Ivy Marie Mangadlao

Published: June 3, 2024

BUTUAN, Philippines — Amid the call for climate action, a Filipino scientist is advocating for more studies on peatlands, which are considered the largest natural terrestrial carbon store in the world.

Dr. Jerome Montemayor, executive director of the Foundation for the Philippine Environment and an expert scientist on Philippine peatlands, highlighted that despite the growing interest in peatlands, the Philippines lags significantly in generating knowledge about its own peatlands.

According to the International Peatland Society, peatlands are terrestrial wetland ecosystems where waterlogged conditions prevent plant material from fully decomposing. As a result, the production of organic matter exceeds its decomposition, leading to a net accumulation of peat.

According to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Peatland Management Strategy for 2023-2030, peatlands in the Philippines cover an area of 20,188 hectares.

However, Montemayor pointed out that there is still no comprehensive mapping of these peatlands.

“There have been attempts to conduct comprehensive mapping, but government resources remain insufficient. We need collective efforts to map out and identify peatlands before they disappear,” Montemayor said.

There are around 29 confirmed or suspected peatlands in the Philippines according to the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

However, extensive research has been conducted only in areas like the Caimpugan Peatland in Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary in Agusan del Sur and the Leyte Sab-a Basin Peatland, leaving the vast majority of the country’s peatlands unstudied.

Montemayor noted that much research still needs to be done and identifying peatlands is an extensive process that requires more resources.

To map out or confirm if an area is a peatland, peat soil testing is conducted.

“But the work doesn’t end there,” Montemayor said. “We need to determine the extent or boundary delineation. We really have to test the soil and get samples until they no longer meet the criteria to be considered peatland.”

In addition to studying the physical characteristics of peatlands, Montemayor highlighted the importance of considering the social, economic, and political factors that influence how peatlands are managed for sustainability.

Carbon stores at risk

An aerial view of a pygmy peat swamp forest at the peat dome of Caimpugan Peatland in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur. (Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary Protected Area Management Office Facebook page)

Existing studies suggest that Philippine peatlands face several human-caused threats, including changes in the landscape due to drainage for agriculture, conversion to uses like rice farming and oil palm plantations, and burning. 

However, the lack of comprehensive studies itself can also be a threat, particularly in the context of land distribution by the government.

The government aims to help landless farmers by giving them land for cultivation. However, peatlands are sometimes included due to a misunderstanding that they can be used for agriculture.

“As a result, the good intention of providing landless farmers with productive land is not realized. This is also a major threat in the Philippines because peatlands are being included in the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, which should not be the case,” Montemayor said.

The expert stressed that such instances circle back to the lack of research because if there were studies about peatlands in a particular locality, they could be shared with relevant government agencies. 

“They would have a scientific basis to argue that those areas should not be disturbed and are not appropriate for agriculture, and that we need to preserve them as carbon sinks and carbon storage instead of converting them,” Montemayor said.

“But because we lack scientific studies, and the existing studies may not be reaching the concerned mandated agencies, we face challenges with our peatlands,” he added.

Peatlands conservation bill

An aerial view of Sab-a Peatland in Leyte. (DENR-BMB Facebook page)

In May 2023, the House of Representatives passed House Bill 8204 or the National Peatlands Conservation Act, aimed at conserving and sustainably developing the Philippines’ peatlands.

One of the provisions of the proposed measures allows reclassifying peatlands currently designated as agricultural lands to forest lands or national parks. This would happen upon recommendation by the DENR based on a suitability assessment, if the peatlands have high conservation value and still provide ecosystem services like water and climate regulation.

Montemayor noted the importance of having such a law, saying it would officially recognize peatlands in the Philippines and provide stronger protection measures.

“By law, peatlands will be recognized in the Philippines. If we have legislation, it will give more strength to protecting our peatlands… While there are scientific definitions, having a legal definition is crucial for enforcement and conservation,” he said. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has emphasized the critical role of peatlands in preventing and mitigating climate change, preserving biodiversity, minimizing flood risks, and ensuring safe drinking water.

“Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store. They store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined,” the IUCN stated.