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Jun 13, 2017

First Ever in Madre de Dios

Juan with a seedling from our nursery
Juan with a seedling from our nursery

My friend Luis says he hardly notices it, clearing his throat sharply.  See, Luis lives right next to a hard-working family that makes its living by producing charcoal, right here in the Peruvian Amazon.  There’s a local market for hardwood charcoal, which city dwellers and rural folk alike use for home cooking.  Though it’s not the only source of fuel (Peru is rich in natural gas, used for kitchen stoves and even as a fuel for cars in the country), charcoal is relatively cheap and easier to deal with than firewood. 

But what Luis and his neighbor don’t know is that charcoal production takes a heavy toll on public health.  Living in close proximity to charcoal production is linked with a variety of chronic respiratory ailments.  The wood gases and particles released during the processing of most artisan charcoal impact human health, especially children and pregnant women.  Whenever it is they want to have children, Luis and his wife won’t have the luxury of moving away from this invisible menace. 

The charcoal producers aren’t exactly the picture of big toxic offenders.  Born in the highlands and fleeing to the rainforest to escape the terrorism of the Shining Path in the early 90’s, the couple in charge of this family char operation is welcoming and friendly.  We get to talking and you can tell these are hard-working people. What they do is actually a form of recycling. They pick up small leftover pieces of lumber from sawmills and carpentry shops – where they represent a waste that’s often burnt, to ash.  The carboneros rightfully claim to turn it into something more useful. 

Intriguingly enough, Luis is happy to help himself to the charcoal dust which is itself refuse to his carbonero neighbor.  That’s because Luis is an organic farmer, and charcoal dust is great for the soil.  When used in agriculture, it’s called biochar.  Some specialists believe biochar represents a revolution in organic farming. 

So the problem isn’t the what, it’s the how.  People need charcoal, and producing it from discarded materials is actually ideal.  But what if the neighbors could create this needed product in a way that doesn’t affect the health of the community. 

In fact, there are just such environmentally sound ways of producing charcoal, in which emissions are minimized and a net carbon negative effect is reached (the carbon in charcoal is held in a very stable captured form, at least when used as biochar).  One of these environmental techniques is found in the Adam Retort oven, an appropriate technology design made from materials readily found at low cost in most developing countries.  Developed in East Africa by Dr. Christoph Adam, the retort that bears his name is now found all over the world – and, for the first time ever, in Madre de Dios, Peru. 

Camino Verde’s first Adam Retort was constructed last month, thanks to your support.  Located at our La Joya Forestry Nursery, the oven will provide charcoal for our nursery soil mix and to farmers who want to try it out.  With carbon partners and GlobalGiving donors alike, we can now measure in pounds or kilograms the actual amount of carbon captured in stable form for hundreds or even thousands of years. Biochar is a stable carbon sink, and along with reforestation is one of the world’s simplest, most cost effective methods to pump carbon out of the atmosphere.

Now you can neutralize your carbon footprint in a totally transparent way. Your donation goes directly to production of charcoal that traps CO2 for centuries to come. No joke. This ancient technology is more important now than ever before.  Please drop us a line if you want help calculating your carbon footprint.  

We’re grateful for your support. We truly couldn’t do it without you.  Please read on for brief headlines from the rest of Camino Verde’s programs in the Amazon of Peru. 

The first half of 2017 has seen our models for Amazonian regeneration reach a previously unimagined scale of impact.  Our trees are growing and our reach has grown.  Here’s a quick run down of what we have accomplished so far this year:

  • 9,000 trees planted so far this year. A thousand more trees to go to reach our goal for the year!
  • 20,000 tree seedlings produced this year at our 2 forestry nurseries, representing over 100 species. What we didn’t plant on Camino Verde land was supplied to our partner farmers and Wake Forest’s Amazonian research institute CINCIA for planting out in degraded mining areas in Madre de Dios (see more below).
  • Diverse agroforestry systems planted with our Farmer Innovator group, reforesting 7.5 acres (3 hectares). 
  • Farm Manager quarters are up! Our reforestation center’s beloved Farm Manager Olivia Revilla has finished construction of the manager’s quarters, the final fruit of our big infrastructure push that also brought us the distillation workshop and the ED quarters in the last 2 years.

All the best from the Amazon of Peru. Together we're greener and stronger.

The first Adam Retort oven in Madre de Dios, Peru
The first Adam Retort oven in Madre de Dios, Peru
Camino Verde La Joya Nursery staff
Camino Verde La Joya Nursery staff
photos courtesy Shahrzade Ehya
photos courtesy Shahrzade Ehya
Mar 16, 2017

Restoring the Amazon through rain and mud

The Tambopata River, Madre de Dios, Peru
The Tambopata River, Madre de Dios, Peru

It’s the rainy season in the Peruvian Amazon, and I mean rainy. All morning the precipitation has blessed us, spritzed us, showered us.  Standing ankle deep in the clay of a slippery riverbank, at this point we don’t know, don’t want to know, what is sweat and what is rain.  Mud caked hands pass along an unlikely cargo – tree seedlings in their black planting bags are handed up the shore like a line of ants.  

The plants are hoisted out of a large wooden canoe and passed up the steep escarpment. And passed again. And passed again.  Today a thousand seedlings will move through our hands, newborn trees of different species of the Amazon.  It’s just a day in the life of rainforest reforestation, but today is a special day – today these trees are coming home.

A volunteer from Pennsylvania hands me the seedlings two by two, and an intern from Tennessee is next up the riverbank and receives the plants from me.  She in turn hands them to a man from the Andes, working for the year in the jungle, who makes a joke to lighten the mood as the plants pass on to a young man from the Amazon and finally to don Salomon, farmer, landowner, steward of these thousand trees. And then we do it again, hundreds more times this morning. 

At the top of the bucket brigade line, Salomon inspects the new arrivals with a keen eye – after all, he’s a sort of father to these trees. A few mistreated seedlings are discarded and the plants are grouped by species, filling up the yard around Salomon’s modest jungle abode.  There are enough trees here to reforest one hectare (about two and a half acres), and we’ll be back to plant them all tomorrow.  

Some of the trees are for fruit, including familiar names like cacao and açaí – and less familiar ones like camu camu and inga.  Others are forest giants, some day to stand a hundred feet above us.  Some provide exquisite aromatic essential oils.  All the species planted are native.  This polyculture represents what we call an agroforestry system: a forest that we plant, that provides for us.  Salomon has opted to plant this polyculture because he knows that growing trees is ultimately less work than growing annuals like corn or rice or cassava, and less destructive in the long run to the forest that surrounds and interpenetrates his farm.  

On a day like today, covered in mud and soaked from head to toe, I’m reminded of the disconnect between words and their meanings. For example, listen to these words: we reforest the Amazon. We plant trees where once there was rainforest.  I say these things to whoever will listen on a regular basis, and it sounds good enough. But the words don’t necessarily do the best job of describing what we actually do, what we actually did on a day like today. 

Today we scrambled up and down a muddy riverbank carefully carrying delicate tree seedlings, a job no machine or robot can effectively do, a task uniquely suited for caring human hands.  Today we shared jokes and encouraging words as our muscles flexed, then strained, then ached.  Today we put the stubble back on a couple acres of a once forested landscape shaved bare.  This is Amazon community ecology.  The story of the day isn’t about the number of pounds of carbon these trees will capture over their lives, though that’s important too. The story of the day is one of sharing, of laughter, of the promise of new beginnings.  

This is Camino Verde - a green way back to symbiosis with nature.  Hands working together to restore the Amazon, despite the challenges and the rainstorms.  People returning seeds to the forest – and reaping the tenfold rewards. The ones doing the real work are these tiny plants that will turn into mighty trees.  We’re just grateful to help them on their way.

This year Camino Verde will plant over 10,000 trees in the Amazon of Peru, at our reforestation center and with partner farmers like Salomon. Our work is supported and inspired by you, and we’re grateful for your interest in what we do. Please consider renewing your support for Amazonian restoration today.  

In celebration of the many gifts forests give, 


Among young trees in a restoration site
Among young trees in a restoration site
Back home after a hard day's work
Back home after a hard day's work
Planting trees in the rain is the best!
Planting trees in the rain is the best!
Mar 3, 2017

Breaking ground and groundbreaking Biochar

What is biochar?

Something you’ve never heard of could save the world.  So what in the heck is “biochar” anyway?

When I first started researching and then writing about biochar – the agricultural use of charcoal – the resources were few and mainstream exposure to the idea almost nil.  Fast forward to 2017, and you can watch no fewer than a half dozen TED talks on biochar – touted as a profound game changer, and something you may very well never have heard of. 

The astronomical rise of innovation and practice in biochar is extremely gratifying to see – it’s not always that obscure, sensical answers to deep problems are able to surface productively of their own viral accord.  And yet today it seems that biochar has indeed broken out.  You can watch hours of careful explanations of why biochar works and why it matters by leading experts – probably a better option than trawling our past GlobalGiving reports for morsels of understanding.

Thank goodness: biochar has hit the big time. 

We’re celebrating the crossover in the most appropriate fashion – by breaking ground on our region’s very first Adam Retort, an environmentally sound charcoal production oven.  Starting now, the dedicated team of farmers and foresters that is Camino Verde will be producing more and cleaner charcoal to feed our reforestation efforts. That’s right, charcoal goes with tree planting, from the pots holding over 100 species in our native tree nursery to the acres and acres of reforestation we manage. 

Now, if you’ve spent these first few paragraphs repeating the question I asked at the start – “so what is this stuff anyway?” – don’t worry, the TED talks aren’t your only solution. Here’s biochar distilled down to 30 seconds.  

Ancient Amazonian Indians turned compost and charcoal into their fields and in so doing achieved perhaps the greatest longevity of soil fertility ever known to man.  Charcoal improves soil for farming over the long term, not just for one season.  And it’s also an amazing carbon sink – the CO2 captured by plants is held in a stable form for over a millennium when those plants are pyrolyzed, or turned to charcoal.  The whole process – growing plants, charring them, incorporating the resulting char into the soil – acts as a carbon pump a million times more efficient than high tech solutions meant to sequester carbon by other means.  

In times like ours, with atmospheric carbon rising apace with the thermometer’s mercury, biochar is nothing short of a miracle.  

As we lay the foundation for our first Adam Retort – thanks to your support – we look forward to taking on a more active role in the global research and implementation of biochar.  Research: to find out exactly how much carbon is captured in the charcoal produced from different plant species, to accurately measure and literally weigh our impact.  Implementation: to expose Amazonian farmers to the benefits of a technology piloted by their ancestors and provide a powerful low-cost soil amendment that really works. 

Together, we’re taking back the air. Thank you for your support of Camino Verde’s Amazon community ecology outreach work and biochar innovation.  It’s our honor to sink carbon in your name. 

Biochar is used in the soil mix at our nursery!
Biochar is used in the soil mix at our nursery!
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