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Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils

by Camino Verde
Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils

Dear friends of Camino Verde,

I am so glad to share with you that last month we reached and surpassed our funding goal for Turning Carbon Footprints Into Healthy Soils, one of our two projects on GlobalGiving. We are so grateful to you our contributors and so excited for its successful completion this past month. And have no fear – the mission and spirit of this project and of Camino Verde can still be found on GlobalGiving on our other project page, despite the successful completion of Carbon Footprints. 

After all these years of existence as a project, it may be helpful to go back to the beginning and ask, Where did the Carbon Footprints project come from? In 2010 and 2011 Camino Verde participated in research with biochar, or charcoal used in the soil, in nurseries and in reforestation areas in our region of the Peruvian Amazon. Biochar is synonymous with charcoal used in agriculture, on the farm or in the plant nursery, but it was invented by indigenous Amazonians over a thousand years ago.  Called "terra preta" in the literature, or "Amazonian dark earth," biochar allowed for something that the tropics and the Amazon in particular have trouble providing: stable fertility in the soil, fertility that lasts for centuries. 

We were inspired by the results we saw when biochar was applied to nursery soil mixes.  And since we run 3 tree nurseries in the Madre de Dios region, we had no choice but to pursue the inclusion of biochar in our substrate blends.  The key step was researching different technologies for the production of charcoal, which can be very polluting and also terrible for the health of nearby people if done wrong.  We eventually discovered and settled on the Adam Retort, an environmentally-preferable kiln developed in Sub-Saharan Africa by Dr. Chris Adam. We are proud to have built the first ever Adam Retort in Madre de Dios. 

Ever since the Retort was built we have produced charcoal regularly. Biochar goes into every nursery bag from our nurseries, producing over 100 species of trees every year and the average hovering well over 50,000 seedlings propagated annually. We also apply the charcoal to our agroforestry systems, hectares upon acres of reforested areas of Amazon that were once deforested for farming. Each tree planted gets a small payload of biochar. 

It makes us proud to reach our funding goal, and we truly consider this project to be a great success. Why?  Because now we have our oven in place and our team trained to use it, because our nurseries and reforestation sites carry its products and benefits, and because we are now selling enough seedlings to fund the continuing production of biochar as part of the nursery's regular operatons. It's a success because now it stands on its own feet and no longer requires the injection of funds to keep the carbon sequestration going.  Of course, without a doubt, we are still here if you have a carbon footprint you're looking to offset, which we can make possible through the tree planting on our other project page

Thank you a thousand times!

Olivia with a giant kapok tree.
Olivia with a giant kapok tree.
Percy and our Adam Retort oven.
Percy and our Adam Retort oven.
Working the tree nursery.
Working the tree nursery.
A giant kapok tree in our primary forest.
A giant kapok tree in our primary forest.

Dear friends of Camino Verde,

I hope your year is off to a wonderful start, for those in the northern hemisphere with spring knocking at the door, and those of us in the Peruvian Amazon with the last pounding rains of the wet season still thundering overhead. As you may recall, the rainy season in the Amazon is the planting season, and in the lapse since you last heard from us in 2018 we planted around 30,000 trees.

This is our biggest planting campaign of all time, 100 acres planted all at once with over 50 species, and it’s just the first in a series of things we’re doing more of this year.

I'm also very excited to report that we are now VERY CLOSE to hitting our final funding goal for this project on GlobalGiving.  Once we hit the $28,000 mark this project page will go away, showing as Successfully Funded. Thank you so much for helping us to be successful!  What does that success look like?

With Turning Carbon Footprints into healthy soils, Camino Verde has been able to:

  • Test and pilot different environmentally preferable charcoal production methods.
  • Select a final best model for biochar production in Madre de Dios (the Adam Retort!).
  • Produce tons (literally) of environmentally friendly charcoal that goes went into the nursery soil mix for over 50,000 tree seedlings produced at our main Forestry Nursery, home to the Biochar retort oven.
  • We have even identified purchasers of charcoal to allow this carbon-negative enterprise to self-sustain.  

Even as we are finding more private partners to allow us to grow our impact to a whole different scale – and even as we are building our organization’s economic resilience through the sale of charcoal, essential oils and consultative services – we continue to rely on you our donors to make this work possible. Our growing team of 15 Peruvian staff includes farmers, ecologists, forestry engineers and one gringo (me). They and I thank you for the chance to do this work we find so meaningful and rewarding.

In this Report I’m excited to turn things over to my friend and longtime colleague in the Camino Verde team, Ursula Leyva. Ursula and I met at a permaculture design course in 2010 and we’ve collaborated ever since. In 2014 she officially joined CV and in these 5 years she has worn many hats in the leadership of the organization. A natural builder, permaculture designer, orchid propagator, a writer and a mother, Ursula continues to wear many hats. But what comes to mind when I read her words is her study and experience in development communications (she holds a degree in Social Communications from the Universidad de Lima).

Even as we reflect on where we're going it's important to think about where we've been.  I hope you enjoy Ursula’s words on where Camino Verde comes from and where it’s going. Thanks so much for your interest and support of what we do. Together as a community of caring individuals we have a long path to walk ahead.

In gratitude,

Robin

-- 

When I think about the future of our organization, usually the beginnings are what come to my mind. What was the first tree planted? How much have we evolved as an organization and how did we do it? All of our results are intrinsically related to the way our plants have thrived. Our green path started a little over ten years ago, but the journey of our plants is more remote than we can imagine.

One of the questions I receive most frequently is: "So, what do you plant on the farm?" I always have to take a second to think about how to respond. Although our work focuses on trees, the collection of plants comprising our Living Seed Bank defies generalization. To sum it up you could say that we propagate all kinds of native Amazonian tree species in our nurseries, so that they can be planted by human hands to improve the land, improve the diversity of farms, improve the quality of life of people and sustain communities over time. In this sense, we actively contribute to the domestication of species.

The process of domestication of plants and animals in Peru began approximately 10,000 years ago, according to a variety of researchers. Great civilizations like Caral (on the Peruvian coast), which had agriculture 5 thousand years ago, represent only half of this process. I wonder if we can imagine or intuit something about the life and dreams of the seed collectors of the past, who were able to adapt hundreds of species and develop thousands of varieties for the benefit of human beings.

Despite this ancient legacy, the precious and uniquely rich biodiversity of the Amazon is not necessarily reflected in the species cultivated in our region’s farms today – and especially is not reflected in the edible species. Naturally, forest biodiversity has enormous potential to contribute to the food security of local families and the planet. But this is a well that remains untapped on many Amazonian farms.

An important part of what Camino Verde does in our labors of regeneration is to plant and cultivate the wild trees, so that they can adapt to new conditions and thrive. Every decision made about a plant’s development will have an impact on its ability to adapt – and its offspring’s success. So how do we know the best way to "breed" these native and wild species that interest us for their fruits, or their medicine, or for the ways they help the growth of other plants? In addition to a generous helping of local knowledge and a lot of practice, we rely on intuition and a great deal of respect. The objective is not to make a genetic change in the laboratory, but to support the resilience of each species, allowing for its successful growth in the field. We play our small part, with careful attention given to each of the plants we grow.

Facilitating a plant’s process of domestication involves close observation of the conditions that favor germination, the amount of water a species tolerates, testing of different soil substrates, not to mention trying to imitate conditions in a natural forest, understanding how to associate different species, how to prune trees to give more fruit or to thicken the trunk faster, among other activities. And so it is that, generation after generation, the trees sown in fallow fields in spaces designed for the uses of humankind will have a beautiful offspring that returns a protective covering of forest to the land.

Working in the nursery or in our extensive areas of long-term agroforestry systems is a fascinating, intellectually demanding task. Systematizing all the knowledge generated from this decade of experience (and also trying contribute to scientifically measurable results) is one of our most difficult challenges. Sharing our learning is one of our most important responsibilities.

Think about this. The changes that are taking place in plants are also reflected in us human beings. I always wonder, how much have these plants domesticated us? The communion between human and plant reaches its maximum expression through personal contact and deep observation. We are committed to this legacy, to the continuity of important species and their survival on the planet. They tame us. They raise us: they domesticate us even as they make us wild. In a sense we are the plants’ instruments and we have surrendered to them.

And that will remain at the core of what we do, throughout our growth and in time.

There is a green path that is traveled in our minds and in our hearts. That is the path that sustains us and on which our future is built. For us this work is an honor and a dream come true – and we hope, contagious.  

Greetings from the Peruvian Amazon! 

As you probably know by now, Camino Verde is more than just a producer of biochar, more than just a capturer of carbon.  Our projects range beyond carbon footprints to highly productive reforestation in the Peruvian Amazon, and that includes the management of 3 mega-diverse tree nurseries in Madre de Dios, Perú.  Amazingly enough, it's now been over 10 years since we came into existence as an organization and started planting trees.  One of the founders of all 3 of our tree nurseries is my friend and colleague Manuel Huinga, who is currently Camino Verde's Forestry Program Coordinator.  I first met Manuel when he was a teenager and Camino Verde was just a dream In my mind.  We met at a tree nursery, auspiciously enough.

To date, our reports have mostly been drafted by me, and it's my pleasure to present the first in a series of reports written by Camino Verde's awesome staff.  Today it's Manuel Huinga, born and raised in Tambopata with a BS in Forestry, expert plant identifier, and walking encyclopedia of Amazonian trees.  Below is his post from the Camino Verde La Joya Forestry Nursery.  I hope you enjoy.

One final word.  We think that completing 10 years of Amazonian regeneration work is worth a celebration.  That's why on the evening of November 9th, we'll gather at historic Walden Woods in Massachusetts for a festive retrospective on the last decade and to share the plans for what's to come.  If you're in the Boston area in November and would like to join, please contact us via email (here). 

Now I'll turn things over to Manuel...

---

On a rainy Wednesday at our little home, we put our daily tasks on pause. 20 months ago, we decided to make a dream come true, to make room for life.

How they have all grown, what an achievement! And what hard work. I remember every moment since we first met, I see them now and they surprise me, it makes me so happy to see them so big. From the time when they’re fist collected from the forest, each seed begins a new story, a story that is written thanks to the work of many people who are part of our team.

In our nursery, a symbiosis has arisen between plants and people, where our neighbors – mothers and daughters from the neighborhood, hardworking women –with patience and dedication fill the bags where the seeds we collect are planted. Every day our team – for me, my family – begins with cleaning tasks, to nurture the development of the seedlings that we sow. Armed with a machete and a weed whacker, our work commences.

Our friend and co-worker Elvis’s children run and play among the trees that are now growing here. In less than two years since we planted them, most of our seedlings have reached more than two meters high; recently, they were only seeds that fit in my hand. Giving a space to life, to plants, gives everyone an opportunity to live with dignity and wellbeing.

Our varied and dynamic work takes us from planting seedlings, to venturing out in the forest in search of the seeds of trees that may be bearing fruit. In other occasions, we prepare the soil substrate to fill bags, sow more seeds, and produce more seedlings of the important species of our region.

There have been days of intense heat, of rains that calm the thirst of the desolate soil of an area abandoned by cattle. Here we are, sowing, giving a push to the forest to recover the space that was always hers. For all here, our work is meant to be an example, a legacy of hope.

It is noon. The intense rain has passed and the sun is at its maximum splendor, we are under the shadow of a Shimbillo (Inga setosa). One year after we planted it, today we enjoy the coolness of its shade. With more than three meters’ height, this species surprises us, and now even more: some flowers are seen through the young branches. It just takes a bit of listening, of paying attention to that voice that is in every heart, the voice that is committed to the earth that gives you everything to live.

Without a doubt ours is an arduous task carried out by a team that helps make the miracle of life possible. Each field trip, each seed collected, each bag filled with soil, the constant watering, the patience and perseverance, all is reflected in plants of native species destined to restore forests, where one day the children of the children who run among the trees that we sow today will play.

Manuel Huinga and Robin Van Loon in Loreto
Manuel Huinga and Robin Van Loon in Loreto
In the Peruvian Amazon, a 15 month old Bobinsana
In the Peruvian Amazon, a 15 month old Bobinsana

Dear Friends,

As you know, every so often I send out a report sharing some of the good news from Camino Verde in the Peruvian Amazon, and this year there’s been lots of good news to share.

Keeping closely to our mission, we’re doing more and more to save the world’s forests and sustain local communities who live here. We are:

  1. Working to restore the Amazon with new partners who ensure our work is in line with their needs.
  2. Engaging more farmers, more native communities, building livelihoods in the Peruvian rain forest for locals by using the forest in sustainable ways and bringing back forests that have been lost.
  3. Planting more species of trees, providing and developing a variety of income streams from the forest for local farmers.
  4. Producing and selling tens of thousands of seedlings for re-planting the rainforest.
  5. Building a new income source from trees – we are selling essential oils from trees we have planted.
  6. Working with companies who share our vision for regenerating the Amazon. These companies are now hiring Camino Verde to plant trees on their land.

The growth of our work has been astonishing and we’re grateful for all we’ve been able to accomplish.

During this period of rapid growth, our cash resources are strained to new limits and we look to you once again to continue your support of our work. Although we write foundation proposals to fund our programs, this year we have had challenges meeting our unrestricted funding goals. Your support in this area has historically been our backbone. We rely on contributions from people like you, our generous supporters, who firmly believe in what we do.

We understand this year has been a time of tremendous uncertainty for many of us on many different levels. The world feels strange to many of us. And yet it’s an ideal time to act. This year I’ve been renewed in my sense of mission to help create a more humane, loving world, and I hope you do as well.

So, I’m writing to ask for your help at a time when we have a significant need. Since we’re a small organization, every donation counts big. Please consider giving generously in support of Camino Verde today.

My sincere thanks for your continued support for the regeneration of Amazon forests and communities.

And now on to our report.

 =====

Thanks to your contributions, each year Camino Verde is able to transform a little bit of the atmospheric carbon that causes climate change into a powerful soil improving technology that builds sustainable livelihoods for farmers here in the Peruvian Amazon. I’m talking about biochar. If you’ve read some of our previous reports (see below) you’ll know that biochar has been trapping atmospheric carbon and improving the soils of smallholder farmers in the Amazon since long before the Europeans arrived to the Americas.

To be more specific, what it means to make biochar is to turn biomass like scraps of wood, downed branches, sawdust, and rice hulls into a form of charcoal that dramatically sustains fragile tropical soils. We believe in biochar – so much so that we put a small payload in the planting pot of each of the 50,000 tree seedlings produced at Camino Verde’s forestry nurseries every year.

But where does this trapped carbon go? Where do all these tree seedlings end up? Last week I got on a boat and visited one parcel on the Tambopata River in Madre de Dios, Peru, where biochar is aiding the growth of trees in the agroforestry fields of Amazonian farmers.

Some of the trees are taller than don Cipriano, though he planted them only a year ago. Standing in the dappled shade of bananas protecting us from the harsh tropical sun he tries to estimate the number of times he had to weed around those trees that have grown roots here since April of 2017. It’s clear that it wasn’t many times, that it wasn’t very laborious. (We’ve changed Cipriano’s name to respect his privacy.)

Just over a year and the hectare of mixed native species looks robust. We spot 15-month-old ironwood trees (Dipteryx micrantha) that are taller than basketball players. A little further along, the flowers of bobinsana (Calliandra angustifolia) are wide open. This small medicinal tree is attractive to pollinators, fixes the stingy commodity of nitrogen into the soil, and is the perfect structure on which to grow a vine or two, say black pepper or passion fruit. Don Cipriano is describing how he pruned the lower branches off a copaiba tree (Copaifera sp.) that is about his height – remarkable for after only a year.   Everywhere between the trees a leafy cover crop of Pueraria protects the soil from the sun and “feeds” the trees as Cipriano says.

And that’s just to mention the bean or legume family (Fabaceae).

Out in the same 2.5 acres of mixed agroforestry plantation we see moena trees that provide aromatic essential oil, camu camu which gives a delicious fruit cherished on the local market for its flavor and vitamin C content, and cacao for well, chocolate of course. Cipriano is modest about the results and about the work he put into achieving them, but it’s clear that he feels proud of the trees’ growth.

Farmers like Cipriano are growing trees back in areas of the Amazon that were deforested via shortsighted agricultural practices. There’s a better way, and more and more farmers know it. By diversifying his planting strategy and by incorporating biochar to capture carbon in his soil, Cipriano’s ecological impact – and the productivity of his farm – are maximized.

Each year, we build the capacity to capture more and more carbon, reach more and more farmers, and turn a drop in the bucket into a real sea change.

We are grateful for your support in making it happen. Camino Verde is a donor-supported organization that strives to increase our impact while maintaining the integrity of our efforts. Thank you for contributing.

Best regards from the Peruvian Amazon!

An Amazonian ironwood tree over 2 meters tall
An Amazonian ironwood tree over 2 meters tall
Ryan Smith with a cacao tree he planted in 2017
Ryan Smith with a cacao tree he planted in 2017
Producing biochar in Madre de Dios
Producing biochar in Madre de Dios
Camino Verde
Camino Verde's Adam Retort biochar oven

Let's follow the carbon.

Plants catch CO2 from the air during photosynthesis.  Part of the absorbed carbon remains stored in the plant's "body" while it's alive, and normally most of that carbon is re-released when the dead plant decomposes – whether in a matter of days as some leaves, or in a matter of centuries as some slow-to-rot hardwoods.  Overall the natural carbon cycle maintains more or less a balance, but we are now far from the natural carbon cycle and might therefore ask the astute question: is there a way to stop the dead plants from re-releasing their carbon?  Such a mechanism would become a sort of carbon negative pump. 

One way to do just this is to turn the plants' bodies in question – biomass, in the jargon – into charcoal through the slow burn known as pyrolisis (not to be confused with combustion).  That's right, charcoal is a stable form of plant carbon, holding it in for hundreds or thousands of years.  This excellent carbon sink device also has another key benefit – charcoal is great for agricultural soil, especially in the tropics where most of the world's poor live and where soil fertility is often compromised by a lack of organic matter. 

So this is what all the hype is about when people talk about biochar.  But not all charcoal is created equal.  Much charcoal production is dirty, in terms of gases harmful both to the atmosphere and to human health – many of those volatiles are potent carcinogens and are implicated in a wide range of respiratory illnesses.  So how charcoal is produced is important.

In our case here in Madre de Dios, we opted for a charcoal production oven called an Adam Retort, a simple design licensed to us by the designer Chris Adam (based in Ethiopia).  What we like about this model is that it was easy and inexpensive to build with locally available mateirals, and it dramatically reduces emissions from the charcoal production process by redirecting wood gases (and all those harmful volatiles) back into the combustion chamber, a self-propelling process that earns the oven the name retort.

Thanks to some simple new cages on the way, we're now going to be able to use a much wider range of biomass materials in our retort – not just cord wood anymore.  Now we'll be able to use locally common free waste materials like sawdust, rice hulls, and brazil nut shells to make our biochar.  And we'll be able to use branches pruned from fast-growing plants we're growing for this purpose.  Trees and shrubs that can be coppiced (or cut back to a stump of height varying by species) such as bamboo and many trees in the legume family for all intents and purposes become the carbon pump I mentioned earlier.

The last piece of infrastructure needed – a roof under which to dry out our biomass thoroughly before feeding it into the oven to have its carbon fossilized – is also on its way in coming months thanks to the generous support of our donors.

But let's get back to following the carbon. Where is this sink actually sunk? In our case the charcoal produced ends up on site at the Camino Verde La Joya Forestry Nursery and reforestation site.  The biochar is also carried in the planting pots of the 50,000 tree seedlings that our nursery will send out to various reforestation efforts in the Peruvian Amazon this year.  The sunk carbon also goes into every hole dug for every single one of the new trees planted each year at the Nursery site, which was formerly a deforested cattle pasture, burnt every year for two decades.  Together we're bringing back Amazonian soils while pulling carbon from the atmosphere. 

Simple and straightforward, a powerful solution that's implementable at scale, biochar is one answer.  Today is a good day to trap some carbon for good. 

Tree planting in the Peruvian Amazon
Tree planting in the Peruvian Amazon
seedlings at the La Joya nursery
seedlings at the La Joya nursery
La Joya Nursery
La Joya Nursery
 

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Organization Information

Camino Verde

Location: Concord, MA - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Project Leader:
Robin Van Loon
Concord, MA Peru

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Combined with other sources of funding, this project raised enough money to fund the outlined activities and is no longer accepting donations.
   

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