Biochar, Part Deux

Photo of Liriano with a bucket in ArimaeLiriano regulating the biochar burn in ArimaeBuilding on the lessons we learned during our biochar training in February, we spent the past couple of weeks experimenting with producing biochar in our Arimae location. Biochar has been used for thousands of years as a way to increase soil fertility and crop productivity, something the soils in the Darien province really need.

The key with producing biochar is controlling air flow to the burn—permitting as little oxygen as possible from reaching the flame. For this reason we used a pit burning method for our first batch of biochar.

Check out all the photos from the burn »

We spent a couple of days chainsawing waste logs and digging a big hole to contain the logs, then fitted the hole with a bamboo chimney to regulate air flow to the burning logs. Once we ignited the stacked logs in the pit, we covered the fire with some wood and zinc, to further restrict air from reaching the burning logs. Unfortunately, we realized that our chimney was much too narrow for sufficient air flow, so not much wood was burned. We then extinguished the fire with water, and let it cool overnight for collection the next day. The next morning, when we came to collect the biochar, we realized that we hadn’t totally extinguished the fire the day before. All that was left in the hole was ash.

Learning from this setback, we didn’t use a chimney or covering for the pit for our next couple of burns. Good results. To collect the biochar from the toasted logs, we whack the log with a shovel or a machete, the biochar chips right off, and we re-stack the log on the fire and re-ignite it to produce more.

During the last burn, we decided that we were losing too many small chunks of biochar in the soil of the pit, so we tried to burn a pyre in the open. By separating the embers from the logs as they burn, we are able to really control the fire and collect the charcoal before any of it burned to ash. Even though a torrential downpour attempted to thwart our fire-building efforts, the flames were so hot, they burned through four hours of constant rain and actually dried us as we collected the charcoal and attended to the fire.

All told, we produced six big sacks of fertilizing biochar—that’s about 300 lbs. of yield-increasing, soil-enriching goodness! If we continue biochar production, we plan to build a simple hut to protect us from the elements; since it seems the wet season has arrived, we’ll need it.

Learn more about our impact in sustainable forestry.

Biochar: Soil Supercharger

Photo of Planting Empowerment employees making biocharLiriano and Yin make biochar. Click for a larger view.This week we'll be making biochar in the Arimae plantation. Biochar is relatively easy to make and should improve the quality of the soil in our projects, meaning higher plantain yields and faster growing trees. It's also a great way to take advantage of the fallen trees and branches that are normally a nuisance.

In February, Liriano, Yin, and I visited regional biochar expert and former Peace Corps Volunteer Alan Foster in Catrigandi, Panama Este to learn how to make biochar. We started the process by sawing mango tree branches into equal-sized logs and stacking them into a big five foot pile. Then we lit the pyre on fire, evoking the spirit of the limbs that were sacrificed for sake of soil improvement. Check out all the photos.

During the burn, Alan trained us to be aware of the changes of the smoke over time: white or light blue smoke means that moisture is being burned off, while darker smoke means the wood is burning. Once the wood was slightly crisped we extinguished the smoldering logs with water, and using a shovel we scraped off the biochar from the logs. Through a four hour burn of a 4x4x5 pyre we collected a sack of biochar, and this process is repeated.

We are adapting our process slightly due to the space limitations in our plantations: rather than stacking the wood in a pile, we are going to dig a pit. And because there is no water nearby, we are going to extinguish the smoldering by sealing off airflow by burying it.

This biochar is like an uncharged battery: it can potentially absorb nutrients from the soil and actually reduce yields! To "charge" it, Alan will use his biochar as a dry material for his composting latrine. We plan on adding our biochar to a mix of rice husk and chicken excrement to create a rich organic fertilizer, and expect to use this in the tree nursery for healthier trees and fatter plantains.

2011 in Review

2011 was another year of “growth” for Planting Empowerment, and also marked our five year birthday. Our investors’ trees grew taller and stronger, we improved our operations, added to the Planting Empowerment Advisory Board, and formalized and gained more recognition for our Equitable Forestry model.

Operationally, we continued to develop initiatives to increase benefits to our partner communities. Namely, we began planting staple crops between the rows of trees (agroforestry), to generate returns earlier and increase efficiencies in our operations. We expect the plantains and yams to begin producing yields next year.

In 2012, Planting Empowerment plans to plant another five hectares of trees, bringing our total area under cultivation to 25 hectares (65 acres). We will be working with a former Peace Corps colleague-turned-biochar-expert Alan Foster to jumpstart our program, based on the MIT biochar business plan (PDF) created for us in 2010. We will use the biochar to fertilize our own trees initially, but will possibly sell it to other forestry or agricultural operations in the future.

2011 also marked the year that we formalized our operating model into five principals and gave it a name: the Equitable Forestry model. We were honored to be part of a United Nations Development Program study on Biodiversity in Latin America and the Caribbean (PDF). Planting Empowerment will also be presenting the model at the Yale School of Forestry International Society of Tropical Foresters Annual Conference in January of next year.

Thomas P. Kearney III and Sherif Gamal joined our Advisory Board, adding needed experience in finance and marketing, respectively. Our updated website holds more information for investors and visitors about forest investments, impact investing, tropical deforestation, and rural development. And the Planting Empowerment blog continues to serve as source of trusted information for those interested in forestry and investing in forestry.

As more investors recognize the benefits of responsible forest investing, we’re confident that Planting Empowerment will continue to create positive impacts for our partner communities and surrounding ecosystems. We look forward to working with you towards that goal in 2012.