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Peat soil

Fisika lingkungan
Leo Sutrisno

2007 ls/peat 1
Swamp Forests on Peat Soils

• Forestry concessions for selective cutting have been licensed

on peat soils over major areas of the 16 million ha peat soils of
the Tidal Swamps in Indonesia. Nobody realised in the past that
Forestry by Selective Cutting can not be maintained and trees
show no re-growth after the valuable wood has been cut. Even
a few years ago experts still thought this re-growth was
possible; only better protection was all that was required. How
wrong they were! The explanation is that most of the minerals
required for new tree growth are not present in the peat soil,
but in the living organic matter and the recently decomposed
dead organic matter of the trees. Additional burning of the
organic matter of the surface will mean again loss of minerals,
because the ash with the minerals easily wash out of the root-
layer. Wood removal by selective cutting means the minerals
are gone and no minerals are left in the already extremely poor
peat soils

2007 ls/peat 2
• Because Forest Concession Holders on peat soils realise after
a number of years no valuable wood is left in the area and they
see no re-growth, they aim to change the area into pulpwood or
oil palm plantations (with deep drainage and extensive
mineralisation of the peat soil with fertilizer applications). This
is now happening in Indonesia. After an extreme dry year
(1997) the Concession Holders clear-cut the remaining forest
on the peat forest, which had suffered from the drought and the
peat fires. They than change the area into pulp-wood and oil
palm plantations. There are two problems with this practice:

• All major Swamp Forests in Indonesia are under severe threat
of total disappearance at the moment. Especially on Sumatra
and Kalimantan islands.
• Many peat soil areas are also not suitable for sustainable
pulpwood and oil palm plantations because after about 20
years to 30 years the peat soil has subsided to levels no
drainage will be possible anymore and the peat areas return to
totally useless shrubs, ferns and lakes.

2007 ls/peat 3
Peat soils, not drainable
• In Malaysia numerous examples can be found of abandoned
areas where tree crops previously were planted, but the peat
soil now has subsided below the water levels in the river. (
effective drainage depth is zero). They are not drainable
anymore by gravity and pumped drainage in the wet tropics is
not economic, certainly not for tree crops. These abandoned
not drainable peat soils are not suitable anymore for any use,
also not for forestry. It is extremely important that peat soils
planted with tree crops remain drainable after subsidence, so
that future generations will have also something left to plant.
For some regions sustainable drainage is possible, in others
this will be impossible. Hydro-topographical surveys are
essential before ever a concession should be given for tree
crop cultivation in peat soil. In general can be said that peat
soils opened up for tree crop (oil palm) and pulpwood
plantations require a tidal range of at least 3-3.5 m in the
adjoining river. Next the level of the bottom of the peat layer
should be situated at least above the mean water level in the
adjoining river to sustain an effective drainage depth.

2007 ls/peat 4
• At the moment there is high pressure in
Indonesia to open up the peat lands to
plant oil palm. In many cases areas
peat lands are now planted with oil
palm that can not maintain drainability.
Only a limited number of those peat
lands have a potential to maintain its
drainability after subsidence

2007 ls/peat 5
Peat soils, hydrophobic
• Re-growth in abandoned reclaimed areas with peat soils
of an extreme low fertility is most difficult. By repeated
cultivation the soil has become so low in fertility that re-
planting requires special treatment. By direct exposure to
sun light during cultivation the peat soil becomes
irreversible dry in the surface layer and will change into
dry pellets. (=hydrophobic peat soil, that means no
biological activity is possible anymore for these dry peat
pellets). Direct sun-light exposure may raise
temperatures in the peat surface layer to more than 70
degrees Celsius and will cause irreversible drying.
Adding mineral soil, sand or volcanic ash to the surface
will prevent this increase of soil temperature, but in
practice is excessive expensive. At least 40 tons of soil
per hectare is required for a sustainable solution of the
2007 ls/peat 6
Acid Sulphate Soils
• Presence of Acid Sulphate Soils is a major problem in the
cultivated Swamplands of Indonesia.
• Over-drainage is a term frequently used when discussing
problems in acid sulphate soils. It suggests for many people
that the intensive canal system is the problem of the acidity
and water retention is the solution to the over-drainage
problem. In my own experience an expert of IRRI Manilla,
thought back in 1991 in the same way and strongly criticized
my field trials for the Swamp II Research project for leaching of
acid sulphate soils!
• Over-drainage in acid conditions. Here water retention should
be avoided at all costs. Because the water table will drop below
the pyrite layer during an extreme dry season by evaporation.
This groundwater drop occurs independent of the water levels
in the canals. Only the improvement of the leaching capacity of
the soil will be essential to solve the problem. Flushing
capacity in canals should be improved, no dead-ended canals
at any level (Secondary, Tertiary and Quaternary). This will get
rid of the accumulated acids in the canals

2007 ls/peat 7
Problem of acid canal water:
Exposed acid sulphate soil meterial.(pyritic)
• Oxidized pyritic
soil material will release large quantities of acid
groundwater to adjoining canals at the
beginning of the rainy season. The red colour of
the canal water is caused by oxidized iron. The
water in the canal is extremely acid and can not
be used for domestic uses and will cause severe
corrosion on control structures. Only a few fish
types will survive in this environment. Acid canal
water for a long period is a good indicator that
there is limited flushing capacity in the canal
system. Good water management, including
flushing of canal water at springtide, reduces the
length of the period with acid canal water. Better
access at short distances to nearby rivers is also
very important. The best flushing results need
control structures in the canals. One-way flow in
the canals, induced by control structure
operation in the canals, is the only available
solution to flush out acid canal water at places
far away from the river.

2007 ls/peat 8
Stagnant water conditions in fields.
Toxicity and
Acidity in
• Stagnant water conditions in acid sulphate
soils are the main cause of severe toxicity
and acidity in the rice fields.
• Low percolation or leaching quantities
cause stagnant water conditions. The main
reasons are an absence of an on-farm
water management system and so-called
. ditch wall effects in tertiary canals which
prevents leaching of the subsoil by rain or
tidal irrigation water. Seepage of extreme
toxic groundwater from slightly higher
locations may also cause severe problems
(interflow). Minor elevation differences of 10
cm are sufficient to advance to major
difference in acidity problems. See photo on
the left showing an abandoned area with
stagnant water, bordering a slightly higher
area with rice fields. In other areas only a
small part, under influence of direct
seepage of toxic groundwater, is affected.
See photo on the right which shows a dike
with very toxic soil bordering a rice field.

2007 ls/peat 9
Abandoned areas (acid)
To reclaim abandoned area requires a
high investment in improving the infra-
structure. Usually no farmers can be
found anymore. When present in large
continuous blocks the Forestry option
should be considered as a more
economic alternative. In other cases
large-scale rice farming could be
considered. .
• Acid sulphate soils. Re-growth of
Melaleuca in abandoned fields with
acid sulphate soils is easy. The trees
come out often spontaneously and are
most suited in these conditions. In
other cases re-planting may be
required. It should however be not
forgotten that all abandoned areas with
acid sulphate soils have a potential to
be used for rice again by the
introduction of the proper technologies.
See Index for more information

2007 ls/peat 10