Wednesday, November 26, 2008

National Geographic documentary on terra preta and biochar: solve multiple environmental crises simultaneously

Hi Folks,

Since I'm in the Inter-Not-Yet zone these days, regular blog posts are difficult. But I wanted to alert you to a new documentary on one of my favorite topics: Biochar and Terra Preta. This story is a repost from BIOPACT.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Biochar, or the sequestration of char in nutrient-poor soils to make them more fertile, is gaining interest from a growing number of conservationists, ecologists, climate activists and anthropologists because it is increasingly seen as one of the few realistic ways to tackle multiple environmental and social crises simultaneously: hunger, soil depletion, deforestation and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services that go with it, fresh water depletion, land ownership, energy poverty and even climate change.

National Geographic is the latest to focus on this almost too-good-to-be-true land use strategy, which is based on the old, very fertile "terra preta" soils that have been discovered in the Amazon. NG's article 'Superdirt Made Lost Amazon Cities Possible?' is an introduction to a new documentary that analyses how pre-columbian Amazonian societies were built on the ingeniously engineered black soils.

The film "Lost Cities of the Amazon" [video fragments here and here] builds on the recent insights that these forests may have been home to vast urban networks that sustained large populations for thousands of years. Scientists now think that the 'black gold' agriculture - the biochar these communities put in their soils - not only was the key to this sustainable way of life, but that it may help save the planet today.

Now scientists are trying to recreate the recipe for the apparently human-made supersoil, which still covers up to 10 percent of the Amazon Basin. Key ingredients included of dirt, charcoal, pottery, human excrement and other waste.If recreated, the engineered soil could feed the hungry and may even help fight global warming, experts suggest.

Scientists have long thought the river basin's tropical soils were too acidic to grow anything but the hardiest varieties of manioc, a starch-rich root crop.But over the past several decades, researchers have discovered tracts of productive terra preta—"dark earth." The human-made soil's chocolaty color contrasts sharply with the region's natural yellowish soils.Research in the late 1980s was the first to show that charcoal made from slow burns of trees and woody waste is the key ingredient of terra preta.With the increased level of agriculture made possible by terra preta, ancient Amazonians would have been able to live in one place for long periods of time, says geographer and anthropologist William Woods of the University of Kansas, who studies ancient Amazonian settlements.

As a result you get social stratification, hierarchy, intertwined settlement systems, very large scale. And then 1492 happens. The arrival of Europeans brought disease and warfare that obliterated the ancient Amazonian civilizations and sent the few survivors deep into the rain forest to live as hunter-gatherers. It completely changed their way of living.

Professor WoodsMagic Soil?Today scientists are racing to tease apart the terra-preta recipe. The special soil has been touted as a way to restore more sustainable farming to the Amazon, feed the world's hungry, and combat global warming.The terra-preta charcoal, called biochar, attracts certain fungi and microorganisms. Those tiny life-forms allow the charcoal to absorb and retain nutrients that keep the soil fertile for hundreds of years, said Woods, whose team is among a few trying to identify the crucial microorganisms: "The materials that go into the terra preta are just part of the story. The living member of it is much more," he said. For one thing, the microorganisms break up the charcoal into smaller pieces, creating more surface area for nutrients to cling to, Woods said.

Anti-Global-Warming Weapon?Soil scientist Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University is also racing to recreate terra preta.The Amazonian dark soils, he said, are hundreds to thousands of years old, yet to this day they retain their nutrients and carbons, which are held mainly by the charcoal.This suggests that adding biochar could help other regions of the world with acidic soils to increase agricultural yields.Plus, Lehmann said, biochar could help reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere from the burning of wild lands to create new farm fields. For example, specialized power plants could char agricultural wastes to generate electricity.The process would "lock" much carbon that would have otherwise escaped into the atmosphere in the biochar. The biochar could then be put underground, in a new form of terra preta, thereby sequestering the carbon for centuries, Lehmann suggests.

Current Amazonian farming relies heavily on slash-and-burn agriculture—razing forests, then burning all of what's left.By reverting to the ancient slash-and-char method—burning slowly and then mixing the charcoal into the soil—Amazonian carbon dioxide emissions could be cut nearly in half, according to Woods, of the University of Kansas.

With slash-and-burn, he noted, 95 percent of the carbon stored in a tree is emitted to the atmosphere. Slash-and-char emits about 50 percent, he said."The rest is put into different forms of black carbon, most of which are chemically inert for long periods of time—thousands of years."In addition, the technique would allow many farmers to stay sedentary, Woods said.Because the soil would apparently remain fertile for centuries, "they don't have to cut down the forest constantly and send it up into the atmosphere," he said.


National Geographic: Superdirt Made Lost Amazon Cities Possible? - November 19, 2008.

National Geographic: Ancient Amazon Cities Found; Were Vast Urban Network - August 28, 2008.

University of California at Los Angeles: Susanna Hecht

University of Florida: Michael Heckenberger

University of Kansas: William Woods

Cornell University: Johannes Lehmann

Saturday, November 08, 2008


A clear vision and a woman's faith.
WOW! Past as prologue....

Thanks for sending this Emily.

Be sure to check out Judith Warner at the NY Tmes.

Two images will forever stay in my mind to mark this epoch-breaking Election Day. One is that of Jesse Jackson’s face, drenched in tears, in Chicago’s Grant Park on Tuesday evening.

And the other is a photo that ran in The Times on Wednesday. In it, a black mother and daughter sit on the floor of a church in Harlem. The mother, Latrice Barnes, having heard of Obama’s victory, is doubled up in tears; her daughter, Jasmine, is reaching a tentative hand up to soothe her. To me, she looks like the future, reaching out to heal the past.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Dear Friends,

It is a blessed and historic day -- the first of a new era. Our moments and movements have traveled from hope and vision to the reality of President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama.

I can barely find words that explain my surprise at being so deeply touched by this election. I laughed and cried and worried as I have never before over a political event. I'm still amazed. He came up from Chicago which was my first home and where I learned my politics. But he created a whole new set of meanings and became both the symbol and reality of change. May God bless him with good guidance and keep him safe and well.

Now, I finally feel free to become unglued from the news feeds of the Internet and to travel to my new home in the State of Acre, Brazil close to the forest and a wonderful group of folks. For the next several months I'll be in the Inter-not-yet zone and, other than an occasional visit to town and a LAN House or cyber-cafe, I will be mostly off-line. But, for sure, I'll be gathering new stories and photos that will become posts at Visionshare. So please stay tuned.

I send best wishes that we may all enter a new age together, facing always a new horizon and welcoming its challenges. May we grow individually and globally into an evermore perfect union.

Touch the earth and blessed be.


From the archives here are a couple "stories from home" about finding my favorite tree and the Vila Fortaleza vision.



Barack Obama's Victory Speech: Yes We Can! (Part 1 of 2)

Barack Obama's Victory Speech: Yes We Can! (Part 2 of 2)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

"Fired Up? Ready To Go!"

Obama's final campaign speech in Manassas, Virginia, 11/3/08

Obama: Finally we get to Greenwood. We pull up -- first of all, you don't know you're in Greenwood right away when you get to Greenwood, there aren't a lot of tall buildings there. We pull up to a small building, a field house in the park. We go inside. And lo and behold, after an hour and a half drive, turns out there are twenty people there. Twenty people, and they all look kind of damp and kind of sleepy, like maybe they aren't really excited to be there either. But you know, I am a professional. Ive got to do what I got to do. [applause] So I go around, I'm shaking hands, I'm saying how ya doing, what are ya doing? [applause] Wait, wait. As I go around the room suddenly I hear this voice cry out behind me, "Fired Up!" And Im shocked. I jump up. I dont know what's going on. But everybody else acts like this is normal and they say, "fired up." Then I hear this voice say, "ready to go!" And the other twenty people in the room, they act like this happens all the time, they say ready to go. I don't know what's going on. So I look behind me, and there's this small woman, about sixty years old, a little over five feet. It looks like she just came from church, got a big church hat. [laughter] And she's standing there and she looks at me and shes smiling. And she says, "fired up!"

Turns out she is a city councilwoman from Greenwood who also moonlights as a private detective -- I'm not making this up. [laughter] And it turns out she is famous for her chant. She does this wherever she goes, she says "fired up!" and everybody says "ready to go, ready to go." So for the next five minutes she proceeds to do this, "fired up" everybody says "ready to go." And I'm standing there and I'm thinking that I am being outflanked by this woman here. She's stealing my thunder. I look at my staff, they shrug their shoulders, they don't know how long this is going to go.

But here's the thing, Virginia -- after a minute or so, I'm feeling kind of fired up. [applause] I'm feeling like I'm ready to go. So I join in the chant. And it feels good. And for the rest of the day, even after we left Greenwood, even though it was still raining, even though I was still not getting big crowds anywhere, even though we hadn't gotten the endorsements of the people we were hoping for, somehow I felt a little lighter, I felt a little better. I'd see my staff, Id say, are you fired up? Theyd say wetre fired up boss, are you ready to go? Heres my point, Virginia -- that's how this thing started. It shows you what one voice can do. One voice can change a room; and if a voice can change a room, it can change a city; and if it can change a city it can change a state; and if change a state, it can change a nation; and if it can change a nation, it can change the world! Virginia, your voice can change the world tomorrow! [applause] In 21 hours, if you are willing, if you are willing to endure some rain, if you are willing to drag that person you know who was not going to vote to the polls, if youre willing to organize and volunteer in the offices, if you are willing to stand with me, if you are willing to fight with me, I know that your voice will matter. So I've just got one question for you, Virginia. Are you fired up? ["Yeah"] Are you ready to go? ["Yeah"] Fired up? ["Fired Up!"] Ready to go? ["Ready to Go!"] Fired up? ["Fired Up!"] Ready to go? ["Ready to Go!"] Fired up? ["Fired Up!"] Ready to go? ["Ready to Go!"] Virginia, let's go change the world. Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.


I get alerted to a lot of these choice video tidbits by following Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish.

Andrew also posts a lot of serious essays. Here is his endorsement of Barack Obama.

And E.J.Dionne has a marvelous review of Obama's rise from Chicago to the world.

The NY Times has a very cool video essay on the campaign.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


Fractal by Jock Cooper

Albert Bates has a fascinating post about Biochar's Fractal Dimension.

Lot's of great links too.

Highly recommended!


Reposted from Ezra Klein.


The Masked Avengers, a Canadian radio duo, seem to have pranked Sarah Palin into believing they were French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

It's fascinating hearing Palin fall onto sound bites in real time. You have to admire the sort of message discipline that connects the career of Carla Bruni to the second wind of of late campaign tightening. But if she jabs her sound bites in with surprising efficiency, Palin doesn't manage to ask a single question during the whole conversation. She's fully reactive -- starstruck by Sarkozy's call, but nevertheless incurious about anything he could possibly tell her.

Meanwhile that's one seriously incompetent staff she's got. No one thought to call the French Embassy and check this out?

Posted by Ezra Klein on November 1, 2008 6:12 PM