Pineapple, midin potential peatland crops

KUCHING: Besides oil palm, pineapple and sago palm are among the crops that can be cultivated on peat soil, said tropical peatland expert Dr Lulie Melling.

Dr Lulie Melling

“Also, we should explore the cultivation of ‘midin’ (Stenochlaena palustris — which is eaten as a popular vegetable similar to fiddlehead ferns) on a big scale in our shallow peat.

“Other crops have potential, too, thus it is important why we need to continue to explore and do more research,” she said in an interview.

The Sarawak Tropical Peat Research Institute (Tropi) director added that for a
more sustainable utilisation of tropical peatlands, perennial crops such as sago palm
were better options which could be cultivated on a big scale.

However, more aggressive systematic agronomic research was still a prerequisite.

Asked whether Tropi would conduct agronomic research on the crops she mentioned, Dr Lulie said that they could but there must be enough dedicated young Sarawakians to conduct the research and be experts in it.

“Perennial crop research is a long term research commitment. “It is almost like a journey of married life. For instance, for an oil palm crop, each trail needs a minimum nine years and a full cycle is an average of 20 years.

“This is almost equivalent to a person’s life career.  It is a life marathon.

“And at Tropi, about half of the staff are on contract, thus the limitation is there to conduct the research which is a long term work and manpower intensive.

“Support from both the government and private sectors to execute a research which requires funding is vital as well,” she said.

Asked whether oil palm plantations on peatlands contribute to climate change,  Dr Lulie said that every anthropogenic activity of mankind on  Mother Earth led to CO2 emission.

“Through research, we can identify the controlling factors to develop both the adaption and mitigation methods on how to decrease the CO2  emission.

“Various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) tend to create issues about tropical peatlands without systematic empirical data added with insufficient understanding of the tropical peatland ecosystem.

“Many times, the understanding of tropical peatland is based on temperate and boreal peat, overlooking the reality of what tropical peatland is,” she said.

Dr Lulie added that the Europeans had been draining and mining their peat for both energy and food for the last 200 to 300 years but Malaysia and Indonesia only started to utilise it as arable land for the last 20 years.

“Within the last 20 years, this successfully eradicated poverty in both countries.

In Sarawak, we have successfully practised agro-environmental peatland management for our agriculture development on tropical peatlands and as proven in 2015 and 2019 based on the Nasa satellite images, there were no hotspots of peatland fires on managed peatlands,” she said. 

She appended that peat fires often occur on idle and unmanaged peatlands or a no man’s land.

“Therefore, a long term the study still needs to be done on peat soil management as what we know now is just the peak of an iceberg,” she said.

Since its inception in 2008, Dr Lulie explained that Tropi had been pioneering and focusing
its research on tropical peatland ecosystems while studying changes in greenhouse gas (GHC) emission, carbon stock, soil properties and soil microorganisms that occurred under various
land practices.

At the same time, Tropi has compiled and developed a baseline of information on the ecosystem of tropical peatland forest to support the Sarawak government in its conservation programme.

Its role is to develop a baseline of environmental data concerning tropical peatland; to support and provide services in research on database development; to maintain and enhance analytical capability and access to information on tropical peat and peatlands.

Tropi’s mission is to develop scientific, technical knowledge and the notion of responsible management and conservation of tropical peat and peatlands; and to disseminate knowledge on sustainable crop cultivation and production on peatlands which includes identifying suitable crops and improving the agronomic practices.