Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils

Mar 18, 2013

The Biochar Revolution

Dear friends,

In past project reports I've laid out the basics of why charcoal added to soils (known as bio-char or terra preta) is a win-win-win.  Charcoal sequesters atmospheric CO2 for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  At the same time it creates healthy soil structure and benefits beneficial micro-organisms in soils.  And, on top of all that, in our last report I described how bio-char is an Amazonian tradition, invented by the indigenous people of the region where our organization, Camino Verde, now works to plant trees and improve lives.  

What I want to describe now is the integration of all these elements, the bringing together of the parts to form a whole: a vision of a more sustainable, humane future created in part by something so simple it's right under our nose.

Nothing short of a revolution.  With apologies to the author of one well-titled book, this "Bio-Char Revolution" is starting to sweep the planet.  And not a moment too soon.  In Africa and the United States, in Australia and Latin America, people are adding charcoal to their soils and spreading the word about this powerful technology.

We at Camino Verde are excited to be a part of it.  In 2012 we started by adding charcoal to our compost piles-- helping provide habitat for important micro-organisms and lock in nutrients that would otherwise be leached out-- and in our vegetable gardens.  In 2013 we'll be stepping up our game: we are currently exploring options for technologies and systems to produce our own bio-char.  

Our plan is to utilize bamboo-- incredibly fast-growing and pulling in more CO2 than trees-- as a renewable source of charcoal.  The bamboo grows, sequestering CO2 in its woody fibers.  Charring the bamboo keeps that carbon tied up in a stable form.  Even composting organic matter re-releases much plant carbon as CO2 and the even more harmful methane.  With charcoal the carbon stays in, for centuries or even millenia.

At the same time, we're talking with our region's largest sawmill about turning scrapwood and even sawdust into biochar.  With tons of wood debris at our disposal, we hope to develop a partnership with this least likely of allies that can be repeated anywhere that wood is milled around the globe.

We've already introduced bio-char to our region and set our sights on improving the world we live in.  But we can't do any of this without your help.  We're grateful for your support and your interest.

With warm regards,

Dec 13, 2012

Terra Preta: An Amazonian Tradition

Dear friends,

In previous reports for the "Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils" project weve talked about the whys and the hows of charcoal being used to improve soil fertility.  Soil charcoal, or "biochar," is a win-win: improving soil for farmers and locking in greenhouse CO2 for thousands of years. 

But where does soil charcoal come from?

Curiously, from our very own backyard here at Camino Verde: the depths of the Amazon rainforest.  In fact, a big part of what inspired us to begin working with biochar is the legacy of soil charcoal in the Amazon basin.  We were fascinated to learn that for hundreds, probably thousands of years, indigenous people of the Amazon have used charcoal as a soil ammendment, knowing full well what its taken modern scientists decades to unravel.

Terra preta (Portuguese for "black earth") has been created by various Amazonian tribes for millenia.  Mixing compost, broken ceramics, and charcoal into the soil, the indigenous technology of terra preta has allowed for intensive agriculture in the notoriously fragile soils of the Amazon region.  Early reports by exploring Spaniards mentioned huge cities throughout the rainforest, including the El Dorado of the conquistadors imagination.  Many modern researchers believe these reports of Amazonian civilization are in fact very real.  And that terra preta is crucial to understanding how the Amazons soils could have supported the intensive agriculture critical to maintaining a civilization.

Incredibly, terra preta soils created in the Amazon by indigenous people thousands of years ago continue to be fertile and productive.  Many documented cases show modern Amazonians selling the rich black soil to plant nurseries and gardening companies, "mining" their "black gold."  Others keep it in the ground and produce year after year of bountiful crops-- a feat unheard of in the Amazon, where soils are often left to rest for fifteen years between crops. 

Even more recently, terra preta has been suggested as an important strategy for soil conservation and improvement throughout the tropics.  Projects have sprouted up using biochar around the world.  Camino Verdes is one of many efforts to bring back a prehistoric technology that just might help save the world.

Improving soils through sustainable means is an Amazonian tradition with ancient roots.  Were proud to be a part of furthering that tradition.  And were grateful for your support in making it happen.

Sep 13, 2012

What's going on in the soil?

Hello once again, dear friends and supporters,

In the last project report, I spoke about the significance of carbon capture and how it is that by turning a plant into charcoal we are in fact making a carbon negative transaction. 

If this were charcoal's only impact, that would still be important.  But as in nature, "stacking functions" is important, and we would hope that charcoal knows more than this one trick.  And in fact, that's just the case.  Charcoal is in fact very useful for other reasons as well.

So now I want to talk a little bit about why charcoal is useful.  Beyond its carbon sequestering power, charcoal or biochar is also incredibly beneficial to farmers and conservationists alike.

Here's why.

Remember how "activated charcoal" is used in many water filters? This is because charcoal's molecular structure is full of nooks and crannies, little niches where particles can cling and hide. It is this structure that makes charcoal a good water filter: small debris and microbes are caught and held in the nooks and crannies.

And in like fashion, charcoal provides holding space for important nutrients in the soil.  It doesn't hold these minerals and trace minerals so tenaciously that plants can't get them. But it does hold the particles in firmly enough that pounding rains and baking sun-- constants in hot rainforest regions like ours-- don't leach the nutrients out, which is an eternal issue in tropical agriculture.

Charcoal does not, itself, provide nutrients, but it does allow for nutrients in the soil to be kept in the soil. This explains the stunning, long-term fertility of so-called terra preta (Amazonian dark earth) which was created by pre-Colombian indigenous people of the Amazon by combining charcoal and composted organic matter to form sustainable richness that is still appreciable after even thousands of years.

Which brings me to the other important way that charcoal benefits the soil: homes for microbes. 

More and more, soil scientists are understanding the importance of soil micro-organisms to make nutrients available to plants. We are learning that without the microbial allies found in, say, a rich batch of compost, soils cease to function. The soil itself is a teaming ecosystem, and fertility is next to meaningless without these microscopic messengers delivering fertility to plants.

And, it turns out, the same nooks and crannies that allow charcoal to trap microbes in a water filter can, in the soil, be seen as a sort of extensive habitat. A friend of mine who is studying soil science for his master's told me that combining charcoal with compost or "compost teas" of beneficial micro-organisms is an extraordinarily effective way to build soil fertility quickly.

Stacking functions means doing something good that is useful in several different ways. Charcoal is a durable carbon sink, sequestering CO2 for hundreds or even thousands of years. And it also enriches the earth where it is introduced, keeping nutrients in the soil and providing boundless habitat for the microbes that are the landmark of a healthy soil.

This is exactly the thinking motivating this project. And the coolest thing about it? It is in fact an ancient technology, developed by the indigenous people of the Amazon probably several thousand years ago. More on that in the next report.

For now, our greetings and deep gratitude for your support. And the soil thanks you too!

Jun 22, 2012

How does charcoal make a difference?

Dear friends and supporters,

It goes like this: a plant grows, breathing in carbon dioxide from the air and turning it into solid mass, the "organic matter" that the plant calls its very own body.  By simply living, a plant pulls suffocating CO2 out of the atmosphere.

If the plant is allowed to fall back to the ground, to decompose, to compost, much of the CO2 it inhaled when alive is re-released into the atmosphere as the plant rots away-- carbon neutral: inhaled when alive, released once more in decomposition. 

But, if the carbon that makes up a plant´s body were to somehow be kept from decomposing, it could be "captured," "sequestered," or "sunk," that is, kept from returning to the atmosphere-- carbon negative.  In fact, one of the most reliable ways to keep a plant´s trapped stowage of CO2 is to char the plant matter (not burn, but char), creating something called biochar, or simply, charcoal. 

To make charcoal, organic matter is subjected to a low-oxygen burn.  Burn probably isn´t even the right word-- it´s pyrolisis rather than combustion, and produces charcoal rather than ash and smoke.  Little CO2 or methane is released in the process, and the carbon trapped in the organic matter remains trapped-- charred carbon can remain stable (ie, isn´t re-released) for hundreds or even thousands of years. 

We took a look at the sawmills and brazil nut processors in our area and a light bulb went off... if we could take sawdust and brazil nut shells, the widely available materials that are considered trash-- which is usually burnt or dumped into rivers-- and then char them, we could take the CO2 captured by plants during their life and make them semi-permanently a part of healthier soils, rather than returning them to the atmosphere as harmful greenhouse gases. 

And that´s just what we are doing.  With your help.

Next report, we´ll take a glance at why charcoal is good for the soil.  In the meantime, please enjoy a little piece of Camino Verde propaganda: a short documentary made by our friend Lara Weatherly.  It focuses on our primary mission: planting trees.  But rest assured, your support for Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils is helping our trees to grow even stronger and healthier.

Thanks once again for giving us a hand.

Mar 26, 2012

A look at Camino Verde, 2012

Dear Friends,
I'm copying here Camino Verde's latest email Missive, which was very popular with our supporters this month.  I wanted to give you a broader sense of what Camino Verde does in the world, not just with this one specific project on GlobalGiving.  Please let me know if you'd like to be included directly on our email list.  We send out Missives 3 or 4 times a year.  I hope you enjoy it! ....

Camino Verde is in an exciting period of transformation and growth.  Now, usually in these missives I give you a summary of what's new with Camino Verde.  And I will do so, briefly, at the end of this one.  But first I want to tell you a bit about what makes the work we do so meaningful to me.
When people ask me what Camino Verde does, I tell them what our mission says: we plant trees.  And encourage others to plant trees too.  This usually makes people think of little seedlings in planting bags, or the image of hands carefully placing a plant into the soil.  And indeed it was a photo of just that which appeared on one of our very first missives.  
But now when I'm out walking in the twenty acres of trees we've reforested, it seems to me that the seedling maybe isn't the appropriate image anymore.  The exact tree pictured in that old missive photo is now taller than me.  We have breadfruits that are perfectly respectable climbing trees at this point.  Pink cedars that at two years old are eight inches in diameter and several stories high.  Jackfruits that are adorned with watermelon-sized offspring.  Hundreds of trees planted by our partner farmers that are now taller than the farmers themselves.  And it's a particular thrill to stand in the midst of five hundred moena hardwoods that are now all nearing ten feet tall, remembering well the month we planted them all.
Maybe I should be telling folks, "We plant trees, and then we take care of them."  We watch in awe as they grow past us in size and weight and majesty.  We end up wide-eyed at their power and humbled at how their lives improve, and even allow for, our own lives.  We pretend that we're the ones doing important work, while they silently remove tons of carbon from the atmosphere and help the soil spill over with microscopic life.  We are in the business of sitting at the feet of the true master environmentalists.  At least that's how it feels to me.
That, and it feels like an honor.  To advocate, to steward, to serve these extraordinary and beautiful bearers of life.
Since the average Camino Verde tree is no longer a baby, it seems to make sense that we are now building our own plant nursery to keep bringing in those new generations.  The first nursery module for producing a thousand seedlings a year was finished this month (photos here).  Everything comes full circle.
The organization isn't a seedling anymore either.  In 2012 we continue to deepen our alliance with the Center for Amazon Community Ecology, creating sustainability standards for the harvest of Amazonian medicinal plants and developing community-level reforestation plans.  We're about to raise a 20-foot water tower to keep our nursery well supplied.  The Peruvian Society for Environmental Law just awarded us a grant to build a visitor center to receive our increasingly frequent stream of volunteers.  Carpe Diem Education placed an intern with us for a semester and brings another group of students our way in April.
And we just got a total of 2500 trees into the ground to start the year off right-- 1500 we planted ourselves, and 1000 that went to our partner farmers.
These are just a few of the accomplishments that keep us busy.  But what makes me so proud is to see so many seedlings that we planted, many from seeds we harvested from the forest, now towering above us, providing shade, making the world beautiful and livable, teaching us what it really means to care about the Earth.  The name Camino Verde refers to a path of cherishing and fostering life.  And on this path it is the trees who are our great teachers.
My warm greetings, and gratitude always for your awareness and support. 

About Project Reports

Project Reports on GlobalGiving are posted directly to globalgiving.org by Project Leaders as they are completed, generally every 3-4 months. To protect the integrity of these documents, GlobalGiving does not alter them; therefore you may find some language or formatting issues.

If you donate to this project or have donated to this project, you will get an e-mail when this project posts a report. You can also subscribe for reports via e-mail without donating or by subscribing to this project's RSS feed.

An anonymous donor will match all new monthly recurring donations, but only if 75% of donors upgrade to a recurring donation today.
Terms and conditions apply.
Make a monthly recurring donation on your credit card. You can cancel at any time.
Make a donation in honor or memory of:
What kind of card would you like to send?
How much would you like to donate?
  • $10
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $250
  • $500
  • $10
    each month
  • $25
    each month
  • $50
    each month
  • $100
    each month
  • $250
    each month
  • $500
    each month
  • $
gift Make this donation a gift, in honor of, or in memory of someone?


Camino Verde

Concord, MA, United States

Project Leader

Robin Van Loon

Concord, MA Peru

Where is this project located?

Map of Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils