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What are Peat-Swamp Forests

What are Peat-Swamp Forests

What are Peat-Swamp Forests?

Peat-swamp forests are characterised by a deep layer of organic matter, which accumulates over thousands of years.

The Sebangau peat-swamp forest contains some of the deepest and oldest peat deposits known anywhere on Earth, reaching depths of over 12m in the centre of the peat dome.

The area is an important terrestrial carbon store, which, if destroyed, would release huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.

Peat-swamp forest are also a very important area for bio-diversity and are home from many endangered and critically endangered species.


In their natural state, peat-swamp forests should remain water-logged all year round. Besides supporting a rich array of wildlife, these wetland habitats offer important ecological services, including the provision of natural resources, water filtration, flood prevention and carbon storage. However, these services are in danger of disappearing, due to a number of threats…

Peat water.
Catfish swimming in the peat water.
Adult female and infant orang-utans resting.


 34 Mammals  (19 protected)

118 Birds  (27 protected)

20 Herpetofauna (5 protected)

28 Endemic fish

108 Tree species  (12 vulnerable)


Drainage canal.
Map of canals with some dams constructed.

1. Drainage canals:

After the legal logging concession ended in 1997, illegal loggers dug a vast network of canals into the peat to facilitate transport of timber out of the forest. These canals have resulted in peatland drainage, upsetting the delicate ecological balance of the Sebangau peat-swamp forest, and resulting in peat drying and subsidence.

2. Fire:

Forest fires have posed the greatest threat in recent years, exacerbated by increasing global temperatures and peatland drying (due to drainage canals), which leaves the forest susceptible to fire.

Suffocating smog due to the fires.

These forest fires contribute to 63% of Indonesia’s CO2 emissions, with a 47% increase from 2000-2012 attributed to burning peat-swamp forests.

Between 2000-2011, fire-degraded peat-swamp forests released an average of 87.5 MtCO2e annually. As a result, Indonesia has committed to cutting emissions by reducing deforestation, reforesting degraded areas, and restoring vulnerable peat-swamp forests.

Please click to enlarge the above illustrations.


Prior to the formation of the Sebangau National Park in 2004, the Sebangau forest was logged extensively by illegal loggers. Illegal loggers dug purpose-built canals to extract timber. These canals, though small, can extend further than 10km into the forest, resulting in peatland drainage which puts the entire ecosystem at risk of burning. In their natural state, peat-swamp forests should remain waterlogged all year round. Because of these canals, the dried-out peat has become highly flammable and huge areas of drained swamp have burnt over the past 15 years.

1. Canal blocking

Blocking illegally dug canals to slow the rate of drainage is one way we can help to restore these areas. If water can be retained in the canals, this will raise the water-table and keep the peat wetter for longer. Canal blocking also keeps forest litterfall in the ecosystem, thus helping to fill in these canals naturally. If the peat stays waterlogged, it will not burn due to its natural fireproofing.

The project will involve local organisations and governmental groups working together to block these canals. Ultimately, we hope to fill every canal in the Sebangau catchment, preserving this delicate and important ecosystem.

One of BNF’s dams in action.

2. Patrols

Patrols are essential for protecting the Sebangau forest, especially from the threat of fires, which can be devastating if they blaze out of control.  Regular patrols along the river and forest edge by local community patrol teams mean that any fires or illegal activities can be quickly detected, allowing for a rapid response.

3. Fire-fighting

Fire-fighting is an essential component of this project. Fire spreads rapidly through the forest, and the longer these fires go unchecked, the more difficult they become to extinguish, as peat fires can burn underground for several weeks at a time.

During the dry season, and particularly during El Niño years, peat-swamp forests are highly susceptible to fires. Community fire-fighting teams are essential to protecting the forest and are known locally as Masyarakat Peduli Api (MPA’s: Communities Concerned about Fire). These teams are primarily composed of community members and representatives from government organisations.

4. Reforestation

A logged peatland forest can regenerate, but when it burns, the top layer of peat is stripped away removing the nutrients and seed bank. After a fire, the burnt area is colonised by a layer of ferns and grasses, making it difficult for many tree species to grow without assistance.

Several tree species have been identified as having a high survival rate in these harsh conditions, including Shorea balengeran, Pittosporum sp, Elaecarpus acmocarpus and Syzygium sp. As the forest begins to establish and grow, other species will be added to increase diversity. Seedlings and seeds from target species are collected from the forest and cared for in community nurseries. These nurseries are run by local families, who look after the seedlings until they reach a viable size to be planted. Other species which are socially and economically valuable for community members will also be grown. Once they mature, all seedlings will be sold to the project, generating supplemental income to improve the families’ financial security.