On May 29, the House of Representatives voted to approve on final reading House Bill 8204 that seeks to protect the country’s peatlands.
Under the proposed law, drainage, deforestation, clearing, dumping of waste and introduction of invasive alien species in peatlands are prohibited.
The measure tasked the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), through its Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB), to take the lead in implementing it once enacted into law.
Among other measures, the bill pushes the development of the National Peatland Conservation and Restoration Program, and mandates the municipal, city and provincial local government units (LGUs) to prioritize peatland protection.
Moreover, the proposed law requires that peatlands classified as agricultural lands will be reclassified to either forest lands or national parks, upon the DENR’s recommendation.
According to the DENR, peatlands are wetland ecosystems, where the soil is composed of 65 percent or more organic matter derived from dead and decaying plant materials submerged under high water saturation.
Across the globe, peatlands cover an estimated area of 400 million hectares—equivalent to about 3 percent of the Earth’s land surface.
Most peatlands, or 350 million hectares, are in the northern hemisphere, covering large areas in North America, Russia and Europe.
Tropical peatlands occur in mainland East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Central America, South America and southern Africa, where the current estimate of undisturbed peatland is 30 million to 45 million hectares, or 10 percent to 12 percent of the global peatland resource.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, peatlands exist in at least 175 countries, including the Philippines.
Vanishing Philippine peatlands
There are only nine identified peatland areas in the Philippines. Together, they occupy only around 20,000 hectares.
Peatlands play very important ecosystem functions. But like most wetland ecosystems, peatlands are facing numerous threats, among them is land conversion for agricultural purposes.
Some peatlands may have vanished before they were even identified or discovered.
According to the DENR, peatlands are the world’s largest carbon store. Kept wet, they store twice as much carbon as the world’s forests combined. Once they are drained, however, greenhouse gases are inadvertently released into the atmosphere.
Land conversion, peatland fires
As farmers see the need to do business in agriculture, peatland ecosystems are becoming targets of massive land conversion, through massive dumping and filling of soil to grow crops, destroying the entire ecosystem, including their crucial role as a carbon sink.
There are two major peatlands in the Philippines: Agusan Marsh in Agusan del Sur and Leyte Sab-a Basin on the island of Leyte.
However, peatland fires have frequently occurred in recent years, primarily because of drought and deliberate drainage for agricultural purposes, such as for palm oil, rice and corn cultivation.
Conservation effort in Indonesia
The Philippines can learn a thing or two from its neighboring countries, like Indonesia, where a community-owned enterprise, named Alam Siak Lestari (ASL) is dedicated to peatland protection.
Sharing its best practices on how the Philippines can conserve and boost its wetland conservation by swamp fish cultivation, ASL has popularized sustainable fishing in peatlands.
The group said there are peat swamp fish that can be cultured and provide farmers with livelihood opportunities other than planting rice or other crops that can destroy the peatland.
In Siak regency in Indonesia, 57.44 percent of the area is peatland.
In a statement, ASL reported that to keep the peatlands wet and prevent forest and peatland fires, they introduced the cultivation of snakehead murrel fish (Channa striata), a native peatland species which is known as “dalag” in the Philippines, or “ikan gabus” in Indonesia.
The fish was chosen after the ASL team immersed themselves in the Malay culture and learned about its use as a supplement in women’s postpartum recovery after giving birth due to its exceptionally high albumin levels.
ASL came up with a business model that benefits the community while preserving Indonesia’s peatlands.
The program, aptly named, “The Healthy Ecosystem Alternative Livelihood (HEAL) Fisheries,” supports the development and marketing of local snakehead fish and other native species, generating value-added products, such as albumin, which boosts community incomes.
Through the Village-Owned Enterprises (Bumdes), community members hold shares, providing them with dividends from annual company profits and fostering economic well-being and long-term sustainability.
In the Philippines, the Caves, Wetlands and Other Ecosystems Division (CaWED) of the DENR-BMB, an ongoing project to save the country’s peatlands, is being implemented, an email from the Environment department said on October 10.
At the same time, under the Asean Regional Project called “Sustainable Use of Peatlands and Haze Mitigation [Supa],” the Philippines is implementing the project, “Ensuring Sustainable Benefits from Protection and Wise Use of Peatlands [ESBenePeat].”
Currently, the DENR-BMB, through CaWED, is finalizing the confirmation of probable peatlands that may be added to the number of those currently identified in the country that need to be conserved and protected‚or better yet, saved.
In cooperation with the Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau, the DENR-BMB is standardizing the guidelines on the country’s peatland assessment.
So far, 17 probable peatlands need to be assessed, which could bring to 26 the number of peatlands in the Philippines. But then again, the process is still ongoing.
Peatlands and AHPs
According to the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), several peatlands can be found in some of the Asean Heritage Parks (AHPs). They include the Caimpugan Peatland in Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary in Mindanao, and the U Minh Thuong National Park in Vietnam.
But like any other peatlands, the Caimpugan Peatland is currently facing a serious dilemma with the draining or clearing of the area to make way for plantations, urban developments and mining operations.
“As a low-lying flat area fed by numerous riverine tributaries, the marsh is extremely critical in filtering out sediments that would otherwise smother coastal coral reefs,” the ACB told the BusinessMirror via e-mail on October 2.
According to ACB, the main challenge facing the marsh is financial resources and the political will to manage and monitor the protected area.
The protectors of Agusan Marsh and other protected areas in the country lack the technical as well as financial capacity to carry out all their duties due to the limited manpower and other resources for the job.
The ACB is exerting efforts to include Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, including its precious peatland, in some of the projects being developed as well as other forms of support through the AHP.
Reacting to Indonesia’s business model as livelihood support for communities to protect its vast peatland, citing studies, the ACB said snakehead murrel fish is an introduced fish species in the Philippines.
“It would be good to have feasibility studies on the appropriate fish species to farm so as not to disturb the local population in these peatland areas in the Philippines,” it said, noting that the Philippines can also learn from other Asean countries.
One is from U Min Thong AHP in Vietnam, wherein peatland management by local communities, is integrated with water management for fire prevention.
Sought for her expert opinion, ACB Executive Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim said there are several ways to protect and conserve the country’s peatland.
Search and protect
Lim said there’s a need to map out where the peatlands are and recognize their value for carbon storage, as well as for their unique characteristics, including the vegetation and other wild species that these ecosystems support.
She added that it is important to “gain a better understanding of how to make productive use of the land, without destroying its integrity and capacity to provide both tangible and nontangible benefits.”
Lim pointed out that taking into account the above-cited necessary actions, there’s also a need to develop and implement the management plan for peatlands together with LGUs, indigenous peoples and local communities, national governments, science experts and development sectors concerned, such as agriculture and tourism to save our peatlands.