A Niche Environmental Prize—With Huge Global Stakes

photo:  Konstantin Aksenov/shutterstock

photo:  Konstantin Aksenov/shutterstock

The thing that’s so compelling about the Indonesian Peat Prize is that the problem it seeks to solve is as narrowly focused as it is important. As we pointed out back in 2016, the problem of burning peatlands in Indonesia may sound small in scope, but the human health threat and the implications for climate change are staggering, with global impacts.

Now, the contest has wrapped up, the $1 million prize has been awarded, and the initiative has demonstrated the potential for such a foundation-backed challenge to bring together bright minds from all over to hammer down on such a serious problem. 

The winner is the appropriately named International Peat Mapping Team (IPMT), which includes experts from Germany, the Netherlands and Indonesia. Since the prize launched two years ago, they rose to the top of 44 total entrants spanning 10 countries, narrowed down by a scientific advisory board. 

The contest itself is a unique collaboration. The cash award was fronted by the Packard Foundation, and the competition designed by consulting firm Context Partners, a Portland-based B Corp (they come up with a lot of prizes, but also developed a sustainability program for Ikea). And it was set in motion by an agency of the Indonesian government as part of an effort to crack down on the destruction of peatlands. 

The sprawling archipelago nation, the fourth-most populous in the world, has high concentrations of peat, which is a dense, boggy mush of decaying plant matter. Indonesia is also a large producer of agriculture products like palm oil, and supply chains are clearing peatlands to make room, drying them out or burning them, unintentionally or not. This is bad, but it’s much worse considering peatlands store about a third of the world's soil carbon, making them crucial landscapes when it comes to managing climate change. And to top it all off, the thick smoke from peat fires is a deadly public health threat. 

So a crackdown on illegal clearing is hugely needed, but also very hard to accomplish for reasons both political and logistical. Indonesia’s dense forests and the varying depth of peat bogs makes it difficult to know exactly where the peat is. The competition sought a team that could greatly increase the accuracy of mapping in an affordable way. 

The winner came up with a method to combine satellite imagery, LIDAR and on-the-ground measurements to create cost-effective, accurate maps of peatlands, including how deep they run. Their solution will be put to work as a step toward more effective conservation efforts in Indonesia, including managing peatlands and keeping them saturated to prevent fires. IPMT is going to put the winnings toward more peat research, and as a nice touch, scholarships for Indonesians to attend college in Germany. Protecting peat is increasingly understood as an important worldwide challenge, so the team’s work could be used in other locations.

While it’s tough to say whether this outcome couldn’t have been achieved with a more standard grant or government program, a prize can be a way of casting a wide net and getting a mix of ideas. The competitive aspect was also likely useful here, given the need to balance cost and effectiveness. The Indonesian government has a lot of work ahead, but it seems to have found an effective way to shine a spotlight on a problem in serious need of a solution. 

It's not surprising to find the Packard Foundation behind this effort. The Bay Area grantmaker plays a distinctive and critical role in the environmental funding world with its keen focus on the nexus between conservation science and climate change. It's often tackled complex ecosystems issues that other funders aren't paying attention to.