Tropical peatland restoration to support local communities and ecosystem processes

ZSL is supporting efforts to map the loss of peat swamp forest in Sumatra, Indonesia.


Summary of research

There is a requirement to feed a rapidly growing human population whilst maintaining ecosystem services and reducing biodiversity losses. Across the world, previously extensive tracts of natural habitats have been degraded by human activities, with detrimental impacts for biodiversity and soils, and for the livelihoods of local communities living in these landscapes. Indonesia's forests are extremely biologically diverse but this hyper-diversity is threatened due to widespread loss of rainforest.

Peat swamp forests contain particularly large stores of carbon and support unique flora and fauna not occurring elsewhere but have been drained and degraded to make way for agriculture, threatening wildlife and releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere from loss of trees and soil. Much of this recent forest loss is due to conversion to oil palm plantations, which provide important sources of local incomes, although drained peatlands produce many ecosystem disservices (e.g. bare land and soil with low/no agricultural value, poor air quality). Thus, there are moves to rehabilitate degraded peatlands with a focus on reducing emissions, but potential co-benefits (and risks) of restoration for biodiversity and consequences for local communities whose livelihoods are dependent on agriculture are not well understood.

ZSL is helping understand the consequences of draining peatlands for biodiversity and local livelihoods in Jambi province, Sumatra, and examine different scenarios for prioritising peatlands for restoration, according to biodiversity and emissions considerations and local community benefits and trade-offs.

water running through two banks of trees


Why we are there

The ecological restoration of peatlands is important for mitigating climate change and addressing the current biodiversity crisis. Yet, there are often multiple perspectives on what outcomes Nature-based solutions such as ecological restoration should be aiming to achieve, and how we should get to that point. Knowing where to restore moreover often requires what was lost where, yet land cover mapping in tropical regions can be difficult, due to persistent cloud cover and limited level of seasonality.

man with branch putting out grassland fire

In Indonesia, restoration of degraded peat forest and re-wetting of drained areas may remove agricultural areas from production thereby reducing small holder farmer incomes and food security. Thus, restoration may have detrimental impacts on the local communities dependent on these areas, but with potential benefits from other factors (e.g. cleaner water and better air quality). However, the dependency of local communities on drained peat is poorly quantified, and infertile peat soils cannot sustain agriculture without substantial chemical inputs.

Moreover, decisions about sites to restore need to be compatible with systems of local governance, land rights and devolved administrations, and require the identification of alternative livelihood options for communities in restored habitats. 



Accurately monitoring land cover in the humid tropics, such as in the context of restoration efforts in tropical peatlands, is critical to ensure effective conservation and restoration action, and to inform ongoing policies and strategies. Our work so far showed how preserving the temporal information provided by satellite image time series can significantly improve land cover classifications in tropical biodiversity hotspots, improving our capacity to monitor ecosystems of high conservation relevance such as peatlands. The method we proposed is reproducible, automated, and based on open-source tools satellite imagery.

By interviewing a range of policymakers, academics, and non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives to explore the range of perspectives on the restoration of Indonesia’s tropical peatlands, our project moreover demonstrated how participants agreed about the importance of restoration but had differing opinions on how effective restoration activities to date have been and what a restored peatland landscape should look like. Interestingly, this work highlighted important areas of consensus for moving forward with peatland restoration strategies, with respondents showing greatest consensus that raising water levels in degraded peatlands can be used as a measurement of progress towards restoring peatlands.

Peat swamp forest in Kalimantan

To further support ecological restoration efforts, we are currently exploring how bird species richness, abundance, and community composition relate to drainage intensity via changes in vegetation structural complexity. We are also exploring how bird species in oil palm compare with a nearby protected peat forest fragment, to understand changes in diversity and ecological function.

Key Species

The focus is on the ecosystem as a whole rather than individual species


People involved



Indonesian Center for Agricultural Land Resources Research and Development

Jambi University

University of York

University of Liverpool

University of Leeds


Useful links

Sumatra's Peatland Restoration project