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February 1, 2011

Vanishing wetlands

WE are losing our peatlands. As vast areas of peat swamp forest continue to be cleared, razed and drained, little of Malaysia’s peatlands remain intact.

Only one-fifth (470,303ha) of the country’s peat soil areas are still relatively undisturbed with a forest canopy cover of over 70%, according to the report A Quick Scan Of Peatlands In Malaysia released last year by conservation group Wetlands International.

“No example of a hydrologically intact peat dome remains anywhere in Malaysia. Given that peat swamp forest ecosystems are dependent on maintenance of the intricate balance between hydrology, vegetation and soil, this renders peat swamp forest the most threatened ecosystem in Malaysia,” said the report.

As the forest disappears, so do its inhabitants. We lost a rare tree species, Croton macrocarpus, so far found only at the Telok forest reserve near Klang, when the whole peat swamp forest was cultivated.

Agriculture has taken over 36% of the country’s peat soil areas: 281,652ha in Peninsular Malaysia, 38,457ha in Sabah and 554,775ha in Sarawak.

In 2002, oil palm was planted on 72% of the 281,652ha of cultivated peatlands in Peninsular Malaysia. The greatest expansion of oil palm plantations on peat soils has been in Sarawak, from 100,000ha in 2003 to 300,000ha in 2008. In 2008, at least 510,000ha of peatlands in Malaysia supported oil palm plantations.

The report confirmed that healthy peat swamp forests have been planted over with oil palm in at least two sites in recent years: Bakong-Baram peat forest near Marudi, Sarawak, and Merang peat forest in Terengganu. This clearly violates the principles of sustainable palm oil production, which state that undisturbed forest should not be converted to oil palm estates.

“If the services that intact peatlands provide – such as preventing saline water intrusion, maintaining minimum flows in rivers, storing and sequestering carbon – are factored into the decision-making with regard to management of peatlands, there should be little doubt that remaining peatlands should be kept intact and degraded peatlands rehabilitated for sustainable use,” said the report.

Source: The Star



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