Peat fires not caused by oil palm plantations – Expert

Tropical peat land expert Dr Lulie Melling

KUCHING: A peat soil expert has scoffed at the notion that oil palm plantation on peat lands is among the causes of peat fires in the state. 

Tropical peat land expert Dr Lulie Melling said peat land fires often resulted from open burnings at unmanaged land or large areas of idle land. 

“Looking at our border with Kalimantan, Indonesia where some part of their land was burning, people say it is peat fire. But the fires are not on peat soil but mineral soil. 

“And peat fires that occurred in some parts of Sarawak were only small patches of unmanaged land or no man’s land,” she said in a recent interview with New Sarawak Tribune. 

The Sarawak Tropical Peat Research Institute (Tropi) director pointed out that oil palm plantations on peat lands are properly managed via compaction and water management. 

“For instance in Miri, there are both shallow peat land and mineral soil, which is more vulnerable to burn. 

“When the peat land is exposed and unmanaged, scientifically it means that there is no water control and no compaction, so if the peat is not compacted, there is no capillary rise. 

“During the peat fire in Baram in 2016, it showed that the peat water table is within 30cm, but because of the porosity above the water table is so high that it dries up similar to the condition of the grass on the roadside, thus this goes back to what causes the fire, it is because it is unmanaged,” she explained. 

She debunked the misconception about peat land and peat fires, which generally occur on unmanaged land. 

Lulie added that the percentage of peat soil in Sarawak was at about 13 percent, which accounted for about 70 percent of peat in Malaysia. 

She said the amount of peat found in Sarawak is huge given the size of the state, and there is still a need for a more systematic and comprehensive long term ecosystem study on peat.