Biochar…please be my Valentine!

While you may have been getting cosy and lovey-dovey with your romanic interest this past Valentine’s Day…I was getting up close and personal with a hot interest of my own: biochar!

That’s right, a few lucky individuals from our IRATAM office headed out of Cap-Haitien to Quartier Morin bright and early Friday morning to learn all about biochar and green charcoal from the local experts – Carbon Roots Haiti, subdivision of Carbon Roots International (CRI) http://www.carbonrootsinternational.org

First important fact to make note of: Haiti suffers from massive deforestation – only 2% of natural tree cover remains – and this is due mainly to cutting down trees for wood charcoal (as the primary cooking fuel) and the clearing of land for food production. Reforestation efforts have to first addess the issue facing Haitian peasants – access to an alternative cooking fuel. Thus enters green charcoal into the scene, charcoal made from agricultural and green waste (just about any dried husk or residue will do: think corn husks, mango tree leaves, dried grass and the very popular and abundant sugar cane husks, called ‘bagasse‘ in Creole). In an oxygen deprived environment this green waste is transformed (burned) into char which can later be transformed into briquettes of charcoal ready to be used for cooking. No need to change stoves or cooking habits, and most importantly, no need to cut down trees for wood charcoal.

But the trick is that char can be transformed not only into green charcoal used for cooking in Haitian peasant homes, but it can also be used as a soil amendment in the garden. This is what we call biochar – the same dried husks and Agri waste turned into a carbon rich material that acts as a sponge, a moisture and nutrient retaining body, in the soil. Perfect for use on a variety of crops in Haiti where the soils are more acidic (which is typical of the tropics) and irrigation systems rely on praying and hoping the rain will come at the right time (aka, there are very few irrigation systems in place).
As a soil amendment biochar changes soil structure and texture and provides a stable carbon source which does not require reapplication. Plants and crops are thriving on it – by just how much we’re not quite sure of yet as the test plots and controlled experiments at the CRI site are not quite finished yet. But I do remember seeing a wacky photo on the CRI website of a banana tree planted with biochar next to one without it…and it was 2-3 times bigger in the same amount of time!

We proceeded to participate in the charring process – one drum filled with bagasse and the other with dried grass, just for comparison sakes.

Below the step by step process in photos:

1. all materials laid out

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2. our team getting ready to burn some bagasse!

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3. laying it down horizontally makes for a more even burn

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4. burning!!

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5. burning and smoking away, now with cover and chimney on

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6. the final product, spread out before us + Cassava growing – this one has been treated with biochar

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