In developing countries at the present time there is an increasing demand for agricultural expansion onto new land caused by population pressure, by deterioration of existing land as a result of overfarming, or by competition for land from industry and urbanization. For many countries self-sufficiency in food either necessitates intensification of food cropping on existing land or the reclamation of new land for agriculture.
Most land not yet in agricultural use has some limitations on its suitability for agriculture. Much of this land is too steep or too wet for farming. In general the limitations caused by wetness are technically easier to overcome so wetlands offer better prospects for sustained agriculture than steepland.
Wetlands have been developed as farmland ever since the very earliest agricultural settlements and the most suitable and some less suitable land has been occupied for centuries. Many undeveloped wetlands have serious limitations of which the presence of thick deposits of organic material or peat is but one.
A prerequisite for the successful farming on wetlands is the provision of an effective drainage system to create sufficiently well-aerated soil conditions to allow crop growth. In this respect peatswamps are no different to other land. Their reclamation however, often leads to unforeseen problems which are usually a result of the lack of understanding of their underlying causes. There is relatively little experience of the reclamation of peatswamps in tropical countries particularly those in the developing world.
As well as providing farmland after reclamation peatswamps have a potential for peat extraction if the peat is of good quality. Peat can provide an attractive source of energy particularly in remote areas and in countries that depend entirely on outside fossil energy resources. For this reason the last few decades have seen many attempts in the tropics to tap such resources, with mixed results. Unfamiliarity with the conditions of the swamps and the nature of the peat materials, among reclamation engineers and farmers alike, has caused many failures.
Often, disappointments could have been avoided if the knowledge of appropriate reclamation procedures and suitable agricultural management specifically geared to peat soils had been readily available. Considerable knowledge has been acquired both through reclamation efforts in temperate countries over the last few centuries and to a lesser extent, more recently in the tropics. Some problems caused by peat reclamation cannot be solved. One of them is the fact that peat once drained will gradually disappear, so sustained agriculture on peat is a fallacy.
This Bulletin aims to consolidate the up-to-date knowledge available on the characteristics of tropical peatswamps, and to describe the management required to reclaim them and to bring them into production. It is comprehensive and intended for all disciplines involved in peatswamp reclamation. All aspects of peatswamps are covered, from their genesis to the environmental impact of their reclamation on neighbouring ecosystems.
This Bulletin is not a working manual in the sense that it provides answers to all problems which might arise. The subject is too wide in scope and the conditions too variable to make this possible in a volume of this size. The Bulletin tries to focus on principles, processes and procedures to create awareness of the likely problems involved, and to show ways and means to solve them. It also provides a carefully chosen bibliography covering most of the issues raised.