Indonesia - Siti Maimunah deftly steps out of a shallow canoe, stamps though the undergrowth and enters a cleared field, surveying the land. The two-hectare plot of dry and degraded peatland is not much to look at for now, but Siti is already looking ahead to the potential it could hold for renewable energy, land restoration and livelihoods in Central Kalimantan.
A forestry lecturer at Palangka Raya’s Muhammadiyah University, Siti has made regular visits to the remote plot for more than five months. Accompanied by her students and members of the local community in Buntoi village, she has been monitoring the progress of five types of bioenergy plants being tested on the trial plot.
Previous crops of rubber and rice were destroyed in last year’s peatland fires that raged across several provinces in Indonesia, polluting the air and leaving behind degraded land. Unable to replant the old crops, the community in Buntoi looked for a new way forward.
On this visit, several of the test crops are found to be flourishing. Siti’s student, Kristianto Okoiiko, counts new leaves and measures growing trunks and branches. Tema, a worker from Buntoi, clears away dry grass, finding pineapples ripening between the rows of seedling crops.
“This trial plot aims to show the community that in their area, on this degraded peatland, there is great potential for growing many kinds of crops, including bioenergy crops,” Siti says.
Five species of bioenergy plants are being trialed on the plot.
The most successful test crop so far, says Siti, is Calophyllum inophyllum, known locally as ‘nyamplung’. Just one hectare of this seed-producing crop can supply up to 20 tonnes of oil for biodiesel per year. A factory to extract the oil from nyamplung seeds is already operating on the nearby island of Java. Normally grown on saline seaside soils, the crop is being trialed here on peatland for the first time. Seeds should appear in the next 1-4 years.
Trials of ‘kemiri sunan’ (Reutealis trisperma), ‘lamtoro’ (Leucaena leacocephala) and ‘gamal’ (Gliricidia sepium) are also performing well. Like nyamplung, the kemiri sunan and lamtoro can be used to produce biodiesel. Gamal can be converted to wood pellet for biomass, a potential source of power for electricity.
Perhaps the bioenergy crops here could provide an alternative solution for the community.
‘Kaliandra’ (Calliandra calothyrsus) has struggled under seasonal downpours, but Siti still holds hope for the crop. The normally fast-growing plant is already being used and exported as biomass pellets from nearby Madura. Its flowers attract honey bees, offering an additional source of income. Siti has relocated some of the plants from the riverbank to higher ground, hoping to overcome the problem of flooding.
Forestry lecturer Siti Maimunah and her student, Kristianto Okoiiko, check the condition of the ‘kemiri sunan’, or Reutealis trisperma. Catriona Croft-Cusworth/CIFOR
A sixth crop, pineapples, are interspersed among the bioenergy plants, providing a harvest of food alongside the fuel.
“We want to introduce the idea that it’s not just about monoculture,” Siti says. “While waiting for the forestry crops to grow, we can combine in the same area plants that meet market demand. Like pineapples.”
By planting on degraded peatland, the trial also avoids the common criticism of bioenergy crops taking up valuable agricultural land. Not only are the crops planted on land where little else can grow, but they actually have the potential to restore the land for future use, particularly the gamal and kaliandra crops.
The intersection between sustainable bioenergy and land restoration is one of the main research interests driving the trial.
A short canoe ride and overland trip away is the village of Buntoi, a settlement of around 2,500 people spread along the Kahayan River. Houses here are raised on stilts, to allow for seasonal fluctuations in the river. Fishing is a major source of income, but is also dependent on the river tides. Pollution and overfishing have made it harder than ever to rely on a regular catch.
Before the fires, many depended on additional income from the rice and rubber crops where the trial plot now stands. But the old plantations can no longer grow on the burned and degraded land.
“I know the community here in Buntoi village. If there is an opportunity to increase their economic prospects, there’s a good chance they’ll take it,” he says.
“We’ve just found out about nyamplung, kemiri sunan and the other plants grown on the plot. We really want to learn more about it,” he adds.
What’s important is that the community develops.
Just across the river from Buntoi is the coal-fired plant that provides electricity for the area. Siti says she hopes that biomass from plants like gamal and kaliandra can one day replace coal to power the plant. Meanwhile, the biofuels from nyamplung, kemiri sunan and lamtoro could be used locally for river transport and fishing.
“Life here is heavily dependent on diesel or gasoline,” Siti says. “Perhaps the bioenergy crops here could provide an alternative solution for the community.”