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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.

Jun 21, 2012

Mission accomplished... again!

Dear friends of Camino Verde,

For those of you who have been keeping your fingers on the pulse of our project on GlobalGiving, you may have noticed that we have expanded-- and expanded again-- the goals and timeline of our project.  This was in great part due to the fact that we were able to complete our original goals in record time.  Thanks to your help, we hit the mark for funding, planted those 1000 tress, and saved those 100 acres of land.

And now I´m pleased to report that we have once again reached a major milestone in our project.  One of the most important of our expanded goals was the creation of an on-site plant nursery that will allow us to take this projects name of "Planting 1000 trees" and turn it into a recurring cycle.  In fact, the nursery that we´ve created with your support will allow us to propagate over 2500 tree seedlings each year!

And now comes the real work...  We still need your help to realize the potential of this extraordinary new nursery.  The part of our budget that has yet to be funded is designated for the most important and direct part of our work: the planting of trees.  As you can see on our project page, just $10 will allow us to plant 2 trees.  Why not help us plant ten, twenty, a hundred trees today?

Meanwhile, if you want to get a more vivid sense of what that tree planting might look like, we are excited to present a new short video on Camino Verde´s work in the Peruvian Amazon.  Check it out here.  (Many thanks to Camino Verde volunteer-visitor Lara Weatherly, the visionary creator of this documentary.)

Many thanks for your support and interest, and warm greetings from the Peruvian Amazon.

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