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Sep 17, 2012

How can we really, truly save the Amazon?


Dear friends of Camino Verde,
For this GlobalGiving project report, I'm reprinting Camino Verde's last Missive.  (Please let me know if you'd like to be added to our regular mailing list.)  It takes us back to basics, to probably the most fundamental question that can be asked about our work...  
Why save the Amazon?  I mean, why should we care?
Well, let´s see... Let´s start with the obvious.  One out of every three species of everything on Earth-- plants, animals, you name it-- call the Amazon their home: one in three.  One fifth of the world´s fresh water is found here.  Different sources give different figures for the percentage of the planet´s oxygen produced here, but needless to say, it´s a lot. 
I don´t mean to sound melodramatic, but without the Amazon, we´re all in trouble. 
But why should we care, enough to do something about it?  Here´s my version of why.  Before I founded Camino Verde, I worked with a few other non-profit organizations here in the Peruvian Amazon.  And while these organizations all had noble aims and good intentions, there was a real disconnect between the ends and the means.  Here we had projects and NGOs working for great causes: conservation, sustainable development, the protection of wildlife habitat.  But the means used to pursue those goals were insanely inefficient, absurdly ineffectual, and tragically indirect.  I mean, local people were left scratching their heads, or else downright outraged at how outsiders had once again blown through budgets with few tangible fruits.
I remember thinking, we can do better.  We the human race, can do better.
In founding Camino Verde it was really vital to me to marry the ends to the means-- in fact, to ensure that the means were an end unto themselves, the sort of clichéd truth that what you do is often only as is important as how you do it.  That´s one of the meanings of our name, which is "green path:"  it´s about how we live and act. 
Plus, when I founded the organization, I was 23, 24.  I wanted to act, now.  To do something that made a difference, that had an impact in and of itself.  And that was when I started to plant trees.
To me, it´s sort of the ultimate version of a zen koan, or a snake eating its own tail, where the means is a noble end in and of itself: planting trees.  And the Amazon is home to some extraordinary trees.  I started hanging out at lumber yards, sawmills, the ports where people brought their products in from the forest.  And in talking to my neighbors I made a list.  It was a list of the top 50 over-exploited tree species.  On it were some powerful medicines, and world class timbers, and exquisite, exotic fruits.  I asked around, and to my amazement nobody-- no government institute, no NGO, no individual-- was bothering to plant most of the trees on that list.  But at those ports, day in and day out, the timber and the direct evidence of the destruction of those trees was staring me in the face.
It didn´t take an expert to foresee that dwindling wild populations lead to impoverished genetic diversity within these species, meaning that so few adult trees are left that in some cases we can no longer trust the genetic diversity-- meaning the genetic resilience-- of these trees´ offspring, if indeed they´re ever allowed to have any offspring.
So I started with those trees.  And in fact, more than five years later, I´m still checking species off that list.  Seeds for many of these trees are harder and harder to come by; experience with planting them, nonexistant.  I´ve gone on some wild "off-list" tangents as well-- by now, we´ve planted a total of over 250 species of trees at Camino Verde´s reforestation center-- but the goal remains: to plant at least 200 trees of each of these key species, that in time will become a true Living Seed Bank.
I was talking about ends and means.  And here it is in the simplest terms.  The goal: to protect the biodiversity of the Amazon.  How to do it: we plant trees.
As always, I extend my deep gratitude for all the support we receive in this work.  A friendly reminder: just ten dollars helps us plant two trees.  Won´t you help us plant a few, or a few dozen, today? 
Also: December 1-10, 2012, we hold our first ever Sustainable Living and Ecological Design Course for all of you interested in visiting, volunteering, and working with us here in beautiful Tambopata, Peru.  Information on a pretty flyer is available on our Facebook page (or let me know if you want a copy in your email inbox). And finally: the new and improved is coming soon! So now is your last chance to see the previous version.
Thanks so much for your interest and support.  Warm regards,
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.

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