Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils

 
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Dear Friends,

A few months ago, I was hired by a group of investors to offer a consultation on organic agriculture in our region of the Peruvian Amazon, Madre de Dios.  These bankers and businessmen were interested in contributing meaningfully to the improvement of agriculture in our region.  And, they were committed to making their contribution count by investing in organic, sustainable agriculture.  Thank goodness!

Part of my report was an overview of the current reality of agriculture in Madre de Dios: slash-and-burn as the norm, rapidly declining biodiversity on farm and off, increased use of agro-chemicals and non-native technologies.  It was a sad, scary list.

But the longest section in the report was a lot more inspiring and positive.  It was a rundown on all the amazing, powerful organic technologies and strategies that exist to make agriculture truly sustainable in the tropics. And one of the cornerstones of my review was, of course, bio-char.

The exciting outcome of this consultation job is that the investors have listened.  And they've expressed their interest in creating the region's first bio-char production facilities in the years to come.  While its too soon to know if these good intentions will be acted on, it's a very exciting step to see bio-char appearing in the field of vision of change makers and green investors.

Let's hope that soon, we at Camino Verde won't be the only ones making bio-char a reality in our region.

Warm regards from Tambopata!

Meet the team
Meet the team

Dear friends,

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Greetings from Tambopata!  It’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to share the latest from Camino Verde.  And as always, I’ll be happy to provide an update.  But our Missives are so often about what we’re doing that I know many of you may be wondering who it is that’s actually making it happen.  So after a quick summary of what we’ve got going on, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to our team, the Camino Verde family.

We’re always grateful for your support, and now more than ever.  Your donation keeps our unique grassroots programs thriving and provides meaningful, fair employment to the folks I’ll introduce you to in a moment.  But first, a word about our work.

Update at a glance

1. The numbers are in.  The early 2013 season was our most intensive tree planting campaign ever.  We put close to 3000 trees in the ground in the first four months of the year, representing 25 vital and endangered species.

2. A new look.  Our infrastructure overhaul was a wild success.  Construction was completed in May on our new lodgings for staff, visitors, and volunteers.  If you haven’t checked it out already, take a look at the photo album here.

3. The Rosewood story continues.  Our brand new essential oil distillation equipment has landed in Lima and is being shipped to our Tambopata home as we speak.  Special thanks to Gary from Heart Magic Distillers for giving us such wonderful service to go along with his excellent equipment.

4. Camino veggies?  This year we’re stepping up our on-site production of vegetables, to eat healthy and share seeds with our neighbors.  We’re proud to report that our permaculture-style mulch gardens will focus on rare Amazonian tubers and greens, helping to preserve many crops that are closer to being lost each year.  It’s not just about the trees any more.

Meet the team

None of this would be possible if it weren’t for the folks I’m about to introduce.  The Camino Verde team is a group that loves the forests and farms of Tambopata and is working hard to preserve the region’s wonders.  It’s my honor to call them colleagues and friends.  And it’s my pleasure to present them now.  (In alphabetical order by last name…)

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Born and raised in Puerto Pardo at the mouth of the Heath River on the Peru-Bolivia border, 

Livia Amurús (or “doña Kika”) joined Camino Verde just two months ago.  And we’ve been enjoying her cheerful sparkle and amazing cooking ever since.  After living in Santa Cruz, Bolivia for over 20 years, doña Kika returned to her native Madre de Dios eight years ago.  Here at Camino Verde, she provides the whole team with delicious meals and helps manage our vegetable gardens.

 

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Though not a part of our permanent staff, Carlos Arimuya is a the friend and neighbor who built our new and improved lodgings.  A long time ally and native of the community of Baltimori, we’re sure to work with Carlos again in the future.

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Miguel Cardicel was born and raised in Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios.  Our longest running employee, don Miguel has worked as a fisherman, a lumberjack, a farmer, and a rubber tapper.  He is the grounds manager at our reforestation center and for over two years has been helping us keep the trees ahead of the weeds.

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For the next three months, Sam Goodman is our intern here at Camino Verde.  After studying political science at Oberlin, Sam moved to Lambayeque, Peru for two years with the Peace Corps.  Currently in a joint program at American University in Washington DC and the UN-chartered University of Peace in Costa Rica, Sam is working on his masters in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development, focusing on how Camino Verde’s work helps mitigate the environmental impact of the Interoceanic Highway.  (You can read his excellent first paper on the Highway here.)

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Manuel Huinga comes from a long line of Tambopata Huingas.  Born and raised on his grandfather’s farm on the Tambopata River, Manuel learned a love for the region’s flora and fauna at an early age.  Currently an Environmental & Forestry Engineering student at UNAMAD, Puerto Maldonado’s university, Manuel has worked at a tree nursery for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT)’s Andes to Amazon project.  As part time staff for Camino Verde, Manuel compliments his university studies as the head of our tree nursery and inventories seed-bearing adult trees in the wild forests we protect.

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Ursula Leyva is CV’s second in command and the executive director of Camino Verde Tambopata, our Peruvian legal organizational branch.  Originally from Lima, Ursula has lived in Madre de Dios since 2005.  She has worked as the administrator of an eco-tourist lodge, the director of a non-profit organization focusing on environmental education for children, and in the United States as a counselor at an alternative outdoor education program.  For over a year, this Permaculture design consultant has managed CV Tambopata’s legal presence and helped keep our reforestation center running smoothly.

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Ever since Camino Verde began, Juan Rafaele has been a good neighbor and great friend.  Native to Apurimac in the Andean highlands, Juan has lived in Tambopata for over 20 years.  His farm is an extraordinary example of diversified agroforestry systems.  Two years ago, Juan sold Camino Verde 100 acres of his land on the condition that we’d hire him for any work there.  For the past two seasons, Juan has helped us plant over 2000 trees on this land.

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Our newest employee, Ricsi Taborga has in less than a month proven herself as an incredibly hard-working, joyful addition to our squad.  Native to Puerto Maldonado, Ricsi is a mother of three with a wicked sense of humor.  Her favorite jokes are about how no man can match her weeding abilities with a machete.  And she’s right!

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Then there’s me, Robin Van Loon.  But I think you know enough about me already.  But there are also animals! They'll have to wait. For now, meet Rosita...

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I hope this Missive has helped to put a face, or faces, to go along with those trees.  And of course there’s one more member of our team who we couldn’t do it without: You.  Thanks for your support now and always.  Your interest and your contributions are what keep our work alive.

Warm greetings from Tambopata!

Livia Amurus
Livia Amurus
Carlos Arimuya
Carlos Arimuya
Miguel Cardicel
Miguel Cardicel
Sam Goodman
Sam Goodman
Manuel Huinga
Manuel Huinga
Ursula Leyva
Ursula Leyva
Juan Rafaele
Juan Rafaele
Ricsi Taborga
Ricsi Taborga
Robin Van Loon
Robin Van Loon

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,

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.

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!

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Organization

Camino Verde

Concord, MA, United States
http://www.caminoverde.org

Project Leader

Robin Van Loon

Concord, MA Peru

Where is this project located?

Map of Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils