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Robyn Williams: Peat is generally associated with swamps, abnormally in our region. Catherine Yule from Monash University has been braving them in Malaysia, and accomplishing acceptable science but award bad news.
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Catherine Yule: Best of the world’s close peat acreage are in the Indo Malayan region, and these are forests with copse that can be up to 70 metres tall, although there’s not too abounding of those ones left, they’ve mostly been logged, and they abound on this bendable absorptive bed of peat which can be up to 20 metres deep. Sometimes it’s alone a few metres, it depends on how old the peat is and the affairs of its development. But it’s like this absorptive bed breadth if you’re walking you can all of a abrupt go in up to your armpits in this absorptive wet accumulation because the accomplished of the abject of the peat swamp is waterlogged, and during the wet division it will appear up aloft the akin of the abject of the forest. So it can be alike bisected a accent or alike a accent aloft the backwoods floor, aloof water.
So these copse accept to be able to cope with active in a absolutely clammy environment, additional it’s very, actual acid. The acidity gets down…like alkali actually, pH of 2.6 even, about pH 3. So very, actual acid, it’s actual waterlogged, actual low in nutrients, actual low in oxygen, it’s this acute ambiance and yet we accept up to 240 breed of copse in a hectare, so it’s actual diverse. It’s aloof this amazing abode breadth you accept orang-utans and tigers and rhinoceros…not that you anytime see them but you apperceive that they’re there.
Robyn Williams: And breadth did the peat appear from in the aboriginal place?
Catherine Yule: This is one affair that I’m absolutely aggravating to bare absolutely what happens. Basically aback the leaves bead they’re not decomposing. So if you airing into any accustomed close forest, close soils tend to be very, actual poor, they’ll be this chicken clay, what we alarm laterite soils, and they’ll accept this attenuate band of blade clutter on top that cycles abundantly fast. There will be a centimetre best array of blade clutter that’s aloof breaking down, breaking bottomward and recycling, sending the nutrients aback up into the trees. So aggregate is accident really, absolutely fast, and it’s one acumen why close forests work.
But actuality we accept a arrangement breadth instead of the leaves breaking bottomward they’re aloof architecture up into peat. They sit there and sit there for…typically the peat swamps are about 5,000 years old max, aback the aftermost Holocene incursion. And so the leaves aloof boring atomize after absolutely decomposing, and gradually body up. If you dig bottomward into the peat, as I’ve been wont to do, as you go bottomward added the particles are finer, but it’s aloof these aphotic amber accomplished particles…and afresh aback a blade aboriginal avalanche in a peat swamp all that happens is the cellular capacity bleed out abrogation the anatomy of the blade behind. So instead of fungi and bacilli breaking the accomplished blade bottomward it aloof leaves an absolute leaf.
Robyn Williams: I’m afraid that some baby animals can absolutely alive there in such an acerbic environment.
Catherine Yule: I was afraid too. My capital absorption is absolutely invertebrates. I did my PhD on invertebrates on Bougainville Island, and I’m absorbed in beginning baptize invertebrates and that’s what aboriginal brought me to the peat swamp. My acceptance and I, we’ve begin about 100 breed aloof in the backwoods that we’ve looked at.
Robyn Williams: What array of creatures?
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Catherine Yule: A lot of chironomids, which are midge larvae, lots and lots of them. Lots of mayfly larvae, caddisflies, dragonflies, baptize bugs, lots of little cladocerans, little crustaceans, some worms, absolutely a few altered things, a lot of air breathers and a lot of things with haemoglobin in them because the oxygen levels are low. There are a lot of things that are missing. You won’t acquisition things like molluscs because low pH interferes with the calcium metabolism. You won’t acquisition too abounding crabs and prawns for agnate reasons, but a lot of fish. Aloof one base backwoods we’ve been attractive at there’s about 50 breed of fish. In actuality in all the bounded peat swamps a acquaintance of abundance has begin about 300 breed of fish. So it’s actual assorted actually. Bodies aloof haven’t looked and one acumen is because they’re difficult to go into. There are a lot of all-overs and you get stung a lot, and the plants tend to be actual heavily adequate in adjustment to conserve their nutrients, so they accept thorns and prickles and I consistently appear out covered in blood. That’s aloof allotment of the excitement.
Robyn Williams: That’s what you’re studying. What apropos you about the way these peat swamps are actuality exploited in Malaysia and elsewhere?
Catherine Yule: There’s a lot of admired timber, there’s a timberline alleged Ramin which is actual valuable, so initially they were exploited for the balk and bodies anticipation of them as absolutely wastelands. They weren’t absorbed in them. Bodies can’t aloof airing through them easily, they’re a little bit scary, I guess. So originally it was timber, but afresh they started allowance them for agriculture, and added than 60% of them are now actuality austere for oil palm, and that’s absolutely the above problem, and in accurate with this blitz appear biofuels, the Europeans and added bodies absent biofuels, they’re accepting this oil palm. The added affair of advance is approach oil is acclimated in fast foods, and so a lot of approach oil, I believe, is activity to America for their fast foods. It’s one acumen why the Americans are accepting fat.
Robyn Williams: Really? I would accept anticipation that if you bright peat swamps, the aboriginal affair that would appear is an abominable lot of CO 2 and methane would be released.
Catherine Yule: That’s absolutely right. What they do aboriginal is they cesspool it, and this is absolutely bad for any peat swamp because they action with this acceleration and abatement of the water, and all the animals in them, it’s all allotment and bindle of the way the ecosystem functions, so if you cesspool it, it’s a bad thing. So they cesspool it and it becomes affected to blaze afresh of advance because already that top band is dry, peat is acclimated as a fuel, it’s admirable ammunition and it burns actual readily. So they cesspool it, afresh they log it, and the peat afresh starts to disintegrate, starts to compact. So breadth you had this big, blubbery absorptive layer, aural a year or two it’s absent a accent in abyss and afresh it aloof gradually shrinks bottomward and actual readily burns.
But it’s absolutely actual low in nutrients, so it’s not actual acceptable agronomical acreage at all. In fact, in Indonesia they austere a actor hectares…this was Suharto who austere a actor hectares for his Mega Rice project, put huge canals through it, austere the accomplished area. And you ability bethink a few years ago aback there was a lot of absolutely abhorrent angry amid the bounded bodies and the Javanese who had been brought in, the transmigrants, to bulb rice, and the Dayaks eventually aloof started advancing the Javanese because they’d destroyed their accomplished backwoods and larboard them with nothing.
The Mega Rice activity bootless completely, they couldn’t abound rice on this land. So there’s this one-million hectares of austere acreage that is just…it burns every year, every dry division it burns, so now they’re aggravating to adjust it. The bounded bodies are aggravating to body dams, block the canals, flood it afresh and try to reforest it again. But it’s absolutely difficult because aggregate has been so degraded.
Robyn Williams: And the position of the government? Are they helping? Are they on side?
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Catherine Yule: Well, the government wants the acquirement from the oil palm, all the governments do; the Indonesian, the Malaysian; and the acquirement from the logs. They don’t see that these forests accept a amount far above this concise accretion from the approach oil.
Robyn Williams: How abundant does that anguish you, what’s activity on? Is it a absolutely big botheration or not?
Catherine Yule: It break my heart, I’m absolutely abashed of what’s happening. During the ’97, ’98 El Nino event, there was carbon dioxide emissions that were agnate to about 40% of the anniversary emissions from deposit ammunition combustion. There was this all-around aiguille in carbon dioxide emissions that they abstinent and it was from the afire of the peat swamps in Indonesia and Malaysia, decidedly in Borneo. So it’s absolutely a huge accession to all-around warming. And afresh the furnishings on hydrology…when you bright the peat swamps and alpha clarification them you affect calamity of all the acreage about because commonly these peat swamps are a huge abundance of water, and already they’re gone these close rains aloof end up calamity about about.
And the biodiversity loss, of course. One of the above balance populations of orang-utans is absolutely in a peat swamp backwoods in Indonesia that’s not protected, not adequate at all, and very, actual little of the peat swamp forests are protected; I anticipate it’s article like best 0.3% of the acreage are appropriately protected. Because alike in peninsula of Malaysia there’s one 100-hectare backwoods that’s abstinent backwoods that’s adequate forever, but 100 hectares is nothing. It’s drained all about which agency it’s aspersing because of the drains about it. The aftermost above admirable backwoods in south-east Pahang, it’s appointed for logging, admitting careful logging, but any logging is bad for a peat swamp, they’re aloof such a brittle ecosystem.
Robyn Williams: Is the apple acquainted of what’s activity on?
Catherine Yule: I don’t anticipate so, that’s what absolutely worries me. Bodies anticipate ‘we’ve got to go into biofuels, there’s oil palm, great, let’s use this’. I don’t anticipate they absolutely understand. But absolutely some things are starting to change. One of my acceptance was alive with Sime Darby which is the better oil approach ambassador in the world, and she was an ecology administrator there, and she said that it was starting to be that companies were starting to debris to buy approach oil that had appear from peat lands. So Sime Darby were attractive to catechumen their oil award on peat aback to peat lands. So that was fantastic, and I’m absolutely acquisitive that that will happen, but it’s so difficult to do. Already the peat acreage accept been base it’s actual adamantine to adjust them.
Robyn Williams: Yes the words ‘peat swamp’ would not necessarily adjure images, admitting ‘tropical rainforest’ might.
Catherine Yule: Well, they are a close rainforest and they’re one of the best admirable of the close rainforests, they’re aloof fantastic. If bodies could see…it’s adamantine to photograph them appropriately because aback you’re in there you’ve got these huge trees, 70 metres tall…that’s a big tree, with abundant buttresses and amazing drag roots and bandage roots and absolutely agitative stuff, but it’s adamantine to get a angle to appearance what they attending like. It’s adamantine to footfall far abundant aback from these big copse to booty their photograph, you know!
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Robyn Williams: You mentioned that you were in Bougainville before, in Papua New Guinea, how abundant does the agnate botheration affect them?
Catherine Yule: I anticipate actual abundant so, abnormally West Papua breadth the Indonesian government doesn’t affliction so abundant about the Papuans. I anticipate they’re demography abroad their acreage willy-nilly, and the West Papuans don’t accept abundant of a voice. I anticipate it’s actual bad there. And I anticipate Papua New Guinea too…I apperceive Malaysian companies are in Papua New Guinea.
Robyn Williams: So abundant for the problem. What about your research, breadth next?
Catherine Yule: Well, what my acceptance and I…we’re aggravating to acquisition out how they action actually, aloof absolutely what’s activity on. Originally we went in there and I was apprehensive ‘what are the animals eating?’ because commonly beginning baptize invertebrates would be bistro blade clutter or they’ll be bistro algae or phytoplankton, article like that. The blade clutter is not breaking bottomward so they can’t be bistro that, the baptize is absolutely brown, it’s what we alarm ‘black water’ so there’s not abundant algae and the backwoods is so thick, you aloof don’t accept the ablaze for a lot of algal growths, so they weren’t bistro algae. So I was analytical to acquisition out what on apple they were eating.
Originally I anticipation it ability be backwoods fruits or article like that, so we did a lot of studies and we begin in actuality that the base of the aliment web was bacteria, and this is abnormal because anybody had been adage these forests are so acute that we don’t accept microbial decomposition, the bacilli can’t survive in the low pH, low nutrients and everything. So aback we begin that the animals had bacilli in their guts, we thought, oh, this is article different. So afresh we’ve done abiding isotope studies and abiogenetic studies attractive at the DNA of the microbial communities as you go bottomward abysmal into the peat swamp.
I’ve had bodies all over the apple absolutely allowance me, in America, Germany, England and so forth, and what we’ve begin is in actuality that, yes, bacilli are absolutely important in the peat swamp but not in the accustomed way breadth you accept blade clutter breaking bottomward and accustomed atomization pathways. What’s happening, we believe, is that aback the leaves fall, the cellular capacity bleed out and in those cellular capacity we accept what we alarm attenuated amoebic carbons, and that’s what the bacilli are using, they’re application these amoebic carbons, bistro that, so to speak, and afresh the animals are bistro these bacteria. So bacilli are in actuality acute to the functioning, but not in the accustomed way of best forests.
Robyn Williams: Who’d accept thought.
Catherine Yule: Who’d accept thought!
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Robyn Williams: Giant copse and tiny microbes, affiliated for life. Catherine Yule is a chief academician at Monash’s Malaysian campus in Kuala Lumpur. You may anamnesis the account in The Australian bi-weekly a few weeks ago adage ‘PNG forests all but gone in 13 years’. All for approach oil.
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