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.

Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?

Thanks to our friend and former Peace Corps Panama volunteer Matt Gilbride for co-authoring this post. Matt is currently finishing his graduate work in Industrial Design at NC State University. Check out some of his work.

As Planting Empowerment expands in Panama’s Darien province, we find ourselves examining the questions raised by Bruce Nussbaum in his July 7th, 2010 Fast Company article.

The author poses a powerful question to all those engaged in humanitarian development and design: “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” As former Peace Corps volunteers ourselves (and two of us with design experience) we have some perspective on Nussbaum’s article.

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New York Times profiles African land grabs (1 of 2)

The December 21st New York Times story, African Farmers Displaced as Investors Move In, examines the trend of land acquisition in Africa by foreign governments and corporations.

This is a complex subject involving issues of food security, ethics, politics, and capital markets, among others. While Africa's situation is different than Latin America's, there are some parallels to be drawn from the story.

A topic as controversial as land rights merits two separate blog posts. Here in the first, we'll explore how land rights pertains to our business, and how that affects your investment with us. The next post will go into more depth as the topic relates to our indigenous partner Arimae.

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Update on the Small Grants Program Project

Liriano clears around one of the baby rosewood saplings that the community planted through the SGP program. One of the most exciting things I saw during my recent trip to Panama was the results of the United Nations Development Program's Small Grant Program (SGP) project that we helped Arimae receive and execute. With the financial support from the SGP, the community built a small nursery to produce rosewood, and then planted five hectares of those rosewood saplings with their own initiative. Another interesting part of the project is that the seeds for the rosewood came from their own reserve, so the saplings should be well suited to the local climate and soil conditions.
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