The tropical peat swamps of Southeast Asia - carbon, conflict and compromise

Oxford Centre for Tropical Forests seminar followed by drinks – all welcome, booking required

Peatlands are important terrestrial carbon stores and vital components of global carbon soil-atmosphere exchange processes. In this regard, tropical peatlands are important because they are some of the planet’s most carbon-dense ecosystems. Knowledge of the extent of tropical peatlands across the globe is still uncertain, nevertheless there is growing recognition of their significance for carbon storage, climate mitigation, biodiversity support and other ecosystem services, and of the ecological and biogeochemical consequences of land use change. In Southeast Asia, where the largest area of tropical peatland is located, there is almost no intact peat swamp forest remaining. Over the last two decades, rapid socio-economic development has been accompanied by the transformation of vast areas into plantations, producing palm oil and pulpwood, and smallholder agriculture, while remnant fragments of forested peatland have been degraded by logging, drainage and fire. Simultaneous with these developments, scientific knowledge of the consequences of peatland development has strengthened, providing a narrative that links the deforestation and drainage of peatlands to loss of carbon storage potential; high emissions of greenhouse gases; increased risk of fire, resulting in extreme air pollution episodes that adversely impact on human health and economic activity; increased risk of flooding; loss of habitat for vulnerable, rare and endemic species; and reduced human livelihood opportunities. Yet at the same time as our scientific understanding has improved, those advocating for more responsible peatland management have often found themselves in conflict with the agents of peatland development. Sue’s presentation reviews this scientific narrative using examples from her own research journey to explore the carbon costs of land use change on tropical peatlands and the disjunct between those promoting the benefits of short-term socio-economic development against those advocating for longer-term maintenance of ecosystem resilience. It concludes by outlining recent opportunities for improved peatland management practices that attempt to integrate scientific, land use practice and policy aspirations to mitigate negative ecological and economic consequences of peatland development.

Sue Page studied at the University of Nottingham for a BSc in Biological Sciences followed by a PhD in wetland ecology, focusing on wetlands in the Peak District National Park. She followed this with a post at the University of Leicester where she now holds a personal chair in the School of Geography, Geology & the Environment. For the last 25 years, Professor Page’s research has focused on the ecology and carbon dynamics of tropical peatlands, with a main focus in Southeast Asia. She has been a partner in several European Union and UK research council funded research programmes investigating the ecology and carbon dynamics of these under-studied ecosystems, involving collaborations with UK, European and Southeast Asian partners. When Professor Page commenced her research studies, most tropical peatlands were still in a pristine, forested condition, but over the last two decades she has seen significant changes in land use, with vast areas of peat swamp forest deforested, drained and converted to large and small scale agricultural enterprises and extensively damaged by wildfires. These events have provided Professor Page with a rapidly changing backdrop for her research activities that, in turn, have led to advisory roles to government bodies and NGOs, consultancy work with plantation companies, and a Lead Author role for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. She has authored more than 100 journal papers, books, book chapters and technical reports, and has supervised more than 20 PhD students. She is also the recipient of the Busk Medal 2013 awarded by the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers and the 2015 Theodore Sperry Award of the Society for Ecological Restoration.