Sustainable Livelihoods in Indonesian Tropical Peatlands

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Sch of Geog, Geol & the Environment


This fellowship focuses on sustainable livelihoods in Indonesian tropical peatlands to support poverty alleviation, increased food security and biocultural conservation. This fellowship provides an important opportunity to build upon past and current research on peatland livelihoods, both from my PhD research and through collaboration with current projects being undertaken by the Universities of Leicester and Nottingham. I will do so by tackling recommendations provided from my PhD to consider the opportunities of aquaculture in degraded peatland landscapes to support sustainable livelihoods. This focus is timely and provides productive synergies with ongoing projects at the University of Leicester, University of Nottingham, and the Indonesian Government's Peatland Restoration Agency (e.g. Sustainpeat and PASSES projects). This allows me to build on my PhD research through allowing me to consider a wider range of communities with different properties and different land management approaches in Central Kalimantan. The results from this will directly inform future projects and funding proposals and will feed directly into additional publications that I will write during this fellowship.

The proposed research for this fellowship targets two of the ESRC's research priorities in particular: Productivity and Climate Change. Tropical peatlands are one of the Earth's most spatially efficient terrestrial carbon sinks and Indonesia is home to the greatest extent of these habitats worldwide. However, peatlands in Indonesia are facing numerous threats from human pressures, including drainage, burning and conversion to agriculture and plantations (e.g. palm oil and paper pulp). Exploitation of peatlands is driven by the short term economic needs of smallholder communities as well as larger industries, but this contributes to serious carbon emissions and climate change. Communities located in peatlands suffer from high levels of poverty linked to resource degradation, low agricultural productivity and marginalisation. Climate change will further impact the resilience of these communities. Fishing is one of the main sources of livelihood and protein in Central Kalimantan, and often supports some of the poorest members of society. Nevertheless, fish and fishing livelihoods in Borneo have received little research attention in the past which is why I decided to focus on these aspects for my PhD and continue to do so for this fellowship. It is vital to improve our understanding of the linkages between livelihoods, peatland and forest degradation, community resilience, poverty alleviation and sustainable management of peatlands. The research priorities of Productivity and Climate Change are closely linked in tropical peatland landscapes, and the research that I propose for this fellowship will further elucidate this linkages.

My research takes an ambitious interdisciplinary approach to understanding complex socio-ecological systems to support more holistic approaches to conservation. It also has research impact at its heart. For this fellowship, this will include amongst other activities writing and publishing journal articles, attending and presenting at meetings and conferences, and for non-academic audiences; writing articles, blog posts and giving presentations about the importance of tropical peatlands. This will enable me to share my expertise of social science for conservation, as well as my experience of working in communities living in peatland landscapes. This fellowship will also allow me to engage in vital knowledge exchange and co-production activities with local communities in Indonesian Borneo.

In sum, the fellowship enables me to engage with and contribute my expertise to ongoing research programmes, while also developing my own independent research career path in a meaningful way that supports both the breadth and depth of its impact.


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Thornton S (2020) 'Pushing the limits': experiences of women in tropical peatland research in Marine and Freshwater Research

Description This award funded important limited research that built on my PhD findings. The limited research for this fellowship focused on tropical peatland landscapes and the communities living in these areas in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). This fellowship allowed me to improve my understanding of individual- and household-level practices of fishing and farming, and how we can move towards more sustainable uses of peatland areas to support poverty alleviation and biocultural conservation. It has importantly allowed me to capture how livelihoods have changed in the past 3 years following my PhD data collection, which is directly feeding into a publication I am currently working on. Along with the results from my PhD from interviews conducted in 2016, this represents a unique temporal data set showing livelihood changes over time in peatland communities. This will also directly inform the postdoctoral research that I am beginning this year.

In addition to the limited research above, this award supported me in building the impact from my research. Importantly I returned to the communities I worked with during my PhD to report the results from my PhD project. This is vital in continuing strong and ethical research relationships with the peatland communities in Indonesia. I was invited to join the IUCN Red List Review Workshop on Sundaland freshwater fish as a conservation expert in January 2019. This allowed me to build important networks with other freshwater fish researchers, and take part in the red listing activities, including writing reports on the freshwater fish conservation conservation plans (publications in progress). Participating in this workshop provided me with great experience and insight into freshwater fish conservation needs, which have directly informed funding applications. Furthermore, this award supported me in applying for and securing outreach funding with the British Ecological Society. This award supported me to organise and hold a 6-day exhibition in Leicester city centre showcasing the research that I have been doing, as well as that of Borneo Nature Foundation and the University of Leicester, on peat-swamp forest ecology and conservation. It was a great success with over 240 attendees (see my project featured on the BES grant stories here: I had never organised an exhibition before, and so this was a great learning experience! It allowed me to engage with a wide audience in Leicester, both young and old, and we got excellent feedback. This award has allowed me to take part in several science communication events: I was a finalist for the Speak Up for Food Security science communication competition held by the Global Food Security programme. For this I won a place on the 2-day science communication Masterclass (14th-15th March). I also won a play on a half-day training event called 'Engaging with Parliament; which was sponsored by the ESRC Impact Accelerator Account and the University of Leicester. Both events were excellent experiences and allowed me to develop my research communication skills. I was also invited as a notable academic from the university to participate in the University of Leicester Student Union's Go Green Week, where I was a panel member alongside Prof Susan Page in the 'Palm Oil Debate'. I have therefore been able to participate in extensive outreach activities, building impact from my research.

This award supported me in presenting my research at various international conferences and seminars, including one invited seminar at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), the Tropical Peat Ecosystem and Restoration Conference held in Palangkaraya (Indonesia), and the 50th International Peat Society Anniversary Jubilee Symposium in Rotterdam (Netherlands). This, again, is important in building my reputation as a leader in my field.

This award supported me in writing multiple publications, one which has now been submitted which presents some of my PhD interview results. The other has been published in Marine and Freshwater Science, called . 'Pushing the limits': Experiences of Women in Tropical Peatland Research'. I am the first author of both, which is important for my publication record as an early career researcher.

During this award I was also invited as a keynote speaker for the conference held by De Montfort University on The Global Promotion and Mediation of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (organised by the Media Discourse Centre, DMU). My keynote speech was entitled "In the Line of Fire: Peatlands, Sustainability and the UN Sustainable
Development Goals". This award has therefore supported me in continuing to build my reputation as an expert in my field.

This award supported me in seeking further training, in Adobe Illustrator and social science research methods including scenario building. I also developed multiple funding proposals throughout the fellowship (e.g. Leverhulme early Career Fellowship, British Ecological Society Outreach Grant, University of Leicester Early Career Research Funding). I was successful in the BES Outreach Grant application and UoL Early Career Research Funding, and the other proposals have allowed me to practise and improve in my proposal-writing skills. They will also directly feed into future funding proposals.

Lastly, this award supported me in conducting the extensive literature review that I outlined in my project objectives. However, while the initial plan was to conduct one on the aquaculture potential in Central Kalimantan peatlands, the continuing peatland fire issue led me to change this plan and instead conduct a literature review on the biophysical and social causes of the peatland fires in Indonesia. For this I reviewed over 170 journal articles, to produce an extensive and detailed review on the fire issue. This will directly feed into a publication that I am currently working on, which will also highlight some current misconceptions surrounding the fire situation which hinders effective fire management and policy.

In short, this award has supported me in completing the objectives of this project through completing publications, public engagement and outreach, developing funding proposals, conduct research visits to strengthen collaborations and network. It has supported me in attending multiple conferences and research meetings and lastly carry out the limited research in Indonesia.
Exploitation Route My research is directly informing the research activities of Borneo Nature Foundation in Indonesia. When the publications that have been started and developed by this award are published, they will be directly relevant for peatland conservation and management approaches (academic and non-academic audiences), including the activities conducted by the Indonesian Government in this field.
Sectors Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The literature review that I conducted on the biophysical and social causes of peatland fires will be directly used by a large company in Indonesia (APRIL Group) to inform their fire management and policy on peatlands in Indonesia.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Early Career Researcher Funding
Amount £676 (GBP)
Organisation University of Leicester 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2019 
End 06/2019
Description Outreach Grant
Amount £1,895 (GBP)
Funding ID OR18/1231 
Organisation British Ecological Society 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2019 
End 05/2019
Description Report for APRIL Group 
Organisation APRIL Group
Country France 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution I have conducted a literature review on the biophysical and social causes of fire on Indonesian peatlands. This will inform the work of the APRIL Group, and I will also be turning this report into a journal article (to be submitted to the International Journal of Wildland Fire).
Collaborator Contribution They provided information from their experiences of managing peatlands in Sumatra.
Impact Literature review and report entitled 'The Life of Fire on Indonesia's peatlands'. This will be turned into a journal article to be submitted to the International Journal of Wildland Fire in the next coming months.
Start Year 2019
Description BBC Radio Leicester Interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 2nd April: Interviewed by Ben Jackson during the opening of the exhibition 'Into the Swamp', discussing threats facing peatland areas in Indonesia.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description BBC Radio Leicester Interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 28th March: Interviewed on live radio by Ben Jackson introducing the exhibition 'Into the Swamp' and discussing personal experiences of working in tropical peatlands. Ben Jackson afterwards asked to interview us again.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Blog post 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Wrote a blog post for the Borneo Nature Foundation blog, entitled "21st of November: Celebrating fish and the strange species of Sebangau". The blog reaches international audiences and is also shared on BNF's facebook and twitter. This post is available online at :
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Conference presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Gave an oral presentation at the Tropical Peat Ecosystem and Restoration Conference, Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, 21-22nd November 2018. The presentation was entitled: "An interdisciplinary study of the peatland fish and fishing in Sebangau, Indonesian Borneo"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description In the Line of Fire: Peatlands, Sustainability and the UN Sustainable Development Goals 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I was invited to deliver (and delivered) the keynote speech for The Global Promotion and Mediation of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, Conference organised by the Media Discourse Centre, De Montfort University, Leicester. 16th September 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Into the Swamp 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The exhibition 'Into the Swamp' aimed to engage Leicester's community with the tropical peat-swamp forest research that researchers from the University of Leicester and Borneo Nature Foundation are leading in. The exhibition used photographs taken by myself and other field researchers from our research in Sabangau peat-swamp forest. These were accompanied with infographics and other educational materials about tropical peat-swamp forests, their ecology and conservation issues. I prepared these, and they will be based on the teaching materials that I prepared last year: Tropical Peatlands: Their global importance and role in the water and carbon cycles (

The key aims were to: 1) Increase public understanding and engagement with the ecology and conservation of tropical peat-swamp forests; 2) Increase public awareness of the conservation issues that these habitats face, and what they can do to help; 3) Bring the personal experiences of a woman field scientist to the public, to promote the women in STEM and to inspire young adults and children interested in the environment; 4) Further develop my skills in ecological science outreach.

We expected 150 people to attend the event over a total of 7 days. In the end, we ran the exhibition for 6 days (we had to shorten it for one day to make up for the higher printing costs than we had budgeted), but we had a fantastic 248 attendees! We therefore had almost double the amount of participants per day than we expected. A part of this was because of our successful advertisement of the event - we found out from several participants that they had heard about the event on the radio. I had approached BBC Radio Leicester, had given them information about the event and my contact details. Dr Sarah Cook and I were then invited for a live interview on the radio and it went so well that
Ben Jackson also came to the exhibition one morning when we were setting it up to interview us again! This was the first time either Sarah or I had ever been on radio, so it was a great experience for us both to think about how we communicate and work together.

We also had a Facebook event page that we regularly posted updates on, with 230 followers. Here we posted updates on how the event planning was going, and then during the event information about the exhibition. The advertising of the event was also done through flyering throughout the city, at cafes, bars, museums, community centres, libraries and

Results and Evaluation and Impact on non-Academic audiences:

248 people visited the exhibition. We had 41 completed feedback forms (17% completion rate).

The overall rating given for the event was 9.4/10 (standard deviation of 0.8).

The things people liked most about the exhibit were the standard of the photos and information (22 respondents), talking to the researchers and our positivity and passion for our work (17 respondents). People also really liked that we covered the fires and the impacts of these on local communities (6 respondents).

Some comments about people's favourite part of the exhibition included:
"Great pictures!" "Clear presentation of research" "Talking to the exhibitors/researchers" "The positivity"
"Sara! Also how educational it was showing the importance of this work to be done in Borneo"
"The pictures, passion of the organisers"
"Videos and pictures capture the research and forest very well!"
"Great photos and very understandable explanation, got a good idea of what's happening"
"The panel boards were very clear and Sara and Sarah were really clear and knowledgeable"
"Not only did you talk about the project's aims, but the stories of the team's day-to-day made it all the more interesting! I also loved that there were members of the team there."
"I love the photos and all the information about peat. Such a great balance between scientific info and photos and stories to help people actually imagine the place. I love the 'recipe for peat' bit!"
"It really highlighted the importance of peatlands for carbon storage, while also highlighting their importance to local people and the impact on local people of what happens to them"
"Beautiful pictures! The storyline is extremely engaging and it feels like you just want more of it. The background sound is amazing. It makes you want to go into the swamp."
"The friendly super-knowledgeable walking-talking explainers to their beatiful self-taken pictures"
"I really liked the topic, and how the event presented the different aspects of it. I think it showcases the environmental problems in the area very well and also how researchers do their work. The pictures were amazing."

93% of the respondents to the feedback reported that the amount of information provided was the 'right amount' (5% said too little, and 2% said too much). When asked if they knew anything about tropical peatlands before the event, 71% said they did not know anything, and 22% said they did know/knew something about tropical peatlands before the event. When asked if they learned anything new from the exhibition 0% said that they hadn't learned anything new, with all respondents who answered the question (4 were left blank) responded that they had learned something new. This shows that we were successful in reaching an audience that mainly had no or little previous knowledge about peatlands, and that most respondents left the exhibition having learnt something new.

Some of the feedback on what new things people learned included:
"I learned what I hoped that there are young people who really care about saving the planet from human destruction. We need more of them"
"About the fires - completely unaware of this, don't remember anything in news/headlines"
"All about the importance of peat!"
"Tropical peatlands are a great source of biodiversity and have great importance for the planet"
"What peatlands are, where to find them in the world (I didn't know we had peatlands in the UK), animals and vegetation in the peatlands"
"It was all new, I had no clue about the carbon levels or potential dangers of forest fires"
"I got a broader picture of the biodiversity that they support (beyond orangutan). I got much more of a picture of how local communities fit in and are affected by what happens to the peatlands"
"The fish research and also the work being done by UK researchers in conjunction with indonesian locals"

From the feedback, 79% said that they were 'very likely' to attend a similar event in the future following their experiences of this event, with the remaining 22% saying they were 'somewhat likely' to attend a similar event in the future (the other options were not so likely and not at all likely). When asked how likely they were to recommend the event to someone they knew 87% said they were very likely, with the other 13% reporting they were somewhat likely to do so (the other options also being not so likely and not at all likely).

The main feedback we got to improve included to have a longer exhibition (of course this was depended on funding), to have larger prints and visuals and that the room was a bit too large for the amount of material and so it felt a bit bare to some people. Some people also wanted to see interviews of researchers, and more personal experiences about life in the forest. This is all great feedback to get and will definitely be informing our future exhibitions!
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Invited Seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited seminar given at Nanyang Technological University, Asian School of the Environment. My seminar was entitled: 'An interdisciplinary study of the peatland fish of Sebangau: Fish diversity and the important of fish and fishing to local communities'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Palm Oil Debate 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact As part of the Student Union's Go Green Week: I was invited as a notable academic from the university (alongside Prof Susan Page) to discuss the issues surrounding palm oil and debate questions with the attendees.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019