Blackwater Jewel For many years, most people thought peat swamp were useless swamps full of mosquitoes. Today we are learning they are wondrous sources of life and diversity, filled with species that are crucial for a healthy environment. By Alvin Chew
WHAT IS PEAT? Peat is separated soil material consisting largely of undecomposed or slightly decomposed organic matter (such as roots, leaves, twigs, small animals etc.) accumulated under conditions of excessive moisture. Peat swamp forests are forests that occurs in poorly drained areas, where dead vegetation becomes waterlogged and accumulates peat.
The peat swamp forests of Southeast Pahang in Malaysia The Southeast Pahang Peat Swamp Forest which covers over 160,000 ha is the largest Peat Swamp Forest in mainland tropical Asia. Malaysia together with Indonesia have over 20 million hectares or 60 per cent of the world’s tropical peat land. Today, 2 million hectares of PSF remain in Malaysia which accounts for about 7.2 percent of the total land area of Malaysia (33 million hectares). Less than 25 percent of this wetland type is found in the Peninsular with another 75% percent in Sarawak, while the rest is in Sabah.
Location of Peat Swamp Forest The Pahang Government has initiated an RM8.4 million project to promote the conservation and sustainable use of peat swamplands located within its four forest reserves (Pekan, Nenasi, Kendondong and Resak) in southeast Pahang. The project area is located in Pekan stretches from the banks of the Merchong river to the north of Pekan. The Summerset property that shares the same form of forests (Peat Swamp forests) is directly next to the project site.
What are peat swamp forests (PSFs) ? PSF are forest that occur in poor drained areas, where dead vegetation becomes waterlogged and accumulates peat.
They occur inland just beyond coastal mangroves and often spread over some 3km to 5km on the floodplains of rivers. These forests are special as they develop and survive under two necessary conditions: water and peat. Peat is formed by the accumulation of decaying plant materials – leaves, twigs, roots, and branches and can vary in depth from 1m – 20m.
The partially decaying plant materials release Tannin and give the peat water its characteristic tea color, which has earned it its name “blackwater swamp”.
What really are peat swamp forests? <ul><li>They store water – they act as giant sponges </li></ul><ul><li>They are cleaners – they slow water movement allowing silt </li></ul><ul><li>and sediment to settle. </li></ul><ul><li>They are calmers – they act as buffers to store and slow water. </li></ul><ul><li>They are providers – they are nature’s larder (they store food) </li></ul><ul><li>and providers of medicines, building materials, paper products etc </li></ul><ul><li>They are homes – they are not wastelands. They are high in biological diversity and are homes to fish, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. </li></ul><ul><li>They serve as a major global store of carbon (that helps reduce global warming). </li></ul>
Regulating Groundwater PSFs are characterized by waterlogged soil which prevents the decaying of organic materials (i.e. plants) This results in the accumulation of decaying plant materials called peat. They function as aquifers giant sponge by absorbing and storing water during wet periods, preventing flood, and releasing water slowly during dry periods.
Local Communities A functioning Peat Swamp forest (PSFs) supports local communities in several ways. The indigenous communities depend on PSF for water, food, housing and household items, medicines and cultural uses? PSFs function as flood controls, prevention of saline water intrusion, effective barriers against peatland fires and are producers of valuable timber resources that benefits local communities and the national econonmy.
Why are peat swamp forests important? High Biological Diversity PSF are the most important of Malaysia’s wetland types in terms of biodiversity. Many of the flora and fauna species found are diverse, unique and globally threatened. Many plants are endemic (found nowhere else in the world) and harbor a potentially useful array of species. The PSF are also home to other undiscovered species. Malaysia’s PSF provide sanctuary for more than 60 animals listed as globally threatened including the Painted terrapin, Proboscis Monkey, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Asian Elephant, Tiger, Storm’s Stork and Wrinkled Hornbill.
A Carbon Store Peat Swamp forests (PSFs) hold the largest amount of carbon in the world. The carbon stored in peat represents one quarter of the world’s soil carbon pool, and between 45 to 70 percent of all carbon held in the terrestrial biota. Carbon from partially decayed plants is stored in the peat that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2) if the PSFs are destroyed. If the PSFs are destroyed, we can expect significant climatic consequences which enhance the greenhouse effect. Ensuring the conservation and sustainable use of PSFs can help to secure important and continuing global benefits related to climate change. The Greenhouse Effect
<ul><li>Main Threats to Peat Swamp forests </li></ul><ul><li>Human activity can alter the hydrology of PSFs. Changes can </li></ul><ul><li>take the form of water loss due to drainage, ground water </li></ul><ul><li>extraction, and exposure to increased evaporation due to land </li></ul><ul><li>conversion and logging activities. </li></ul><ul><li>The critical consequence of removing this natural phenomenon is the </li></ul><ul><li>drying out of peat which could lead to : </li></ul><ul><li>Extinction of animals and plants – loss of biodiversity. </li></ul><ul><li>Salt water intrusion – contamination of freshwater supply </li></ul><ul><li>Loss of some of the buffer capacity for water storage leading </li></ul><ul><li>to flooding. </li></ul><ul><li>Creation of highly flammable substrates resulting in peat fire </li></ul><ul><li>incidents. </li></ul>
Saving the Peat Swamp forests A proper understanding of Peat Swamp forest (PSFs) and their ecological functions will most certainly encourage stakeholders to come up with measures to use these habitats more substainably. The Government of Malaysia in recognizing the importance of PSF has implemented some ongoing projects at the South-east Pahang, Klias Peninsular and Loagan Bunut PSFs to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of this vital habitat and related wetlands ecosystems. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), Wetlands International (WI) and the Malaysia Nature Society (MNS) are some agencies which are actively involved in developing programs to raise public awareness and better understanding of the peat swamp forests in the country. Alvin Chew has an on-going program to preserve the forested areas for people to enjoy and to learn about the interrelationship between man & nature.