peatland hydrological units in Papua and six other provinces throughout Sumatra and Kalimantan affecting almost 1,000 villages, according to Foead. Current regulations maintain water levels at a minimum of 40 centimeters below the surface rather than the 50 or 60 favored by oil palm growers and 100 or more required by acacia producers. At best, that will reduce emissions by up to 50 percent and slow subsidence—worthwhile progress. But the top layer of peat, still dry, will continue to oxidize and emit carbon, Giesen says.

This kind of stepwise approach is the only way forward, however, Foead says. BRG must keep the water to a level that still allows pulp or palm oil to grow but decreases greenhouse gas emissions and subsidence. At 40 centimeters, BRG is walking a fine line between the conditions necessary to build more sustainable, budding economies and harming old ones.

Giesen agrees that a sudden, mandatory switch to fully rewetted systems growing only swamp-adapted crops would be doomed to fail in the face of expected pushback from agencies and plantation companies. “People have to have time to move away from business as usual,” he says. The current strategy, he cautions, should be seen as a transition step toward full rewetting. “[BRG’s] Nazir Foead has the hardest job on the planet,” Wijedasa says.

As water tables rise, the agency risks backlash from powerful oil palm and pulp plantations who fear lost productivity. Already, Indonesia’s parliament has listed a bill that offers tax breaks and protections to oil palm companies operating on peatlands as a priority for 2018. A much-criticized study from the University of Indonesia’s Institute for Economic and Social Research estimates the country’s peat-protection policies will result in $5.32 billion in losses, mainly from pulp and palm oil industries, over the next five years—much lower, however, than the 2015 tab for losses from fires: $15 billion.

Complicating matters, Indonesia’s past attempts to restore peatlands or convert them to agriculture have failed. In 1996 a plan to convert one million hectares of peatland in southern Kalimantan into a rice mega-operation dried the land just as a powerful El Niño event enhanced drought, ending in massive fires similar to those in 2015. A subsequent $37.7 million endeavor launched in 2007 by the Indonesia–Australia Forest Carbon Partnership to flood, restore and replant 25,000 hectares was abandoneddue to slow progress amid continued deforestation.

Large-scale endeavors, however, are needed to attract sizable investments, says Anna van Paddenburg, head of sustainable landscapes for the Global Green Growth Institute, which is advising the Indonesian government. The current levels of research, investment and market development are “not enough,” according to Joosten and van Paddenburg. Joosten says Western countries have a role to play. And Rieley says Indonesians do not have the peatland ecology or management expertise that has developed in Europe and North America over almost a century.

This past November the International Peat Society released the “Jakarta Declaration,” an agreement in which experts will offer advice, propose model pilot projects and, importantly, help establish carbon monitoring. “There has to be scientific monitoring in place, especially of greenhouse gas emissions, to prove that rewetting is, in fact, reducing them and by how much,” Rieley says. “The way to make a major step forward is through a carbon market—one that local people have ownership of,” he adds.

Placing a monetary value on carbon would be a game changer, says Dharsono Hartono, a former consultant and banker for PricewaterhouseCoopers and J.P. Morgan, who is now CEO of PT Rimba Makmur Utama, an Indonesia-based company that is developing the Katingan Project to protect one of the last intact peat swamp forests in central Kalimantan. Within Katingan’s 157,000 hectares, only 12,000 hectares are degraded this far. The project touches 34 villages, home to approximately 43,000 people. Over the last decade Hartono has learned how fragile the peat ecosystem is and how costly it will be to restore degraded lands.

The Katingan Project has yet to turn a profit. The project started, he says, as a very long bet on the eventuality of a carbon market. His team has so far trained communities to stop burning to clear farm fields, use cover crops that help maintain the soil and adopt agroforestry practices. He has sold some carbon credits on the global voluntary carbon markets. “More and more, companies are willing to look into our project and buy an offset, even though it’s not part of any compliance scheme,” Hartono says. “Ten years ago [this endeavor] was about new business opportunities and carbon credits. Now, it’s about people.”

For Indonesians, the choice is stark: value peatlands or lose them.