As volunteers we take pride in having tried almost every â€œmiracle solutionâ€ out there for improving the livelihoods of our village members. We claim to try them â€œso that our village members donâ€™t have toâ€ but itâ€™s mostly the pleasure we take in experimenting with them ourselves. Our yard is filled with drip irrigation systems, a water catchment system, a small demonstration rice paddy, improved cook stoves, a tree nursery, a raised vegetable nursery/garden, multiple compost heaps, chicken tractors, numerous experimental gardening techniques, and so many different kinds of plants that sometimes we come across one and think to ourselves, â€œOh yeah, we did plant that.â€ We try so many of these â€œmiracle solutionsâ€ in our yard we have undoubtedly come across as somewhat eccentric (to put it nicely) to our friends and neighbors. This monthâ€™s miracle solution to solve all of the worldâ€™s problems is: biochar.
After a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer mentioned a recent TIME article about it, Erin did some research and pulled together all the information she could find on biochar. Biochar, as defined by the International Biochar Initiative, is:
â€œa fine-grained, porous charcoal substance that, when used as a soil amendment in combination with sustainable production of the biomass feedstock, effectively removes net carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the soil, biochar provides a habitat for soil
organisms, but is not itself consumed by them to a great extent, and most of the applied
biochar can remain in the soil for several hundreds to thousands of years.â€
Biochar is said to be a possible solution to:
â€¢Global Warming/Climate Change (through the sequestration of carbon)
â€¢Energy alternative (through the use of the syngas or bio-oil produced during the production of biochar)
â€¢Poverty alleviation (as an inexpensive solution to the improvement of tropical soils and thus improved crop yields from tropical soil)
Of course almost all miracle solutions need some initial investment of time, money, or other resources that, in addition to the initial human hesitancy towards trying new things, prevents many people in the developing world from trying them. Producing biochar is something that most people in our area could be good at. Although it isnâ€™t as efficient, biochar can be made the same way as charcoal is made; in essence by cooking the plant matter, crop residue, etc in a low oxygen, low heat environment.
So, because it is a miracle solution with a lot of hype behind it, we have built a rudimentary bio-char production unit in our yard: a small, covered, hole in the ground (1m x 1m x 50cm) that allows minimal oxygen. Our accumulating heap of slow decomposing plant material (sugar cane leaves, branches, vines, etc) is now being converted into biochar to incorporate into our soil.
We are finding, as with most miracle solutions, that it is easier said than done. We are getting wheel barrows of terrific biochar from our little processing center and incorporating it into our soil but itâ€™s hard to see the people in our village adopting it as an alternative to their traditional slash and burn agriculture. Producing biochar is more time consuming and difficult than simply lighting the pile of plant matter (or field) on fire and it probably involves bringing the material to a central processing area. However, the Pre-Columbian Amazonian Indian tribe that discovered and used the technique (called terra preta by the Europeans), was able to use it without the assistance of modern technology and develop soil that remains extremely productive to this day.
Who knows if this miracle solution will pan out or not but we sure do have the beginnings of some nice black garden beds in our yard. If anyone has any suggestions on how theyâ€™ve successfully incorporated bio-char into their communityâ€™s lifestyle or built an efficient processing unit/kiln using local resources please drop us an e-mail.