Institute’s R&D areas go beyond peatlands as its studies also cover forestry, soil properties, conservation and climate change
ASK any city folk about peatland and many would have a blank look on their faces.
Some may think that it is a type of soil which, technically, is not wrong.
It is fair to say many people do not realise the importance of peatland as they think it does not affect them directly.
On the contrary, peatland is a vital part of life, and according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it falls under a category of wetlands, which are critical for preserving global biodiversity, minimising flood risks and helping to address climate change.
The IUCN states: ‘The term ‘peatland’ refers to the peat soil and the wetland habitat growing on its surface. In these areas, year-round waterlogged conditions slow the process of plant decomposition to such an extent that dead plants accumulate to form peat. Over millennia, this material builds up and becomes several metres thick’.
Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store – they may occupy just three per cent of Earth’s land surface area, but they also house similar amount of carbon to all terrestrial vegetation, as well as uphold unique biodiversity.
However, damaged peatlands are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions; thus, peatland restoration serves to bring down emissions significantly.
In this respect, countries are encouraged to include peatland restoration in their commitments to global international agreements, including the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
In a global ecosystem, everything is connected – what happens in one place affects what’s possible in another. Understanding these connections is critical in formulating effective and integrated responses. — Dr Lulie Melling, Tropi director
A big issue
Malaysia and its neighbouring Indonesia became global highlights a couple of years ago as the top countries producing palm oil – an industry deemed by many as being bad for the environment. This was because the expansion of palm oil plantations had contributed to tropical deforestation and destroying natural habitat of orangutans.
This, later, led to the European Union (EU) banning not only palm oil for biofuels but also products made from or containing palm oil.
Adding insult to the wound, condescending labelling like ‘palm oil-free’, ‘does not contain palm oil’ or ‘no palm oil’ could be seen on many products across the consumers’ shelves.
There was even an anti-palm oil commercial advertisement featuring orangutans being made and publicised.
Hitting too close to home
As palm oil is one of Sarawak’s top industries, there is a need to refute such claims as they would impact the local economy and the livelihood of the plantation workforce.
Sarawak Tropical Peat Research Institute (Tropi) director Dr Lulie Melling said without the oil palm industry, Sarawak would be in trouble.
“No export means no income for Sarawak,” she told thesundaypost in Kuching.
Besides oil palms, pineapples, sago palms and ‘midin’ (local jungle ferns) are among the crops that can be cultivated on peat soil. For more sustainable utilisation of tropical peatlands, perennial crops such as sago palms stand as the better option in terms of large-scale cultivation.
Lulie said for Sarawak, the state had long realised the importance of peatland, as could be seen through the establishment of the Tropical Peat Research Laboratory (TPRL) in 2008 to counter those claims.
Led by her, the TPRL conducted research and development (R&D) towards generating scientific and technical knowledge meant to foster a better understanding on peatland usage in relation to climate change.
Complemented by strong results from her research works over the past several years, TPRL later evolved into becoming the Tropical Peat Research Institute (Tropi), and being granted its own complex in Kota Samarahan in 2015.
Woman behind Tropi
Lulie, 55, is an Iban whose mother is from Saratok, and father is from Bintulu.
Born in Serian, the researcher received her Bachelor of Science in Geography from Universiti Malaya in 1990, and a Master’s Degree in Agriculture Science with distinction from University of Reading, UK in 1997.
She then obtained her PhD from Hokkaido University, Japan in 2005.
Lulie has been an ambassador for Hokkaido University since 2017.
She started her career as a soil researcher and surveyor in 1991 under the Department of Agriculture (DoA) Sarawak, from where she began gaining expertise in tropical peatland research.
She has also been appointed as peat soil expert and advisor for various national and international organisations.
Lulie is an active member of the Malaysian Soil Science Society (MSSS), the International Peat Society (IPS), and the International Union of Soil Science (IUSS).
Roles of Tropi
Since its inception, Tropi has been focusing R&D on peatland ecosystems, and at the same time, studying changes in greenhouse gas emissions, carbon stock, soil properties and soil micro-organisms occurring under various land practices.
In augmenting the research works, three Eddy-Covariance Flux towers were constructed at three peatland ecosystem sites in 2010 – one at the conserved primary forest in Maludam National Park, another at the secondary forest ecosystem in Cermat Ceria in Betong, while the third at an oil palm plantation ecosystem in Naman Sibu.
Its full commissioning has enabled Tropi to accelerate and consolidate its field research as well as to widen its scope to encompass the whole ecosystems, covering the aspects of forestry, wetlands and conservation.
“With the accusation against the oil palm industry, there’s a need to show others that this is not the situation here. And the three towers will show this through comparisons of results.
“We are the only group that manages the towers ourselves in South East Asia. They are the pride of both Sarawak and the nation.
“They also signify the commitment of both the federal and state governments with regard to ecosystem studies,” said Lulie.
Aside from that, Tropi is affiliated to the FLUXNET via the AsiaFlux Regional Network, which creates opportunities for new collaborations and also increases the visibility of research done in Sarawak.
“It (affiliation) lets the rest of the world that Sarawak is engaged in R&D that spans the full spectrum of ecosystems and climates; that uses carbon, water and energy flux measurements to assess responses and feedbacks of terrestrial ecosystems to the environment, including changes in climate, land use, and extreme events such as droughts, storms, or wildfires.
“These data-sets provide the understanding for crucial linkages between terrestrial ecosystem processes and climate-relevant responses at landscape, regional and continental scales.
“In a global ecosystem, everything is connected – what happens in one place affects what’s possible in another. Understanding these connections is critical in formulating effective and integrated responses,” said Lulie.
Thus, the Sarawak Eddy-Covariance Flux towers would ensure the availability of continuous and long-term ecosystem measurements necessary to build effective models and multisite syntheses, while maximising insights through robust, site-specific, independent research programmes, she added.
She said with these consistent and high-quality environmental measurements, it would help ensure that critical decisions would be supported by the most complete understanding and data.
For general information, the site data are automatically included in FLUXNET – a ‘global network of regional networks’ of micrometeorological tower sites that use Eddy-Covariance methods to measure the exchanges of carbon dioxide, water vapours and energy between the biosphere and atmosphere.
FLUXNET serves to provide an infrastructure to compile, archive and distribute data for the scientific community. It works to ensure that different flux networks are calibrated to facilitate comparison between sites, and it also provides a forum for the distribution of knowledge and data between scientists.
With the extensive work conducted and steady track record, Sarawak qualified to play host for the AsiaFlux Conference, and had won the bidding in 2019 to host it in 2020, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it had been postponed to September next year.
AsiaFlux 2022 Conference
Lulie, who is the sixth president of Malaysian Peat Society (MPS), was also the sole Malaysian of the Science Steering Committee (SSC) for the AsiaFlux Organisation April 2021-March 2024.
The other 23 SCC members were from Japan, Thailand, Korea, China and India.
On this task, she said it was not easy to secure a spot unless one was qualified.
Lulie was selected in view of her scientific works using the three towers, and also in the oil palm industry.
“It is important to be in the international forum as you have better locus standi to speak about the matter.
“The export revenue for Sarawak’s palm oil last year was RM12 billion.
“Sarawak will be playing host for the first time in Kuching next year; hopefully, it would not be postponed again due to the pandemic.”
According to Lulie, AsiaFlux is a regional research network of long-term study over climate change in relation to carbon, water and energy fluxes between terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere in Asia.
Its objective is to generate scientific empirical data and carry out comprehensive analysis to formulate a science-based land use policy to govern land-use management and biomass production in mitigating climate change, and sustain the economic development and social advancement in Asia.
The conference would include a two-day workshop, a two-day conference and one-day field trip. The event is set to host 300 to 500 delegates.
On the workshop, Lulie said the session would be hands-on for young scientists to conduct ecosystem studies.
“A large group of scientists are expected from Indonesia. Other participants would include those from Unimas (Universiti Malaysia Sarawak), UPM (Universiti Putra Malaysia) and UM, as well as those from overseas,” she added.