Peat Rehabilitation

Rehabilitating a Degraded Peat Swamp Forest

It is never easy to rehabilitate and restore any degraded forest types. There have been several past failures of attempts to restore a degraded forest. Planting the wrong trees on a forest type that is not suitable for their survival and growth is just another recipe for disaster. Given the dry and intensely high sunlight environment of a deforested peat swamp forest, only a few tree species are able to adapt and grow on these extreme conditions.

In our peat swamp forest rehabilitation study, the location of interest is situated in Badas peat swamp forest, Brunei Darussalam. Since the natural landscape of peat swamp forests takes the shape of a dome, Badas peat dome is also used interchangeably to describe the forest type. Badas peat swamp forest is the largest peat dome in Brunei Darussalam. Unfortunately, the Badas peat dome has been degraded due to sand mining and constructions for industrial and residential purposes.

Badas Peat Swamp Forest: The stark contrast between the intact forest dominated by the skyscraper-tall Shorea albida trees at the backdrop and the deforested part represented by the vast growth of ferns and sedges on the forefront

Due to the construction of the Jalan Badas road and water pipelines that cuts across the middle of the Badas peat swamp forest, the water that has been contained and preserved in the natural sponge-like peat has been excessively drained out. The drainage of the carbon-rich peat groundwater has been causing the peat surface to dry out. Since peat is mostly made up of partially decomposed vegetation and wood, it is combustible in nature. During long drought periods, a degraded peat swamp forest will naturally ignite and cause a cascade of problems, not only to the Badas’ flora and fauna inhabitants but also to the neighbouring Bruneian residential communities.

One of the water pipelines built across the Badas peat swamp forest that have caused deforestation across the stretch parallel to the road and water pipelines

Haze-ardous Forest Fires

Forest fires at Badas peat swamp forest have been happening more frequently due to the combustible nature of the peat and the unpredictable long dry spells. As a result, thousands of animals were killed and they lost their homes. In addition, the number of endangered peat swamp trees will go downhill at an alarming rate.

What makes peat fires differ from other forest fire types is that the fire is able to penetrate deep into the peat and fire fighters would find it difficult to extinguish the peat that is burning underneath. Even after a heavy downpour, the below ground peat fires are able to re-emerge when scorching weather persists.

Smoke originating from the burning peat from below ground in Badas peat dome adjacent to the Seria highway (taken on 15th Mar 2020)

People living nearby to the forest fire sites will suffer the worst by inhaling the toxic smog and visibility will be hindered by the blanket of haze. As there is a highway adjacent to the Badas peat swamp forest, the thick smog could be a hazard to motorists driving on the highway. It is almost impossible to drive and navigate the direction when the vehicle is surrounded by the white smog originating from the nearby forest fire. Road accidents could occur and might even turn fatal.

Low visibility for road users when thick and white smog from a nearby forest fire blanketed the Seria highway

Occasionally, small pockets of peat or bush fires are observed next to Jalan Badas road that could be triggered by local fishermen not putting off the lighted carton egg trays to ward off mosquitoes or irresponsible drivers throwing a lit cigarette out from the car windows. Because of these reckless human activities, the small fire could potentially spread and turn into an uncontrolled wild forest fire.

Badas peat swamp forest is known as one of the hotspots for forest fires in Brunei Darussalam, and most recently, one of its worst forest fire happened in 2016. Millions of dollars were pumped in for the deployment of the water-bombing helicopter to extinguish the raging wild fire in Badas peat swamp forest.

The aftermath of a peat forest fire and smoke (adjacent to the trees) is still visible which indicates that the peat underneath is still burning even though fire is nowhere to be seen above ground (taken on 3rd Mar 2020)

On the bright side, the number of forest fire occurrences has slowly decreased since 2018, with the construction of canal blocks by using compressed peat. This is an example of a climate mitigation effort in collaboration between Brunei Shell Petroleum (BSP) and Wetlands international (WI) by using an economical nature-based solution. The canal that is parallel to the Jalan Badas Road has been a gateway for the peat groundwater to escape from the naturally waterlogged Badas peat swamp forest.

Man-made canal in parallel to the road (on the right) to prevent flooding is also draining the peat groundwater that is essential to prevent the peat from drying out and trigger peat forest fires
Badas Tree Planting Team

The organising team comprises of:

Project leads: Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) and Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD)

Main Sponsor: Brunei Shell Petroleum (BSP)

Main collaborators: Brunei’s Forestry Department (FD), Wetlands International (WI), and Nanyang Technological University (NTU)



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