Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils

by Camino Verde
Vetted
Creating charcoal while distilling essential oil
Creating charcoal while distilling essential oil

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. 

Carbon footprint? Tapir footprint
Carbon footprint? Tapir footprint
Camino Verde team and volunteers in the forest
Camino Verde team and volunteers in the forest

Dear friends,

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,

A shea tree, threatened by charcoal production
A shea tree, threatened by charcoal production

The trees of Acholiland

A quick glance at Northern Uganda and you might think that it’s another Serengeti.  It is a home to rolling savannah, to vast horizons seen blurred through the dust-heavy air.  Sunrises and sunsets are red giants rippling mirage-like, and indeed in the region’s protected areas and natural parks the iconic big game of sub-Saharan Africa does roam.

But the image is a recent and artificial one.  Yes, giraffes and elephants wander these plains. But until very recently savannah was just one ecotype in a varied mosaic landscape whose microclimatic idiosyncrasies bore out many full-fleshed experiments in forest.  Trees were not the exception but the norm.  Only in the past 50 years has forest cover been lost to an extent that allows for the Serengeti analogy to seem plausible.

A product of the chaos of armed conflict and the tumultuous collision of capitalism and corruption, Northern Uganda’s deforestation history has been stunningly rapid and continues today.  On any given week, dozens, even hundreds of trucks speed down the recently improved Gulu-Kampala highway, the North’s central artery, filled to overflowing with sacks and sacks of pyrolized trees’ bodies— in other words, charcoal.

Traveling along this road recently, for over two hours the smell and even the taste of charcoal production scratched in my throat uninterruptedly.  It’s a known public health hazard to live near production of this “dirty” fuel, and respiratory infections are Uganda’s second leading cause of morbidity (i.e., preventable death by treatable illness).  Citing the UN Sustainable Development Goal number 7, to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all,” many Ugandans have realized that charcoal is far from an ideal fuel source.  So why torch the trees? For many of Uganda’s 30 million citizens, charcoal is one of the few available options for greater participation in the cash economy.  

Universal challenges, universal applications

As more of the world is touched by global development (include accusatory quotation marks around the word development if you like), more and more people are choosing to monetize their forests through means that are directly antagonistic to ecological health.  Destruction of countless hardwood trees for charcoal production is just one example, but indeed an example that carries unexpected connotations. 

As you know from reading previous reports here, bio-char, or charcoal used as a soil amendment, is gradually spreading throughout the tropics as benefit to farmers’ soils and important carbon sink — the charred wood in charcoal maintains its carbon in a remarkably stable state, as long as 2000 years maintained in the soil.  The traditional “dirty” incentive for charcoal production is but one of many.  Perhaps there are ways in which production of cooking charcoal can be tied to more environmentally wholesome bio-char production. What we know for sure is that there are better, cleaner ways to make charcoal.  As much as we’d love to see more of that charcoal turned into the soil, perhaps it’s permissible to imagine some charcoal production for cooking fuel, but produced efficiently and cleanly. 

Bill Mollison reminds us that “the problem is the solution.”  While cooking charcoal production should properly be seen as ecologically reprehensible in most places where it’s done, there’s no reason not to dedicate effective, clean production practices toward “the enemy” — charcoal for cooking.  

Thanks for your support of our bio-char advocacy and development work!  Greetings from Peru and Uganda,

Growing cacao under native forest cover
Growing cacao under native forest cover
A charcoal truck heads to market
A charcoal truck heads to market
An Acholiland forest with banana understory
An Acholiland forest with banana understory
Savannah sunset
Savannah sunset
Yellow bamboo
Yellow bamboo

Bamboo is a grass that can grow 50 meters tall.  It's the source of fibers used to make paper and clothing, and a sturdy "timber" familiar in the tropics and increasingly throughout the world.  

And it's fast.  Many species of bamboo grow faster than trees.  And many species sequester more carbon dioxide than trees, a fact that has made bamboo attractive for possible carbon capture credit systems.

It works like this: the growing plant takes in CO2 as part of photosynthesis, incorporating much of that carbon into its body as biomass.  For as long as the plant resists decomposition, this carbon is captured, sequestered, sunk.  If the thing rots, much of the carbon offgases as CO2 and methane. So for bamboo to be effective as a carbon capture system, the bamboo must be preserved, as is the case with bamboo-as-timber in construction.     

The other way you can lock the carbon in is by making bamboo charcoal.

Counter-intuitive as it appears at first glance, charring bamboo is in fact pyrolysis instead of combustion and releases few emissions.  And the carbon captured in charcoal exists in a much more stable form -- charcoal can last for hundreds or even thousands of years without re-releasing its carbon.

Bamboo charcoal is like pulling carbon out of the atmosphere by some magic trick and placing it in stable organic canisters that can safely be buried -- and in fact provide great benefits in the soil.  

Our bamboo plantings are over a year old now but still need more time before they can start yielding sustainable harvests.  Thanks to your support, we're approaching the execution phase in which we'll demonstrate bamboo bio-char's value and begin to share it.

Thanks so much for your interest and support!

Nurseries for the future
Nurseries for the future
Team members at our Tambopata reforestation center
Team members at our Tambopata reforestation center

Dear friends,

I don't usually like to sound the drums for fundraising events-- it's always a little intrusive, and I apologize if I'm committing a similar annoyance now.  What I want to share is a most unique opportunity to make your support of Camino Verde and our Amazonian reforestation work count extra.  This Wednesday, July 15, all donations to Camino Verde through GlobalGiving will be matched! 

The link is right here: 

http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/turning-carbon-footprints-into-healthy-soils/

We've worked with GlobalGiving for 5 years now, and since they call us a Superstar they're offering 50% matching funds for all donations received while matching funds last.  Please consider taking advantage of this rare chance to make your donation count more!  If you give once this year, please make it the morning of July 15.  

Help us become a Frontrunner on GlobalGiving to earn extra visibility and prize funds.

Thanks so much for your support.  Read on to find out more about what we're doing now.  And don't forget to join us on Wednesday, July 15th on GlobalGiving.

Recent News

 1. Biochar in the Amazon -- We're on the threshold of a new chapter for bio-char in the Amazon.  With our bamboo groves happily growing, we're getting ready to gear up pilot bio-char production, showing how this technology can bring benefits to small farmers while sequestering enormous quantities of CO2.  We couldn't do this unique work without you!

2. Camino Verde research team -- For 8 years, Camino Verde has planted trees that no one else has.  And now our unique experiences in Amazonian reforestation will be documented as never before-- with the help of experience scientists and local students.  Starting this year, expect to see Camino Verde in research journals and practical manuals.  Future plans include a rigurous approach to documenting the benefits of bio-char for the Amazon!  

3. The CV/CACE connection -- For those of you have followed our work closely, you know of how we reforested rosewood trees with the good folks of Brillo Nuevo native community and the Center for Amazon Community Ecology (CACE).  Now CACE and CV are working closely together to share some of the unique gifts of deep Amazonia.  CACE's upcoming Amazon Store will pioneer the way for socially-responsible direct trade, funneling profits towards ecologically sustainable best practices that truly align with community goals.  A highfalutin way of saying helping farmers in the Amazon make a living by planting trees.  We're excited to soon offer a few little products of the Camino Verde reforestation at the Amazon Store.  We'll keep you posted. 

4. The CV/Uganda connection -- Many of you asked, and yes, Camino Verde consultation work in Uganda appears to be on track to continue in coming years.  We're grateful to be able to help the effort to plant trees in this remarkable country.  Don't be surprised if you see a Camino Verde / Wise Women of Uganda project up on GlobalGiving soon.

Thanks again for your interest and support.  Kind regards from Tambopata,

Research team members
Research team members
Tambopata frog
Tambopata frog
Blossoms in the rainforest
Blossoms in the rainforest
Cacao drying
Cacao drying
Spilanthes
Spilanthes
 

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Organization Information

Camino Verde

Location: Concord, MA - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.caminoverde.org
Project Leader:
Robin Van Loon
Concord, MA Peru

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