In a small note on the AusAid website, the Commonwealth government has confirmed a $47 million project to restore 25,000 hectares of peatland on the Indonesian island of Kalimantan will end before most of its major milestones are met.
The Kalimantan project was first launched with great fanfare in 2007 by then foreign minister Alexander Downer and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. It then became the centrepiece of a $100 million Indonesia-Australia Forest Carbon Partnership launched by President Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008.
The end of the project comes as Mr Rudd is likely to head to Indonesia later this week to meet with President Yudhoyono.
The project had originally aimed to re-flood 200,000 hectares of dried peatland, protect 70,000 hectares of peat forests, and plant 100 million trees in Central Kalimantan.
But as the project ran into difficulties and delays it was later scaled back to about 10 per cent – or 25,000 hectares – of the original 200,000 hectares of peatland to be re-flooded.
Peatland soils are some of the most carbon dense landscapes in the world, and are estimated to hold about 18 times the carbon dioxide of trees. Previous estimates have found that only about four per cent of Indonesia’s original peatland areas remain in pristine condition, with another 37 per cent containing forest with signs of degradation.
The major part of the Australian project was to remove or block large canals to re-flood the peatland that had been drained for a failed agriculture project under President Suharto.
On its website AusAid says the project: ‘will not extend in its current form, but both governments are discussing which parts might benefit from additional work in the next 12 months to maximise outcomes’.
‘Large-scale blocking of drainage canals will no longer be carried out. However, the methods and plans for blocking canals that were designed under [the project] are valuable. They can be used by others in Kalimantan, elsewhere in Indonesia, and internationally for projects in peatlands that are facing similar challenges.’
Professor Luca Tacconi from the Australian National University said loss of peatland was a major source of Indonesia’s emissions and he expressed disappointment that the Australian government had pulled out of the project before it completed its goals.
‘Australia had made a lot of noise about supporting emissions reductions in countries like Indonesia, and the peatlands were the right place to be,’ he said.
Professor Tacconi said the project had developed some good science around peatland emissions and brought the problem to the focus of the international community.
But he said had the project been completed it would have demonstrated how peatland areas can been rehabilitated, which would had been fundamental to helping countries in Asia protect and restore such sites.
Professor Tacconi said it was unclear why the project has ended without blocking any canals. He said the engineering plans to block the drains were completed late last year and had gained Indonesian regulatory approval to proceed. He added a community development project had also been built around the project, which had raised expectations in local villages.
It is understood the government may continue some of the community and monitoring work at the site for another year. AusAid has been contacted for comment.
On its website AusAid say the project’s achievements include rasing 2.6 million seedlings for planting in the project area and a monitoring system for estimating peat emissions had been developed.
It is the second Indonesia peatland and forest project to be cancelled early by Australia. A second $30 million project to protect forests for carbon on the island of Sumatra was dropped before any on-ground work had begun.
As part of the Forest Carbon Partnership, Australia is also helping Indonesia develop a national carbon accounting system.