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FACES OF CHANGE - Reducing forest and peatland fires and haze impacts from key fire-prone areas in Indonesia

 Photographs by Kadir Van Lohuizen.

Peatlands are the most efficient carbon sink on the planet. In fact, globally they store up to 88.6 billion metric tons of carbon. Indonesian peat, holding 60 billion metric tons, makes up most of this.

What is peat? Peat, a part of Indonesia’s delicate rainforest system, is partially decayed vegetation saturated with water and accumulated over thousands of years. Peatlands are a treasure providing flood control and critical habitat for endangered species like orangutans and tigers, but the future of peatlands is in peril. They are burned to establish agricultural plantations for goods like palm oil and pulp and paper, even though peatland is often the most expensive kind of plantation due to difficulties with road infrastructure, higher pest and weed infestation rates, and necessitating additional fertilizer inputs because the soil lacks nutrients.

Peatlands are the first step on the geological route to fossil fuels like coal, making them carbon rich, so when peatlands are drained and cleared for purposes like the agricultural production of palm oil and pulp and paper, the soil becomes incredibly dry and prone to dangerous carbon-releasing fires. 110,000 Indonesians die every year due to forest and peat fires in Southeast Asia alone.

Deforestation is a key source of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Indonesia is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the US and China, thanks to peat fires and the release of carbon from peat and forests. In fact, if all the carbon from peat in Indonesia were released into the atmosphere it would be an equivalent amount of carbon as is held in all known reserves in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Canada, Russia, and the US combined. So, it’s a treasure trove of carbon that we want to keep hidden in the earth, but farmers burn it wthout knowing the true value of peat.

This is where GAMBUT steps in to be a climate hero. GAMBUT helps educate local communities on the importance of peatland so they can sustainably farm and reduce the carbon footprint of their crops.


GAMBUT has helped rice farmers like Sadiani Halat and her husband, whom you can see in the exhibit. Last year they burned alone-and-a-half-acre plot of peatland with their fellow community members, but now they’ve been trained on the ecological importance of peatlands and are looking for alternative ways to gain income. 


UN Environment project for Generating Anticipatory Measures for Better Utilization of Tropical Peatlands (GAMBUT) aims to reduce the number of burning fires, or hotspots, and consequently, reduce haze impacts and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from key fire-prone areas. The GAMBUT project is a systematic shift from the current bush fire management paradigm to fire risk mitigation in degraded tropical peatland.  The GAMBUT project is a unique collaboration between the Government of Indonesia and relevant stakeholders including the United Nations, USAID and two of the world’s foremost research centres – Centre for Climate Risk and Opportunity

Management in Southeast Asia and Pacific at Bogor Agricultural University and the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

«Kalimantan, being the biggest island of Indonesia has an incredible beauty and biodiversity. Unfortunately interference by mankind has destroyed many pristine peatlands. With a strong determination, often small local organizations are fighting the peatfires and restore the lands. » Kadir van Lohuizen

Kadir van Lohuizen has covered conflicts in Africa and elsewhere. Kadir has received numerous prizes and awards in photojournalism. In 2000 and 2002 Kadir was a jury member of the World Press Photo contest and is currently on the supervisory board of the World Press Photo foundation. Kadir is a frequent lecturer and photography teacher; he’s a member and co-founder of NOOR picture agency and foundation and is based in Amsterdam.


A study in 2012 attributed an average of 110,000 deaths a year to forest/peat fires in Southeast Asia.

It is estimated that of the 2.6 million hectares of land that burned between June and October 2015, 33 per cent was carbon-rich peatland.

More than 75 percent of Indonesian fire hotspots, or the places where wildfires burn most intensely, occur on peatland.

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