Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils

by Camino Verde
Vetted
Camino Verde staff at our new nursery
Camino Verde staff at our new nursery

Dear Friends of Camino Verde,

I'm writing because Tuesday is a unique opportunity to help restore the world's forests with Camino Verde. If you have a dollar to give, we'll get a buck fifty, thanks to the Gates Foundation.

What is it?  It's the biggest matching bonus day ever on GlobalGiving, where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given half a million dollars in matching funds available for one day only. Any donations received on Tuesday, November 29th will be matched at 50%. So you give $100, we get $150.  This is the link to donate.

Matching funds kick in right when Tuesday, November 29th begins – at 12:01 am midnight when Monday ends. Whatever the time of day you're able to be online on Tuesday, please take advantage of this great opportunity to hit up the Gates Foundation for matching funds.  There will even be prizes given out to organizations with the most donations. Please share with friends!

If you’re thinking of a year-end contribution to Camino Verde and would like to maximize its impact, this is the way to do it.  Here's our project page on GlobalGiving, where you'll be able to donate on Tuesday: 

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

Camino Verde is a small organization that leverages our resources to make a great impact in the restoration of the Amazon. This Bonus Day is also a chance to make a little go a long way.  If you only donate once this year, please make it Tuesday.  And please forward this to a friend who might be interested in contributing to the effort to regenerate the Amazon. 

And now on to our regularly scheduled report...

I recently had a chance to walk under the hot Amazonian sun with Manuel Huinga, the manager of a unique tree nursery in the Southern Peruvian Amazon. Camino Verde's second tree nursery in the region, the La Joya nursery has been in existence for a couple of months, but is already home to dozens of species of seedlings.  Different sizes and shapes of leaves compete for our attention as Manuel points out the names and uses of trees rarely planted anywhere. 

The La Joya nursery is unique in many ways. Its list of native species propagated will hit 100 this year. And it's managed through entirely organic means. In 2017, new nursery equipment will be installed, including a bio-digestor to make organic probiotic fertilizers. Also to be built – and here's the part that interests us – is an Adam Retort for the production of bio-char.  You may remember reading about this charcoal-producing technology in our previous reports. It allows for the clean production of high quality charcoal, that when mixed with the bio-fertilizers becomes a potent ammendment for soil in nursery and farm alike. 

Bio-char is attractive as a soil ammendment because it helps hold nutrients in the soil. It's also of interest as part of soil remediation packages applicable to the rehabilitation of polluted, contaminate sites. In Madre de Dios, gold mining leaves a wake of soils contaminated with heavy metals and petroleum products.  This year we'll partner with the team of scientists from Wake Forest University to include bio-char in restoration and remediation strategies likely to have a regional impact.  It's just one more way bio-char and Camino Verde contribute to ecological regeneration. 

We couldn't do any of this without your support. And tomorrow your support will count extra. If you plan to donate any time this year, please Donate tomorrow

Thanks so much for your help and support!

Manuel and a seedling of Salix humboldtiana
Manuel and a seedling of Salix humboldtiana
Manuel with nursery staff Elvis (left) and Percy
Manuel with nursery staff Elvis (left) and Percy
Manuel and Elvis in the nursery
Manuel and Elvis in the nursery
One of the nursery modules
One of the nursery modules
Planetary lungs -the Peruvian Amazon
Planetary lungs -the Peruvian Amazon

There are reasons to be really scared of climate change and its effects. And there are reasons to be hopeful.  There are practically insurmountable challenges to a permanent, sustainable way of life for humans and other biological communities.  And there are remarkable people and strategies challenging the challenges, pushing what’s possible, creating something new. 

For many, the question of life on Earth as we know it boils down to something that we can call the carbon balance. More carbon in the atmosphere means trouble. More of it pulled from the air and held in stable form marks one hopeful way forward.  Forests play their part – we know that plants absorb carbon and hold it in, at least for as long as the plants’ bodies (wood, etc.) doesn’t rot, re-releasing the stored carbon.

Just one tiny shard of hope – an ancient technology.  Prehistoric Amazonian Indians used charcoal as a way to improve soil on their farms.  Charcoal is charred organic matter, the accumulated bodies of plants.  More recently, many centuries after the Amazonians invented what we call “black earth” (terra preta), researchers realized that charcoal represents a singular proposition for carbon sequestration – the honeycomb-like composition of charcoal keeps carbon trapped in, for as much as thousands of years.  Planting this charcoal in the soil means a carbon sink of amazing efficacy.  Used as an agricultural input, it’s called bio-char. 

Drawing from this body of ancient knowledge, our small organization Camino Verde has complimented our tree planting efforts with a drive to implement biochar in the Amazon once more, as was the case centuries or even millennia ago, but with an impact that’s purely 21st century.  If you’ve followed our reports, you know that we’ve sought to identify the best appropriate technologies to produce and introduce bio-char as part of our lasting impact strategy.

It hasn’t always been easy.  Examples of the right way forward have been few and hard to find. But this year was a sea change.  Bio-char has debuted in the dialogue of public and private institutions in Peru (including a conference in the capital of Lima) and we are breaking ground on our first bio-char production facilities in the Peruvian Amazon region of Madre de Dios.  There are reasons to be hopeful. Renewable, fast-growing bamboo is an excellent candidate for heavy carbon sequestration.  Our pilot site captures the energy of sunlight into hundreds of stalks of bamboo which are then dried and later charred, or pyrolized, locking in the carbon captured during the plants’ growth. 

For Gorka Atxuara, a farmer and agricultural technician promoting biochar in the Peruvian Amazon, biochar is one important tool in a broader toolkit. “Not a panacea – as reforestation and reduction of emissions are still vital strategies – but used as part of an integrative approach, biochar can produce tangible, quantifiable carbon capture results, storing carbon for 150 to 2000 years.”  Though not the only way forward in regard to climate change, biochar offers important additional benefits. “In oxisol soils in research plots in Colombia, a treatment with biochar offered a doubling of production for maize, compared to control plots. Biochar addresses climate change while improving livelihood for tropical farmers.”

This year Camino Verde will have a chance to test Gorka’s and others’ hypothesis: that biochar offers carbon credit-style climate change mitigation while improving tropical soils.  We’re grateful for your help in making the dream of a sustainable Amazon – indeed, a sustainable planet – a reality for future generations. Thanks for helping us turn carbon footprints into healthy soils.  We couldn’t do it without you.  

tree seedlings at our nurseries
tree seedlings at our nurseries
charcoal production in the Amazon
charcoal production in the Amazon
Agricultural technician Gorka Atxuara
Agricultural technician Gorka Atxuara
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
 

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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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