Students make a difference in Peru using an ancient technology

During the spring, a team of 6 students formed a team with Prof. Gerry Polesky to plan a project in Cusco, Peru, in cooperation with Andes Libres, a Peruvian non-profit Gerry is working with to teach short courses in entrepreneurship. The team was interested in doing a GlobalResolve project that would benefit a community around Cusco and, working with Andes Libres, they developed an interest in biochar, an ancient technology to convert agricultural waste to charcoal that, when plowed into the soil can increase crop yield by as much as 800%. Biochar has the potential to significantly boost the farming economy.

Screen shot 2014-09-19 at 12.36.35 PMThe team chose GAIA as its name, both because it is the mythical goddess of the Earth and is the acronym for Growth Alternatives in Action. The team realized that with some help from our partner, they were ready to go to Peru in June to demonstrate Biochar production and use. Two team members volunteered to travel to Peru in June: Jesus Garcia-Gonzales, a grad student in applied biology whose undergrad degree is in Agronomy and who is fluent in Spanish, and Abiola Doherty a freshman in software development. The travelers included 5 others: Prof. Polesky; Stephanie Thompson, from TEM; Meredith Kerrigan, a grad student in Global Health from Tulane; Erin Henderson, a Kyrene teacher; and Prof. Mark Henderson, director of GlobalResolve. One highlight of the trip was seeing Machu Picchu.

With that introduction, the following narrative is written by Jesus about the team’s initial discovery of Biochar and their experience in Peru.

Our project in Peru initially started as part of a class project, Make Your Ideas Happen. Our partner Andes Libres (a non-profit organization, centered in Cusco, Peru) helped us establish communication with Pumamarca, a rural community located thirty minutes away from Cusco. We were told that the farmers have been struggling to produce the same amount of crops as previous years. The soil had been degraded; plant pathogens had become more virulent, crop yields had decreased, and their dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides had increased.

We quickly began investigating ways to increase the soil fertility. The process should be simple, sustainable, reliable, affordable, replicable, but most importantly, it should use local resources. We came across an ancient technology known as “Terra Petra de Indio”(Indian black earth) dark, carbon-rich soils, notable for their high fertility. These soils are believed to have been created by pre-Columbian Amerindian populations in the Amazon, more than 3000 years ago. Terra petra has high amounts of plant available nutrients, high levels of organic matter, high moisture retention and it enables the growth of beneficial microorganisms. The key to their long-lasting fertility and durability is their high levels of biochar (a highly

stable organic black carbon) – produced when organic matter (crop residues, food waste, manures) is pyrolized at low temperatures, in the absence of oxygen. During the process, half of the carbon in the starting biomass will be converted into biochar, while the other half is concentrated in the exhaust gases and liquids. These can be then captured and turn into renewable energy. The more we learned about biochar, the more passionate we became.

Biochar improves the soil quality by acting like a sponge, absorbing and storing plant nutrients and soil moisture. This is due to its capacity to retain positive ions, a soil property known as cation exchange capacity (CEC) and to its huge surface area. Its particles and numerous micropores enable the growth of beneficial microorganisms. This improves the soil fertility, resulting in higher crop yields, and elevating profit margins for farmers, while completely eliminating any detrimental effects to the environment.

In addition to rehabilitating degraded soils, biochar has the potential to mitigate climate change. The production of biochar and its incorporation into soils has been suggested as a possible way to reduce the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Longer lasting soil fertility could present the solution to reducing deforestation, resulting in a higher uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In addition, the production of renewable energy as a co-product of biochar has the potential to minimize our current dependence on fossil fuels.

We traveled to Cusco, Peru this past June to share our research with the community in hopes of resolving their soil fertility issues. During our time there, we met with Paulino, the President of Pumamarca, and several committee members. He showed us around the community and we spoke with several community members, who shared with us that at one point, Pumamarca was formerly known for their flower production. However, due to the loss soil fertility and increasing incidence of plant pathogens, their flower production had greatly diminished.

We held an information session to try to identify farmers willing to incorporate biochar into their fields. During the information session we showed the audience how to make the pyrolyzer; we then discussed the benefits of biochar, and proceeded to demonstrate the process.

We were looking for at least one farmer to share our enthusiasm and volunteer to

try biochar in his own fields. We were fortunate to find Ciprian and his wife Julia (Pumamarca residents), who have a small plot where they volunteered to test the biochar. We showed Ciprian how to mix the hamster (cuy) manure with the biochar in the optimal proportions. By the time we left, Ciprian had already taken ownership of the pyrolizer, made biochar and used it to plant his crops.

We are confident that once the other community members see results they will also begin to apply biochar into their fields. We plan on continuing our work in Pumamarca.

Jesus gave three biochar presentations to classes at the local agricultural college and piqued sufficient interest that some of the students want to do their graduate theses on the topic and work with our community to monitor the progress and spread biochar use. We look forward to working with them.

Since our visit, the neighboring community of Quillahuata, has stepped forward and ask for our help as they too, face the same problems with their soils. We intend to continue to extend our services and share our research with rural communities throughout Peru and hopefully to other parts of Latin America. Currently, we are conducting research on ways to make our pyrolizer more efficient, by developing a way to collect the exhaust gas to produce renewable energy. We intend to continue this project in the fall by forming a team in the course Design for the Developing World and return to Peru next year with an improved pyrolizer and an enthusiastic community.

The world is now facing the need to feed 7+ billion people everyday. As population growth continues to expand, the pressure in the agriculture industry will continue to intensify. Current agricultural practices will not be able to keep up and we simply cannot continue pouring chemicals into our soils without expecting devastating ramifications. It is our responsibility, and in our best interest, to not only focus on increasing productivity, but also consider the environmental and social repercussions (alleviate hunger, improve nutrition, and reduce poverty).