MENTION “peatland” and the first thing that comes to mind for most people is swampland.
But for Sarawak, peatland (as an agro-economic asset) is personified as Dr Lulie Melling to the world at large.
This is because through her stewardship at the Sarawak Tropical Peat Research Institute (STROPI) Complex in Kota Samarahan, global perception of peatland has changed in that it’s now recognised as more than just a muddy pool of water.
Dr Lulie, a tropical peat soil expert, regards peatland as a valuable asset of Sarawak.
“Tropical peatland is a very important Sarawak resource. Though once regarded as wasteland, it has now — through research and innovation — become very important arable land to the state for both food and economic security,” she told thesundaypost.
In Sarawak, tropical peatland constitutes 13 per cent or 1.6 million hectares (ha) of Sarawak’s total land area of 12.4 million ha and Lulie has spent years researching and supporting the development of peatland to prove it can become a valuable resource for Sarawak.
Her years of meticulous exploration and investigation as a pioneer peatland researcher in the country — backed by a dedicated team — have culminated in a number of outstanding achievements, including the setting up of the Sarawak Tropical Peat Research Laboratory Institute (TPRLSTROPI) Complex in Kota Samarahan with the support of the Sarawak government).
The Institute has become the backbone for scientific R&D in Sarawak and a global repository for tropical peat research.
Dr Lulie chalked up another historic feat recently when she was elected as a member of the Executive Board of the International Peat Society (IPS), making her the first from Asia to hold a post in this esteemed professional society.
Her election, following the IPS 2018 meeting in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in September, signifies that her works and contributions have brought Malaysia recognition as a cutting-edge centre for tropical peat and scientific research.
“The IPS is a very good platform of co-operation at the international forum and my election to the Board will help draw its attention to the state’s commitment to both development and conservation,” Dr Lulie said.
According to her, the Malaysian Peat Society (MPS) was formed in 2010 — and was then the National Committee of the IPS National Assembly, the only professional society in the world engaged in the development, protection, restoration, management and research of peat and peatland.
First in Asia
She said MPS immediately joined the bidding to host the 15th International Peat Congress in 2016 and got the job of organising the event in Kuching, adding that it was the first time the Congress was held in Asia instead of Europe and North America.
MPS has always been at the forefront of peat research pertaining to the social, economic and environmental aspects.
“For the first time ever, a Malaysian peat expert has been elected to the IPS Executive Board. MPS will continue to live up to expectations and fulfil its objectives in linking up with the society and industry as well as the government for economic development, social progress and environmental protection.
“We also firmly believe with the strong support of both federal and state governments, the responsible and sustainable utilisation of tropical peatland for agriculture development will be in good order.”
Dr Lulie, who is also STROPI director, said with her election, MPS would be able to give better support to STROPI in international collaborative research, especially with the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute and National Institute of Environment, Japan.
“We are also now building up collaboration on research and innovation with both Germany and America.”
Apart from that, she said MPS, via the IPS, is now able to connect directly with other scientific groups in the world on the status of the restoration and rehabilitation of degraded peat swamps.
She acknowledged it is “almost impossible” for damaged or unmanaged peat swamps to be reverted to their original state to sustain the livelihood of rural villages.
“Peat swamp, in its natural state, is of very low fertility due to its high acidity, high water table and high porosity. This means peat soil needs to be well ameliorated and managed.
“It has to be drained and mechanically compacted, supported by good water-management, to ensure good management and transform peat into productive land capable of supporting the livelihood of the community.”
More research needed
Dr Lulie said more research would still be required to find suitable alternative crops for the restoration of degraded peat swamps.
“It has been observed that for tropical peatland, oil palm is still the best crop for successful utilisation of tropical peatland in relation to achieving socio-economic development.”
In her research over the years, Dr Lulie has had to face many challenges, particularly from international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which claimed the state’s utilisation of peatland for oil palm cultivation had high carbon dioxide emissions and as such, contributed significantly to global climate change.
But Dr Lulie is not one to be silenced easily. She stood up to her detractors by breaking the glass ceiling and proving that oil palm in peatland could be domesticated — with improved yields — through the application of science and technology.
Through STROPI, she and her team have come up with ground-breaking findings, substantiated with empirical data, to prove that peatland compaction can turn peatland into arable land which does not contribute significantly to the increase of carbon flux as alleged.
On top of that, they have managed to develop peat soil science which has proven successful not only in increasing palm oil production and maintaining its sustainability but also in reducing peat fires to lessen the incidence of the annual haze problem.
Tackling rural poverty
But what Dr Lulie hopes to achieve through her works and findings is the ability to contribute towards tackling rural poverty and, according to her, one of the ways for the rural communities to generate income is by getting involved in oil palm cultivation on peatland.
“Oil palm is a cash crop that brings wealth and development to our rural communities. If they are involved in this industry, they will be able to improve their livelihood and send their children for further education.
“At the same time, the palm oil industry also creates jobs for upstream and downstream industries as well as spin-off businesses along the value chain,” she noted.
On how her role in IPS could work to counter European censure of palm oil from Sarawak, Lulie said she now has a platform to highlight and refute any ill-informed statements on the state’s peatland.
“Now that MPS is in the IPS, it’s an opportunity for us to learn from the experience of how the peat industries in both Europe and America have countered the NGOs.
“We can now work with stakeholders of peatland collectively and use the forum to create awareness and effectively counter any unfounded and spiteful attacks on our peatland development and its products,” she stressed.