Peat Swamp: The ‘Rice Pot’ of the South

Posted October 14, 2019

Wassana Petdaeng remembers scampering onto her mother’s boat even before the sun rose. Twice a week it was a routine she looked forward to, cutting sedge grass to sell to villagers who would use it to create handicrafts. Now nearly five decades later, while she still cuts sedge grass, she says it a resource that is threatened. In the past several years, dry weather linked to climate change and the rise of palm oil plantations have led to the decline of peat swamps where sedge grass grown. 

The Kreng Sub-district in Nakhon Sri Thammarat Province contains Thailand’s second largest peat swamp forest, 65 % of which is under threat of degradation. Villagers here also known as ‘Kreng people’ traditionally depend on the peat swamp for water, food as well as sedge grasses that is used to create handicrafts such as bags, mats and baskets. As they tell it the peat swamp is their economic life line what they also call a ‘Gold Bearing Area.’ 

Inside the peat swamp forest or sedge meadow there are two different kinds of species, a typical one locally known as “Krajood” and a small one “Krajood-noo”. The look of typical tufted-hair grass might deceive outsiders into believing that it is useless, but sedge is considered an economic boon in Kuan Kreng and has been supporting livelihoods for generations. 

Local wisdom is passed on from ancestors. Villagers are divided into small groups and each group has different roles and responsibilities. The selection and careful cropping of healthy-green sedge grass is crucial and is done by hand using a sickle. Then the stems are enameled with watery mud and dried in the sun for a couple of days. When the stems are perfectly dried, they are flattened with a massive rolling stone. After that process, villagers will either start weaving the stems or dye them to give the handicrafts decorative color before weaving. Last but not least, the almost-ready handicrafts are cleaned and lacquered. Finally, all the products are sent to customers or stores in urban area. 

Not only locals can benefit from the healthy ecosystem of the peat swamp forest, everyone is welcome to use the natural resources of peat swamp, as it is viewed as a public space.

Somwang Maliwong, a 40-year-old man originally from Srisaket province, previously worked in a durian garden, but he’s been cutting and selling sedge grasses in the peat swamp for more than 10 years. “I moved here after getting married. Back then, I was working in durian garden in Chumphon Province. But I wanted to see my son and be able to accompany him to school. So, I moved back to Nokhon Sri Thammarat Province and start selling sedge grass for a living. I started with only 800 baht in my pocket, now I have my own house and a car. The peat swamp has given me a future.” 

Kreng people see peat swamps as ‘The Rice Pot’ or a means of securing the necessities of life. Leaving the swamps under threat is similar to breaking their rice pot. In addition, peat swamps are critically important for preventing climate change. They sequester billions of tons of carbon which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

To protect the rich biodiversity of peat swamp and the livelihood of locals, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) together with Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP) and civil society have been developing a nature-based solution for enhancing the peat swamp management capacity under ‘Maximizing Carbon Sink Capacity and Conserving Biodiversity through Sustainable Conservation, Restoration and Management of Peat Swamp Ecosystem Project’ with the support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The main objective of this project is to find solutions that will benefit both communities and natural peatland ecosystems. This will be achieved by improving effective protection of natural peat swamp forests in Kuan Kreng sub-district, implementing innovative approaches to avoid drainage and restore peat swamps, and strengthening national strategies for the use of land in peat swamps.

A management plan is now under design with active participation of all stakeholders and partners. This plan, together with plans for land use at the sub-district level, will be adjusted to ensure that drainage, arable agriculture and large-scale palm oil cultivation are excluded from permissible activities. These efforts will contribute to the achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), especially SDG 5 (Gender Equality), SDG 13 (Climate Action), and SDG 15 (Life on Land).

“This is what people do in my village. I earn at least 400 baht per day. It’s our livelihood. Peat swamp is the source for our living.” Wassana Petdaeng added.