Sungai Tohor, Tebingtinggi Island, Riau, Indonesia
How to stop the haze and have fun at the same time?
Here are the three ingredients: a group of passionate people, a peat swamp forest, and a warm, welcoming community.
Sungai Tohor is a village, part of the district of TebingTinggi Timur, in the Meranti Islands Regency in Riau Province. The island is covered entirely in peat. Since 2007, companies dug canals to drain the peatland for sago and pulpwood plantations, increasing the fire risks in the area. In 2014, massive fires started on one of the concessions and ravaged the island. The community petitioned against the companies and in 2016, the government revoked the license of one of the two concessions and gave the land back to the community to manage it sustainably. Several organisations, including PM Haze, BRG, UNDP and WALHI Riau, have built canal blocks in Sungai Tohor. According to the village, there are 22 “box dam” canal blocks and 1 concrete canal block over the two canals that run through the village.
We are currently not running any trips to our peatland restoration programme in Sungai Tohor. However if you are interested to impart your skills in forestry, hydrology, botany, community development and any other related expertise, please feel free to contact our programme director at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Reduced fire and haze risks through peatland restoration. With a two-pronged approach of rewetting and revegetation, the community will be able to maintain the water level in the peatlands, and to revegetate the burnt area to increase peat soil humidity and decrease peat soil temperatures. The rewetting and revegetation techniques learned from the pilot project will be documented and used in other community-based peatland restoration projects in the future.
2. Enhanced community-centric peatland restoration model. Community members are incentivised and empowered to participate the peatland restoration activities. The community engagement techniques learned from the pilot project will be documented and used in other community-based peatland restoration projects in the future.
3. Increased collaboration among regional stakeholders in peatland restoration. There will be new collaborations with Indonesian and international organisations in the process of implementing the pilot project. Such collaboration will deepen Singapore’s contribution to resolve the transboundary haze crisis and co-create a collaborative environment to achieve our Haze-Free ASEAN goal.
Our local partner
EKA (Ekonomik Kreatif Andalan) is an Indonesian registered Non Government Organisation (NGO) which was setup by members of the Sungei Tohor community. They are focused on the ecological well being of their village as well as the economic livelihoods of the community the live alongside. They play a ground supervisory role, assisting in the managing of construction and reforestation projects as part of our peatland restoration programme.
The story of Sungai Tohor
Sungai Tohor story
A past associated with deforestation and peat drainage
Sungai Tohor (Tohor River) is located on Tebingtinggi Island, Riau Province. Tebingtinggi Island is an extensive peatland area.
Riau alone has the largest stores of peat in Indonesia. Riau’s peat soils – some over 10 meters deep – contain an estimated 16.4 gigatons of carbon, nearly a quarter of Indonesia’s total (Uryu et al. 2008). Riau has experienced some of the most rapid and extensive deforestation in Indonesia, with total forest area declining by 65 per cent in the past quarter century. Riau’s peat forest cover has declined from 80 per cent in 1990 to just over 36 per cent in 2010.
The local crop: Sago palm
The village of Sungai Tohor is the oldest and largest village in the sub-district of Tebing Tinggi Timur. Peatlands began developing here after the Pleistocene ice age and over time came to support a complex forest ecosystem. Here lowland swamp forests including sago palm predominate. Sago was introduced by ancient seafarers sometime in the distant past and a trade developed.
When the village of Sungai Tohor was established, in 1904, sago was the staple subsistence food. Extracted from the sago palm, it provides the largest yield of edible starch for the least effort, of any known plant. One day’s work yields 17 days’ supply of sago.
Waste from sago is used as fodder, the trunk as firewood, the leaves as roofing material for houses and the bark for making a variety of containers. Over the whole island of Tebingtinggi almost all families have cultivated sago palm for generations, relying on this for their livelihood. They also cultivate coconut, areca palms and maintain small areas of rubber trees.
A sago grove, sago harvest and transport
From the 1970s, with an increase in the economic value of sago, the community began developing other products. They developed refineries to produce “wet” sago. Today, of the 28 refineries in the district of Tebin Tinggi Timur, 12 are located in Sungai Tohor. Before these refineries were built, middlemen controlled the community’s production. Once the community built its own refineries, they were able to break free from the middlemen’s control. Sago production reached 480 tons per month, then in 2007 a 10,390 hectares pulpwood plantation permit was issued to PT Lestari Unggul Makmur (PT LUM), a pulpwood plantation company.
A big portion of the concession area was covered by natural forest in good condition that encroached on existing community rubber and sago groves. Despite community protests PT LUM cut over 10 kilometres of canals through the peatlands.
Peat canal drained by PT LUM in its concession in Pulau Tebing Tinggi
By 2011 local production of sago was in decline because the drainage canals began drying out the peatland forest ecosystems and reducing sago yields. Under these conditions canal blocking became imperative as a way of restoring the water table and boosting sago yields.
Canal blocking in Sungai Tohor
In 2014, massive fires ravaged the island so the community invited President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) to visit. He was impressed by the community’s peat management plan saying that “we must not allow out tropical forests to disappear because of monoculture plantations like oil Palm.” He added, that “canal blocking will help keep peatland areas wet and prevent fires.” 
Finally, in 2016, the government revoked PT LUM license and returned the 10,390 hectares to the local community to manage it sustainably
“Managing peatlands in Indonesia: A case study of small islands in Riau Province, Sumatra”. Monash University. Monash Sustainability Institute (October 2013)
 “The Swamp-Sago Industry in West Malaysia: A Study of the Sungei Batu Pahat Floodplain”. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Tan, K. (1983)
 “The Economic Potential of Sago in Sungai Tohor (Riau, Sumatra)”. The Samdhana Institute. (December 2013)
 Swift Action on Forest Fires by President Jokowi. Weimar Witoelar. Jakarta Post (December 2014)
Highlight #1 The sago palm
Sago is an edible starch, the base of the local diet, that is extracted from the trunk of the sago palm. Over the whole island of Tebingtinggi almost all families have cultivated sago palm for generations, relying on this for their livelihood.
In this PEEP, we will visit the sago plantations and the sago mills where the palm is transformed into food.
The local community plants the sago palm within the forest, in between native trees. Sago grows better on wet peat which is why the community has been greatly affected by peat drainage.
Sago is transported from the forest to the mill by using the canals. The canal blocks include a gate to allow the floating sago to pass.
Highlight #2 Canal blocking
On Tebingtinggi island, large canals have been dug by companies to drain the peatland. This drainage affects the local community as they rely mainly on sago production.
When the peat is exposed to the air, it starts degrading. This causes subsidence: the ground disappears.
Here, the coconut trees are 30 years old. They have about 1m of roots exposed. This means that they are loosing about 3cm of soil per year. It is an average subsidence rate.
In areas with very bad drainage, particularly when the water level varies a lot during the year, the subsidence can be even worse. Blocking the canals allows to increase the water level but also to reduce the variations during the year.
Canal blocking. A system of gates allows the floating sago to go through.
The dams allow to store water during the wet season to keep it longer during the dry season.
It is estimated that a dam will raise the water level up to about 500m upstream. This means that dams should be built every 500m on canals that are sometimes kilometres long. Because the downstream of a canal-block will tend to be dryer, dams are built first on the coast and then progressively inland to avoid creating dry areas.