Juvilyn Salazar grew up around the Leyte Sab-a Basin, ‘I used to pass it every day on my way to campus’, she said. Even as a forestry major, she never knew that the basin is one of two major peatlands in the Philippines or that it classified as peatland in the first place. It was not until she crossed paths with Dr. Eli Nur Nirmala Sari from the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Indonesia in February 2019, that she realised how important her beloved Basin is. Peatlands store vast amounts of carbon and play a vital role in mitigating climate change, yet more than half of the Leyte Sab-a Basin’s 3088 hectares has been drained and reclaimed for agricultural purposes since the 1970s.

In 2019, a major peat fire happened at the Basin. “After trying for some time, the fire department told us that they cannot suppress the fire,” Salazar recounted. The fire went on for weeks, “They were simply not trained to handle peat fires,” she added. At the time, Salazar had started working as a Project Coordinator for the Leyte Sab-a Peatland Forest the more she realised the condition of the Leyte Sab-a Basin.

`The peatland is almost dry now which is what’s causing the annual fires and floods, and fire departments are not trained to handle peat fires’, Salazar said. ‘Restoring this basin will have so many benefits for us, and I am determined to find a way to do so’, she added.

Salazar, who has since joined the Leyte Sab-a Peatland Forest Restoration Initiative, would have never thought to receive an opportunity to learn more about peatlands just as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt. The Leyte Sab-a Peatland Forest Restoration Initiative project is one of the non-state actor in the Philippines who is one of the targeted stakeholders of the People for Peat coalition.

In August 2020, all the planned physical conferences were pivoted into a series of eight virtual seminars to identify peatland knowledge gaps in Southeast Asia. The virtual events saw stakeholders from the EU, the ASEAN Secretariat, NGOs and other non-state actors, like Salazar, come together with peatland experts from across ASEAN to discuss current research gaps, defined each country’s baseline for peatland policy and determine how to address the identified gaps.

Peatlands in Southeast Asia cover approximately 23.6 million hectares, which represent 56 percent of the global tropical peatlands. It stores approximately 68 billion tons of carbon, accounting for 14 percent of global carbon storage.

An analysis conducted by the WRI in 2016 shows that unsustainable practices, such as draining and burning peatlands, has turned this massive carbon store into a carbon emitter, where just one hectare of drained peatland releases an average of 55 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of over 6000 gallons of gasoline. This has been the cause of the annual transboundary haze plaguing the region.

‘Haze is a pervasive and complex issue that affects us all, no matter where in ASEAN you are. Our goal with this Conference of Parties is to compile knowledge from regional experts and discuss issues most pressing to each country. From there we hope to establish priority research areas and start to empower communities to manage their peatlands sustainably, using locally driven narratives’, Dr. Sari who is a Peatland Restoration Technical Expert, explained.

“We still have so much homework to do here,” Salazar said. “Besides continuing to engage the local community, we also need to conduct hydrology research, not only to understand how to increase the level of water in our peatland but also to identify where the water will come from,” she added.

People for Peat brings together representatives from the WRI, the Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC), and Yayasan Inisiatif Dagang Hijau (IDH) as part of the EU-funded Sustainable Use of Peatland and Haze Mitigation in ASEAN (SUPA) programme.

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