SUSTAINPEAT: Overcoming barriers to sustainable livelihoods and environments in smallholder agricultural systems on tropical peatland

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Biosciences


This proposal aligns closely with 2 of the 5 agriculture and food system challenges identified in this BBSRC global challenges call namely (a) resilience of the food system to climatic variability and (b) agriculture within the context of the wider landscape.

This project is designed to support environmental sustainability of important landscapes such as tropical peatlands (and the vital ecosystem services they provide) which is only possible if the socio-economic needs of local communities are combined with local knowledge. Thus, an interdisciplinary approach is a crucial component of delivering successful outcomes; this is embedded within our project. Communities living in the peatlands of SE Asia are especially relevant in this context due to their high rates of poverty and low resilience to environmental stressors (e.g. ENSO-driven droughts and floods, air pollution from peat/forest fires) in conjunction with their high exposure to external market forces. The project deliberately considers both Indonesia and Malaysia to allow us to contrast the impact of different within country policies with respect to peatland management.

The novelty of the project revolves around a number of interrelated features. Firstly the study will provide a comprehensive account of the status of SHA on tropical peat swamps. It will do so via a dedicated study which will develop and employ an innovative framework tailored to the specific characteristics of SHA on peatlands. Not only will this generate high quality information concerning the current status and challenges facing SHA on peatland, but the framework will provide a transferable approach which can be employed to assess SHA in different areas and is upscalable to national and regional scales. The involvement of smallholders and other stakeholders will ensure rapid translation of research findings into planned proposals for practical action. Thirdly the project employs a holistic approach drawing on, and integrating interdisciplinary knowledge across national boundaries; this integration of the biophysical understanding of the crop and peat systems within a relevant socio-economic framework forms the basis of the research approaches. Importantly, this approach will explicitly develop an understanding of key local and scientific terminology reducing barriers to interdisciplinary research and enhancing prospects for adaptation and innovation uptake. There have been livelihood benefits from previous action-led approaches collaboratively undertaken by research teams and communities. However these have been narrowly discipline based; the breadth and depth of the research disciplines within this project and the peatland environment focus will provide further novelty and opportunities for impact.

Fundamentally, our proposal makes an innovative contribution to support Malaysia and Indonesia in achieving their Sustainable Development Goals, specifically in relation to reducing poverty, achieving food security and improved nutrition, promoting sustainable agriculture, reducing land degradation, and reducing (economic) inequality between and within countries.

Technical Summary

To achieve objective 1 we will carry out six months of field work in six pilot SHA communities to determinate C stock, GHG fluxes, agro-biodiversity yield and peat hydrology and nutrient status.

To achieve objective 2 this object we will generate local data of local knowledge field work determining on the socio-economic status of SHA in our six pilot communities. This will be carried out using focus group discussion, community mapping exercises and semi structured surveys.

To achieve objective 3 agro-economic and biophysical data will used to model the dynamic interaction between biotic, abiotic and human factors controls the status of peatlands in the pilot areas. Model analyses will be conducted to identify candidate alternative crops for each study site under a range of peat management scenarios in which the water table is maintained at different mean depths.

Objective 4 will be achieved by identification, mapping and ranking of key ES for participating communities and participatory evaluation of ES trends and drivers. Methods used will include deliberative valuation approaches, mapping, ranking and choice modelling.

The models will generate data and information with respect to the economic, agronomic and environmental implications of current practices and comparisons with alternative scenarios. This will be iteratively assessed by local communities to undertake modelling of smallholder income under current local use and assessments of the feasibility of different options to deliver objective 5.

Planned Impact

This project is designed to enhance climate-resilient livelihoods amongst PSF-dependent smallholders, through improved food security/ sovereignty resulting from economically, environmentally and socially sustainable agricultural practices in environmentally sensitive peatland areas. Long term system resilience lies at the heart of this project which explicitly recognises the importance of the human component of SHA. The project will thus contribute to the economic development and welfare of LMICs, for whom these groups form a significant proportion of the population, as explicitly required in national development goals and policy commitments. This will be achieved by improving resource-dependent livelihoods, while simultaneously mitigating GHG emissions and protecting key ecosystem services across the wider landscape. Further potential health benefits arise for communities living within peatland and contiguous landscapes by reducing the detrimental health effects of air pollution and haze caused by peatland forest fires and use of potentially harmful agrochemicals as well as cultural values linked to natural rainforest environments. The prospect of a genuine development impact arises through the integration of biophysical understanding of the crop and peat systems within a context-relevant socio-economic framework.


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Description WP1. Collating current knowledge of socio-economic and environmental status of SHA in PSF
A comprehensive systematic literature review has been undertaken examining the state of knowledge concerning smallholder farming systems in tropical peatlands has been carried out. During a preliminary visit undertaken in January 2018, and a subsequent field trip in April-June 2018, meetings were held with a number of local researchers/members of governance bodies in the research areas. During these meetings additional information was sought concerning locally produced research which was included in the review. The literature review also explored issues around governance in the peatlands. Thus far WP1 findings have confirmed the existence of significant knowledge gaps in relation to smallholder farming systems in these areas. The vast majority of the academic literature retrieved which mentions smallholders in tropical peatland areas of Malaysia and Indonesia does so solely in the context of oil palm expansion. Some researchers have also paid attention to questions of land tenure and alienation however there is extremely limited analysis of non-palm oil farming practices of smallholders living in peatland areas. Markets, smallholder farming systems as well as questions relating to the wider interrelationship between smallholder farming practices and the environment are also under-researched. Conversations with actors involved in local governance and also with local researchers indicated an absence of research examining smallholder practices at a landscape level, which can fully account for how interactions between local farming practices and the environment are worked out. The literature review therefore suggests a need for in depth, detailed and holistic analysis of smallholder farming systems in the study area. To do a comprehensive survey that combined some of the requirements of WP1 with some of those of WP2 was carried out.
WP2. Socio-economic characterisation of pilot communities and valuation of ecosystem services
WP2 commenced with a series of group and individual interviews and meetings during January 2018. In all some 17 interviews were conducted at multiple locations in both North and South Selangor, Malaysia and in Pontianak and Palangka Raya in Indonesia. Meetings were also held with local academic partners and members of local NGOs in order to facilitate the development of a local research network and enrol the support of local people in the project. Eight target communities in North and South Selangor Malaysia and Pontianak and Palangka Raya Indonesia were selected purposively to represent a cross section of the types of communities found in peatland areas in both countries. A sample survey questionnaire was developed to generate information in support of objective 2 and also to provide information that could inform objective 3 and objective 5 and in fulfilment of the requirements of WP 2. The sample survey (interviews in 330 households) generated information concerning the characteristics of selected communities including demographic information, crop choices and practices, yields, income, cost of farm inputs. Alongside the sample survey, 40 in depth interviews were conducted. A key finding is that farming practices of smallholders on tropical peatland are highly complex. We found that our sample of 320 farmers grew a total of 55 crops and farmers views as to which crops are best to grow vary significantly. Livelihood and farming practices in the research area are dynamic and subject to rapid change and intimately tied to market relations. A very significant proportion of those interviewed were not solely dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Rather households rely on multiple sources of income including both on and off farm components. Farmers within the research locations are willing and able to make relatively rapid adaptations to accommodate new crops and technologies however the means by which such adoption takes place are complex. Farmers avail of a range of sources of formal and informal information in assessing the current situation, making cropping decisions and adopting technologies and practices. The relatively dynamic nature of local farming practices and of the knowledge systems that underpin them has implications for the design and implementation of programmes to modify local farming practices in order to make them more sustainable. Such initiatives are unlikely to be effective unless they are devised in such a way as to take account of how knowledge is assessed and disseminated through local networks.
WP3. Measurement of biophysical properties
Field work for WP3 was initiated in January at four locations, two in Malaysia and two in Indonesia. At each location, three study sites were established in each of four land-use classes. Land-use classes were defined according to local conditions but fell into four broad categories: annual vegetable crops (melon, pineapple, turmeric, ginger, water spinach); tree crops (banana, rubber, jelutung); oil palm (recently planted, 3-4 years, 8-9 years and 13-15 years old); and peat swamp forest. In total, 48 instrumented research sites have been established across the two countries. At each study site, GHG fluxes are being measured in the presence and absence of root processes via a trenching experiment, at locations close to and distant from the crop. Monthly gas sampling was then started (3648 samples to date), and an additional 456 measurements have been made in situ using a Los Gatos CO2/CH4 analyser. Initial results suggest cultivated peat sites are a consistent and significant source of CO2 emissions, and a sporadic but periodically large source of N2O emissions. High emissions of CH4 are largely confined to wetter forest sites. Nutrient and other solute levels are being measured both in peat porewaters (as an indicator of fertility and/or toxicity within the soil) and in drainage channels (to indicate rates of nutrient loss from the system, as well as any potential downstream impacts on water quality). To date, 696 water samples have been collected, and 108 samples analysed. Results show generally high levels of carbon and nitrogen loss, together with extremely high levels of acidity (in some cases pH < 2) and a number of metals including aluminium, manganese and iron (maximum measured concentrations > 18, 0.6 and 31 mg L-1, respectively). These extreme concentrations could have significant negative implications for crops, aquatic biota and human health, and are associated with the exposure of acid sulphate soils beneath the peat as a result of long-term drainage and peat loss. Our initial results clearly suggest that drainage-based farming practices on peat are not sustainable, with consequences including high CO2 and N2O emissions, peat loss and subsidence, eutrophication and toxification of downstream water bodies and likely long-term deterioration in crop health and associated health risks due to the increasing exposure of underlying acid sulphate soils. In addition, many farmers are using fire as part of their land management practices, either to clear land or as a cheap source of ash fertiliser.
WP4. Modelling impacts of alternative practices on crop production and environmental outcomes
Developing a linked peat, crop and economic model requires the development of specific models for each component. In order to generate a peat model, multiple nonlinear analyses of the GHG data (measured with Los Gatos) and environmental (soil temperature at different depths and water table depth) data have been conducted. Preliminary analysis did not show any correlation between soil temperature and GHG; probably due to the low soil temperature range measured at the study sites. By contrast, linear and nonlinear analysis of water table depth and GHG data has shown a better correlation between these variables. However, these models require more data (that will be collected with a Los Gatos between October 2018 and January 2019) in order to develop stronger and more reliable empirical models. Water table depth data is being recorded automatically at one site at each location by a data logger. In addition, manual measurements of water table depth have been conducted monthly. Simulations, using the GHG models developed for each land-use class and site-specific water table depth time series, will be conducted to estimate annual GHG emissions. Results from the gas analysis will feed into these models, increasing the number of observations. Simultaneously, preliminary steps to develop crop models for the vegetable crops selected have been conducted. Monthly aboveground canopy photographs have been taken either by local partners or farmers. These photos have been used to estimate canopy cover and study the crop phenology. First results show that water spinach reached over 80% of canopy cover 15 days after sowing and that it is mature for harvesting after 24-26 days. Measurements of aboveground biomass indicate that this crop produces around 2.5 kg m-2 of fresh biomass and around 200 g m-2 of oven dry biomass. Yield information about the other crops has not been collected yet as the crops are not mature for harvesting. Collection of economic data on production cost of different crops and income generated by selling them has started in both countries. Peat and water chemistry analysis has been completed for the majority of sites. We will discuss this data with ploicy makers and local communities during the workshops in June/July.
WP5. Integrating smallholder income models with optimal SHA options and ES values.
The statistical integration of different data sets are underway. Further, we are planning the final project workshops for June/July 2021. In these workshops we will explore scenarios and integration of community/personal aspirations with environmental outcomes.
Exploitation Route Our findings will be relevant to agricultural extension workers, policy makers and land users.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The project has contributed to community engagement and local student work. The work has also been included in best management practices for peatlands.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

Description Contribution to Round Table for Sustainable Oilpalm certification
Geographic Reach Asia 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact Better management of water tables in oil palm plantations to reduce loss of organic soils and production of greenhouse gas emissions. Requirement to restore peatlands if peat depth is substantially reduced.
Description UKRI CoA
Amount £63,581 (GBP)
Funding ID UKRI CoA RA35HW 
Organisation University of Nottingham 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2020 
End 09/2021
Title Combined peat crop and economic model 
Description Development of existing crop models to novel tropical crops 
Type Of Material Computer model/algorithm 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This work is under progress 
Description Collaboration with UNMC, UNTAN and UPR 
Organisation University of Nottingham
Department University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus
Country Malaysia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have signed MOUs and MTAs with the University of Tanjung Pura and University of Palanka Raja. We have agreed a joint collaboaration with the School of Geography at the UNMC.
Collaborator Contribution Access to field sites, laboratory faciliaties, support with research permit applications, joint research and student supervision.
Impact Approved research permits.
Start Year 2017
Description Collaboration with UNMC, UNTAN and UPR 
Organisation University of Palangka Raya
Country Indonesia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have signed MOUs and MTAs with the University of Tanjung Pura and University of Palanka Raja. We have agreed a joint collaboaration with the School of Geography at the UNMC.
Collaborator Contribution Access to field sites, laboratory faciliaties, support with research permit applications, joint research and student supervision.
Impact Approved research permits.
Start Year 2017
Description Collaboration with UNMC, UNTAN and UPR 
Organisation University of Tanjungpura
Country Indonesia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have signed MOUs and MTAs with the University of Tanjung Pura and University of Palanka Raja. We have agreed a joint collaboaration with the School of Geography at the UNMC.
Collaborator Contribution Access to field sites, laboratory faciliaties, support with research permit applications, joint research and student supervision.
Impact Approved research permits.
Start Year 2017