It’s a good day for bio-char. In the world and in our world.
You may remember that bio-char is essentially charcoal used agriculturally – an amendment that improves soil structure and water retention organically while effectively sequestering carbon in biomass for hundreds or even thousands of years. It uses plants as the ultimate technology for removing an excess of carbon from the atmosphere, and it does so in a way that benefits small farmers, especially in the tropics where bio-char is particularly effective at conserving fragile soils.
Now for the good news. First, in the world. I’m thrilled to announce that our longtime ally and collaborator Francisco Román has received Peru’s top honors for an environmentalist. He won the award for his work studying remediation of areas deforested and polluted by illegal mining, the scourge of Madre de Dios, our region of the Amazon of Peru. While his research includes many treatments, one that he found most promising included the use of bio-char for mitigation of mercury contamination. Soon after, he presented these finding is Peru’s first national bio-char conference.
As a result, bio-char’s potential for impact is more visible than ever, in Peru and in the world. Given the prominent place of tropical forest conservation at COP21, many powerful strategies to counteract climate change are coming off the dry dock and setting sail.
And then the even better news– which has to do with you. In March 2016, our work was selected by GlobalGiving as part of the Project of the Month Club. Club members raised almost $9,000 toward our bio-char efforts – in one month! Big thanks to all the Project of the Month Club members out there. It’s hard to overstate what a huge impact you’ve had on what we’re able to accomplish.
For example? In coming months we’ll be able to construct Madre de Dios’s first ever Adam Retort, a manageable human scale technology for cleanly transforming plant biomass to bio-char. That means our bio-char production capability is about to skyrocket. The Retort arrives just in time for the development of a new tree nursery that will utilize bio-char and natural bio-fertilizers, a powerful combination for healthy trees. It also means that each seedling that goes out from the nursery will carry a payload of sequestered carbon. Soon tree nursery will become a vehicle for sharing bio-char and its benefits with farmers in our area.
Why is this relevant? Javier Huinga, one of my colleagues from Madre de Dios explains, "In our back corner of the Peruvian Amazon, many small farmers feel small, feel disempowered, feel voiceless in governance. It's also easy for small farmers to feel like they doesn't matter, that what they do doesn't have an impact on any greater whole. I'll pollute, I'll cut more forest and burn it and who cares? But that's not the reality. The reality is that what we do does matter. At least for my family, I'll eat healthy and natural food. Even if others don't care. And my forest, I'll keep it standing, keep it wild, as much of it as I can. I'll only take what I need. The more of us that think that way, the better for everyone."
It’s somewhat counter intuitive to imagine charcoal as a technology to combat climate change. We think slash-and-burn, we think smoke, we think emissions, and often that is in fact the case. But charcoal produced well, through pyrolysis and not combustion, with clean appropriate technology like the Adam Retort, truly does represent a game changer. It’s a form of what Eric Toensmeier calls carbon farming, which we only need more of if we are to survive as a species. Thank you for helping us do more of it.
The canoe glides among lianas like mythic serpents and under gray-trunked giants. Insects stare back at us from seasonal perches on branches backdropped with multicolored lichens, their homes when the Amazon's waters run its banks. A white hot sun filters through the canopy and I watch the flashing progressions of light and dark on my companions’ faces, their expert hands adjusting paddle and pole and bringing the boat to a comfortable stop at our trailhead. Moving on foot, we share laughter as our path is submerged once more; our gum boots fill with water for the fourth time of the day.
The commute to work for the rosewood farmers of the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo involves such ordinary tribulations as these, flooded paths, wandering serpents, yet another opportunity to read the forest. Before long we emerge from the thick secondary growth of an old purma (fallow farm) into a clearing where we discover a well-tended garden. Rimmed by the gorgeous chaos of the forest, this garden is a sanctuary for one particular kind of tree, pushed to within a thread of extinction but now cared for, cared about, accompanied closely in its growth as it was once aggressively sought out for its monetary value.
The tree is Brazilian rosewood. And the garden is now three years old. We have pruning shears and saws and we begin by trimming away dead branches, then go on to harvest some of the bottommost live ones. Shortly a sugar sack is filled with branches and leaves. In a half hour, working in teams of three and four, we’ve pruned the whole grove, a hundred trees yielding their first harvest, just a branch or two or three from each tree. Tomorrow, these leaves and side branches will be chipped and then distilled, yielding an essential oil that made fortunes for perfumers several decades ago but now is increasingly hard to find.
Once, whole rosewood trees were ripped up from the forest loam, as even the roots contain the precious linalool-rich aromatic oil. Now, we prune the trees according to old forestry techniques, in order to improve their health and growth. Our modest harvest is of branches that the tree would soon shuck off anyway. The result of these careful prunings is also esthetically pleasing— the trees look beautiful.
David, one of the Bora guardians of the Brillo Nuevo rosewoods, put it well:
“It’s amazing to see how much better my rosewood trees looked after removing some dead wood and a few lower branches with leaves we can distill. I suppose this is science, but it feels more like a kind of art I can practice to shape and care for my trees. Some of them will eventually produce seeds we use to plant more of these beautiful trees all around our community.”
For three years, five families in Brillo Nuevo have taken on the care of over 500 rosewood trees. Modest as this scale may seem, it’s the first step in a broader vision to use rosewood as an economic motor to help sustain conservation-compatible activities in the Amazon. And this harvest means that finally our friends in Brillo Nuevo can receive the first fruits of their labor. Our harvest yields just a few hundred milliliters of the precious oil, but David, Oscar, Brito, Felix, and Dolores have seen what the future can hold. The biggest of the trees give impressive yields, with a branch or two weighing kilos, and in another year or two these rosewood groves will be able to sustain ongoing harvests on a monthly basis.
Though it’s still early in the productive life of the trees, the rosewood stewards at Brillo Nuevo have reason for optimism. It’s unusual to find sources of income that are also amenable to traditional, sustainable land use strategies, and rosewood is one. As Oscar said, “Our goal isn’t to create big plantations of rosewood trees. The Bora have an old tradition of planting many kinds of trees together to produce fruits, fibers and medicines. It’s great that we can now include valuable rosewood trees in this mix.”
For those of you who have followed the rosewood story through our project reports, thanks for accompanying us thus far. This first harvest is a culmination of years of effort on the part of the rosewood team. And it is also the beginning of a new chapter. I hope you will continue to follow us on this journey. We couldn’t do it without you.
We’re grateful for your support of this work. And now is a particularly impactful time to do so, as TODAY, March 16th, is GlobalGiving’s first Bonus Day of the year. Donations made on March 16 will be matched. Make your contribution count extra. You can do so here. Thank you! Together we will ensure a future for rosewood and so many others of the Amazon’s miraculous trees.
I'm pleased to share with you that the Camino Verde project you support, Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils, has been selected as GlobalGiving's Project of the Month. What this means is added visibility and impact for this month, and additional funding toward the work we're doing from the members of GG's Project of the Month Club.
This is a brief note to invite you to make your support of Camino Verde's carbon capture work count More. Today, March 16, your donation will be matched! It's GlobalGiving's first Bonus Day of the year, and we'd be grateful if you'd consider making your donation now, to take advantage of this amazing matching funds opportunity. Between the Bonus Day and the Project of the Month, I know this month will be especially powerful.
The timing of this support couldn't be better. After a period of researching carbon sequestration strategies from around the world, we recently selected what we believe to be the most impactful, scalable strategy to implement in partnership with small farmers in the Peruvian Amazon.
Thanks to your contributions, we will be able to begin installation of our very first Adam Retort, a clean, efficient technology that allows the carbon captured by plants as biomass to be stored almost indefinitely in the form of bio-char. Bio-char is then used by farmers to improve their soils — an elegant win-win. We will literally be able to weigh the carbon removed from the atmosphere. It's our plan to work closely with our farmer partners to measure the impact that bio-char has on their farm's fertility and therefore their livelihood.
We're grateful for your help in creating a holistic approach to climate change that has a real, measurable impact on greenhouse gases while improving the lives of farmers and the health of their agro-ecological farms. We'll keep you posted on how it goes.
We couldn't do it without you-- thank you for your support. With gratitude,