Areas of tropical peat are found mostly in South East Asia (about 70% by area) although are also found in Africa, Central and South America and elsewhere around the Pacific Ocean. Tropical peatlands are significant carbon sinks and store large amounts of carbon and their destruction can significantly impact on the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Tropical peatlands are vulnerable to destabilisation through human and climate induced changes. Estimates of the area (and hence volume) of tropical peatland vary but a reasonable estimate is in the region of 380,000 square kilometres.
Although tropical peatlands only cover about 0.25% of the Earth's land surface they contain 50,000-70,000 million tonnes of carbon (about 3% global soil carbon). In addition, tropical peatlands support diverse ecosystems and are home to a number of endangered species including the orang utan.
The native peat swamp forests contain a number of valuable timber-producing trees plus a range of other products of value to local communities, such as bark, resins and latex. Land-use changes and fire, mainly associated with plantation development and logging (deforestation and drainage), are reducing this carbon store and contributing to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The problems that result from development of tropical peatland stem mainly from a lack of understanding of the complexities of this ecosystem and the fragility of the relationship between peat and forest. Once the forest is removed and the peat is drained, the surface peat oxidises and loses stored carbon rapidly to the atmosphere (as carbon dioxide). This results in progressive loss of the peat surface, leading to local flooding and, due to the large areas involved, global climate change. Failure to account for such emissions results in underestimates of the rate of increase in atmospheric GHGs and the extent of human induced climate change.
- Rieley, J.O., and S.E. Page, (2005), Wise Use of Tropical Peatlands: Focus on Southeast Asia, ALTERRA - Wageningen University and Research Centre and the EU INCO - STRAPEAT and RESTORPEAT Partnerships, Wageningen, The Netherlands.