Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils

by Camino Verde
Sep 13, 2012

What's going on in the soil?

Hello once again, dear friends and supporters,

In the last project report, I spoke about the significance of carbon capture and how it is that by turning a plant into charcoal we are in fact making a carbon negative transaction. 

If this were charcoal's only impact, that would still be important.  But as in nature, "stacking functions" is important, and we would hope that charcoal knows more than this one trick.  And in fact, that's just the case.  Charcoal is in fact very useful for other reasons as well.

So now I want to talk a little bit about why charcoal is useful.  Beyond its carbon sequestering power, charcoal or biochar is also incredibly beneficial to farmers and conservationists alike.

Here's why.

Remember how "activated charcoal" is used in many water filters? This is because charcoal's molecular structure is full of nooks and crannies, little niches where particles can cling and hide. It is this structure that makes charcoal a good water filter: small debris and microbes are caught and held in the nooks and crannies.

And in like fashion, charcoal provides holding space for important nutrients in the soil.  It doesn't hold these minerals and trace minerals so tenaciously that plants can't get them. But it does hold the particles in firmly enough that pounding rains and baking sun-- constants in hot rainforest regions like ours-- don't leach the nutrients out, which is an eternal issue in tropical agriculture.

Charcoal does not, itself, provide nutrients, but it does allow for nutrients in the soil to be kept in the soil. This explains the stunning, long-term fertility of so-called terra preta (Amazonian dark earth) which was created by pre-Colombian indigenous people of the Amazon by combining charcoal and composted organic matter to form sustainable richness that is still appreciable after even thousands of years.

Which brings me to the other important way that charcoal benefits the soil: homes for microbes. 

More and more, soil scientists are understanding the importance of soil micro-organisms to make nutrients available to plants. We are learning that without the microbial allies found in, say, a rich batch of compost, soils cease to function. The soil itself is a teaming ecosystem, and fertility is next to meaningless without these microscopic messengers delivering fertility to plants.

And, it turns out, the same nooks and crannies that allow charcoal to trap microbes in a water filter can, in the soil, be seen as a sort of extensive habitat. A friend of mine who is studying soil science for his master's told me that combining charcoal with compost or "compost teas" of beneficial micro-organisms is an extraordinarily effective way to build soil fertility quickly.

Stacking functions means doing something good that is useful in several different ways. Charcoal is a durable carbon sink, sequestering CO2 for hundreds or even thousands of years. And it also enriches the earth where it is introduced, keeping nutrients in the soil and providing boundless habitat for the microbes that are the landmark of a healthy soil.

This is exactly the thinking motivating this project. And the coolest thing about it? It is in fact an ancient technology, developed by the indigenous people of the Amazon probably several thousand years ago. More on that in the next report.

For now, our greetings and deep gratitude for your support. And the soil thanks you too!


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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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