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Malaysia consists of 13 states which are divided into two regions - Peninsular Malaysia with 11 states, and East Malaysia which is made up of two states, Sabah and Sarawak. Under the Malaysian constitution, land comes under the jurisdiction of the State Governments. As a result, the management of peatland areas in the country come under the jurisdiction of the State Government where the peatland is found.

Peatlands in Malaysia are the most widespread type of wetlands, occurring in more than six of the 13 states and covering an area of about 2.13 million (approximately 6.46% of the total land area). Peatlands possess a very delicate and unique ecosystem with important ecological functions and values. They are recognised as environmentally sensitive areas (ESA) under Section 6B of the Town and Country Planning 1976 (Act 172) in the National Physical Plan (NPP). The uses and values of peatlands in Malaysia can be categorised into those that pertain to socio-economics (eg. forestry, agriculture, infrastructure, community livelihood, etc) and those that pertain to protective or conservational purposes (eg. forest, flood mitigation, water supply and as carbon stores). However, threats to peatlands and their values are of great concern due to problems faced as a result of current management practices. One of the main problems faced in peatlands here is the issue of peatland fires, which has contributed to the annually recurring episodes of transboundary haze pollution in the SE Asian region.

The frequency of peatland fires have increased significantly in recent years and this is a major cause of concern, particularly for the Federal and the affected State Governments. At the federal level, the main institutions related to peatland management in Malaysia are linked to the Natural Resources & Environment (NRE) Ministry namely the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia, Department of Environment, Department of Irrigation and Drainage, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture. Various universities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also been active in peatland assessment and conservation. The management of peatlands falls under the remit of the different state governments, with the lead agency being the state forestry departments. Although there are no specific existing policies for peatlands in the country, separate national policies have been developed for biodiversity, forestry, agriculture and wetlands. These policies deal with different aspects of peatland management. The need for a specific strategy or action plan related to peatlands has been proposed by some agencies.

It is expected that Malaysia will develop appropriate interventions to address the issue of peatland management, particularly the degradation of peatlands, its depleting resources and recurring fires, particularly by participating in this project. Malaysia aims at achieving a balance between conservation and development in peatlands and their surrounding areas through sustainable management and wise use. This is also in line with the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) for peatlands that has been developed to address the issue of peatland fires and associated haze and other related issues.
Status and Values of Peatlands

Peatlands are mostly found in the states of Selangor, Johor, Perak, Pahang, Sabah and Sarawak. The largest area of peat is found in Sarawak, which is more than 1 million ha (refer to Figure 1). Approximately 50% of the total peatland area in Malaysia is designated as permanent reserves. The remaining areas have been converted for other uses whilst some are still designated as state forests land (refer to Table 1).

In addition to acting as repositories for unique and important biodiversity, peatlands in Southeast Asia is of global importance because of its ability to store an estimated 120 billion tonnes of carbon or approximately 5% of the world’s terrestrial carbon. The peatlands found in Malaysia significantly contribute to the global carbon store in this region, after Indonesia. Peatlands also play a critical role in the socio-economic well-being of the country, particularly for their ecological and hydrological value, their timber and non-timber forest products, water supply, flood control and many other social, environmental and economic benefits.
Some of the important values of peatlands in the country are identified as follows:

i. Water Regulation

Peatlands in their natural state are water-logged due to a high water table and act as a large water reservoir, consequently playing an important role in water regulation. Important functions in this aspect are flood mitigation and water supply, which contributes to the environmental security of human populations and ecosystems in its surrounding areas.

ii. Carbon Sequestration and Storage

Peatlands in the Southeast Asia play a role of global importance in storing an estimated 120 billion tonnes of carbon or approximately 5% of the global terrestrial carbon. Malaysia has the second largest extent of peatlands in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, most of which are still intact thus contributing to sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and acting as a store for large amounts of carbon.

iii. Biodiversity

Peatlands in Malaysia support significant biological diversity. In Peninsular Malaysia, 132 tree species were recorded in an area of 5ha in the Bebar Forest Reserve in Pahang (Ibrahim, 1995) and 107 tree species have been recorded in the North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest (Appanah et al, 1999). In Sarawak, according to Anderson (1963), 242 tree species were recorded in peatlands. Ibrahim (1995) stated that many of these species are endemic to this unique habitat – for example, 75% of the tree species found in peat swamp forest in Peninsular Malaysia are not found in other habitat types and some have a relatively restricted distribution.

Peat swamp forests are habitats or are part of the home range for rare and endangered mammals such as Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris malayensis), Tapir (Tapirus indicus), Sumatran Rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) and Orang Utan (Pongo pygmaeus). Peat swamp forests also support a diverse bird community. Prentice and Aikanathan (1989) recorded 173 species of bird in the North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest of which 145 were breeding residents. Birds present include endangered species such as hornbills and the Short Toed Coucal. Peatland rivers, also known as ‘black-water rivers’ are important aquatic habitats for fish. These rivers often have a higher degree of localised endemism for fish species compared to other rivers, and they are also an important source of aquarium fish. Ng et al (1992) recorded more than 100 fish species in the North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest. Approximately 50% of these are restricted to black-water rivers.

iv. Socio-Economic Values

Peat swamp forests have been a source of timber and non-timber forest products. They are rich in high quality timber species such as Ramin (Gonystylus bancanus), Durian Paya (Durio carinatus) and a number of Shorea species. There are at least 120 timber species of commercial value and if harvested in a sustainable manner will continue to provide these resources for a very long period of time. Other non-timber plant products include rattan, asam kelubi, palm trees, Pandanus, scented wood trees species, medicinal plants, resin-producing trees and ornamental plants, for eg. wild ferns which are utilised and traded by local communities living around peatland areas.

Fish in peatland areas are important to the livelihood of local communities that live within or adjacent to peatlands. Surveys have shown that fish species are the main source of protein for local people and the indigenous communities living at Tasek Bera and the Southeast Pahang Peat Swamp Forest. Some local people sell these fish for a regular income (both edible and ornamental fish). Some of the s\fish species found here include the Giant Cat-fish (Wallago leerii), Blackwater Snakehead (Channa bankanensis), the peat swamp Barb (Puntius rhomboocellatus) and Chocolate Gouramy (Sphearichthys osphromenoides).
Management Issues, Threats & Root Causes of Peatland Degradation

Increasing pressures for land development (e.g. agriculture, infrastructure) have affected peatlands in Malaysia over the past 20 years. A number of these threats directly stem from or are associated to land conversion, especially for agricultural practices, that have been managed in an unsustainable manner. These threaten the integrity of peat ecosystems and have resulted in significant loss of ecological support services eg. flood mitigation, prevention of saline water intrusion, sediment and toxic removal, groundwater recharge, micro-climate regulation etc. Many agricultural and plantation projects for oil palm, pulpwood, rice and various other crops on peatlands have failed due to unsuitable conditions and the application of inappropriate methods. In these last two decades, more than 1 million ha of peatlands in Malaysia has been converted for agricultural purposes. These land conversions have direct negative physical impacts on peatland ecosystems and its associated biodiversity. These impacts also have associated effects on remaining peatlands due to drainage, such as peat subsidence, fire and loss of vital ecological services.

i. Issues in the Harvesting of Timber

Peat soils are generally marginal to poor for agriculture, particularly those exceeding 2m in depth. Poor or unsustainable practices and the abandonment of agricultural projects leave the degraded peatlands vulnerable and susceptible to more negative impacts and threats, leading to further peatland degradation.

The uncontrolled rate of timber-harvesting constitutes a major threat to peatlands, especially when tracked excavators were introduced for the canal extraction system (i.e. large canals were constructed to drain water from peat swamp forests to facilitate easier access for heavy vehicles and for the extraction of timber). This system was recognised to be damaging to peatlands as it induced over-drainage and lowered the natural high water table when the area was abandoned, which led to subsidence, soil compaction and fire susceptibility. While this system has now been replaced in some sites with a more environment-friendly system (the kuda-kuda system), the effects from the previous system are continuing to negatively affect the existing peatlands.

ii. Water Management Issues

One of the prominent characteristics of peatlands is its high water table. This naturally-occurring high water table is an important factor in their formation and for sustaining their stability. Over-drainage of peatlands can have detrimental effects to the ecosystem. The threats of over-drainage stem from forestry and agricultural practices in peatlands. Agricultural and forestry practices generally attribute to poor water management practices in peatlands, which significantly lower the water table leading to the drying and breaking-down of peat soils (i.e. peat subsidence). This in turn will affect the floral and faunal biodiversity. In severe cases of over-drainage, subsidence of up to 5m have been recorded over a period 20 years and such negative impacts could also be further enhanced during the dry season or droughts.

iii. Peatland Fires and the Associated Haze Pollution

Peatland fires in the country and in the SE Asian region have had one common phenomenon in the past 20 years. They are often associated with periodic drought occurrences and closely-linked with forest clearance and drainage activities by the forestry and agricultural sectors. The El Niño cycles also play a significant role in peatland fire incidents. Detrimental impacts associated with peatland fire incidences are the negative effects on the socio-economy of local communities who are dependent on peatland resources, environmental pollution and the significant decrease or loss of important floral and faunal populations.

iv. Inadequate Policies and Weak Institutional Framework

Currently, there is a lack of specific policies and guidelines related to sustainable peatland management in Malaysia. Existing policies and guidelines do not provide proper peatland management guideline, which further contributes to the unsustainable use and degradation of peatlands and their resources.

v. Inadequate Information on Peatland Management

There is currently inadequate information on sustainable peatland management due to a poor understanding of peatland ecosystems. It is also difficult to access existing information from the respective government agencies, departments and ministries which relate to peatlands and their resources.

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