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.

Forest Legality Alliance

Forest Legality Alliance badgePlanting Empowerment recently joined the Forest Legality Alliance, whose goal is to reduce illegal logging through supporting the supply of legal forest products.

The Alliance is a joint effort of the World Resources Institute and the Environmental Investigation Agency, supported by the United States Agency for International Development and companies in the forest sector.

We're proud to be a part of the movement to use sustainably sourced timber. As the growing demand for cocobolo demonstrates, it will only become increasingly urgent for wood buyers to understand the social and environmental effects of the tropical timber trade. 

A Rosier Year for Rosewood?

Photo of Cocobolo (rosewood) logs on their way to be milled into timber.

Photo of Cocobolo (rosewood) logs on their way to be milled into timber.

Cocobolo (rosewood) logs on their way to be milled into timberLast year, we wrote a couple of blog posts about the surge in rosewood (cocobolo) logging that has gripped Panama, and the resulting problems. It unfortunately led to conflict that left two people dead, and finally made the Panamanian government take measures to control the violence.

With the dry season in February in Panama comes increased logging thanks to easier access to primary forests. Will the Panamanian government be proactive to stop the loss of lives and primary forests that will inevitably occur if the rosewood fever continues?

We hope so. Belize set an example last month by torching and donating illegally harvested rosewood. In the Darien, where much of the cocobolo harvesting takes place, there are Ministry of Environment and police checkpoints on all of the roads leading to Panama City, so controlling the movement of illegally harvested wood shouldn’t be difficult in theory. However, with the Ministry of Environment’s budget being cut, there are not sufficient “boots on the ground” to do the necessary field inspections.

One way the Panamanian government could address the problem is by accelerating the land titling of Indigenous territories. This would give Indigenous communities more legal clout to expel illegal loggers. Last year, it titled two Wounaan communities, the first Indigenous communities since 2000 to receive titles. It’s a good start, but there are still 39 communities left.

From an industry perspective, we also hope that more forestry companies will recognize both the environmental and financial benefits of growing this valuable tropical timber.

Saving Smokey: Protecting U.S. public lands despite rising deficits

Editor's note: While we usually blog about international and community forestry issues, the recent fiscal cliff debate has far-reaching impacts on domestic policies that affect forests in public lands in the United States, which we believe are important to address.

Even though Congress reached a temporary deal that reduced the cuts required by the sequester by $24 billion, the sequester is still a threat because: 1) it was only pushed back by two months and 2) $12 billion of the $24 billion reduction will actually be made up of cuts to discretionary spending in 2013 and 2014. This is the kind of spending that is essential for protecting public lands across the United States.

Prior to the temporary fiscal cliff deal, several environmental organizations released reports that highlight (PDF) the adverse effects sequestration could have on public lands, especially through reduced funding for the National Park Service. Public lands across the country would be left vulnerable to exploitation at a time that is already uniquely difficult for protecting these lands. These cuts not only mean that many national parks will be under-resourced or closed entirely, as the Center for American Progress reports, but the Land and Water Conservation Fund will be severely gutted. This fund helps pay for new land from private sellers for conservation purposes.

The cuts could even induce some state land local governments, already limping from the Great Recession and preparing for the sequestration, to seek revenue streams from their natural resource endowments. In 2010 Wyoming explored selling small plots in the state-owned Grand Tetons and currently, agencies like the Southwest Florida Water Management District are considering selling off tracts of land vital to the local ecosystem. While this strategy is nothing new to policy makers, the current fiscal crisis that state and local governments face is unprecedented.

Exploiting public lands and natural resources might seem like a sensible solution (especially considering that the states that weathered the recession best have abundant natural resources), the American public mostly believes otherwise. A recent poll by The Nature Conservancy showed broad public support for protecting natural resources, despite the deficit.

As Congress decides how to make up the $12 billion shortfall through federal spending cuts, now is the time to make sure that public leaders do not make hasty decisions that might deplete our land and natural resource endowments.

Food, Farms, and Forests

Local avocado for dinner

A recent article in the NY Times “As Biofuel Demand Grows, So Do Guatemala’s Hunger Pangs” brought attention to rising crop prices in Guatemala caused by increased biofuel production in rural areas. As we read it, there were some parallels to the food security issues in Panama.

One of the reasons we started Planting Empowerment was to address the negative economic and environmental impacts created by industrial teak plantation businesses. Their MO is to buy up land previously used for small scale crop production or cattle grazing, activities that generate calories and support smallholder livelihoods.

Our Equitable Forestry model addresses the issues of displacing food crops and rising food prices in three different ways:

Intercropping food crops between our rows of trees

Nine out of the 25 hectares we have under cultivation are planted with plantains, a staple of the Panamanian diet. Growing the plantains between our natives species hardwoods not only helps increase supply of this dietary staple, but also yields cost reductions through the sharing of maintenance expenses.

Using only a portion of partners’ land for forestry

Our intention from the beginning was to use only portions of partners’ land to locate our forest plots. With our Indigenous Partner community Arimae, the plantings are located on land allocated specifically for reforestation activities in their land management plan. This leaves large amounts of land for individuals to grow staple and cash crops.

Increasing incomes from profit sharing

Finally, our community forestry partners see increased incomes through land leases payments and profit sharing. This helps to reduce the impact of rising food prices that are hitting Panamanians just as much as the Guatemalans mentioned in the article.

Forest owners and developers need to carefully consider the indirect impacts their projects have on local and international communities. We would like to see more forestry companies intercrop food crops into their projects to help maximize the benefit of their forests and strengthen food security for local communities.