Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hooray for the Ancient Amazon Farmers

Keywords: Indians; Amazon; rainforest; Orellana, terra preta; black soil; archaeologists; slash-and-burn

Everyone is dismayed because the Indians living in the Central have been burning huge tracts of every year – but there’s astonishing new reason for hope. To explain, I have to go back 9,000 years to the time when there was an extensive civilization in South America.

have assumed that there could not have been a real civilization in that area, contrary to the reports of one early explorer named , who in 1542 had led an expedition searching for , the kingdom of gold that supposedly lay hidden in the jungle. He found no , but towns that stretched as far as 15 miles. There were many roads and highways, and some very large cities. The land was as fertile as in Spain.

A few years later, Spaniards returned to the Amazon, but found nothing resembling the civilization that Orellana had reported. In retrospect it seems likely that the first explorers had imported their diseases, which swept through the Indian populations, killing almost everyone. Only lately have the traces of roads and raised fields been discovered.

The present Indian population practices agriculture — not by choice but from necessity. The thin, yellow soil of the region is infertile, and the heavy rains wash away its nutrients, so that after a few years the farmers must move on, burn another part of the rain forest, and try to raise enough food in their new plots to feed their families. Archaeologists believed that no real civilization in that area had been possible, for only settled agriculture can support cities and large populations. They assumed that the current slash-and-burn system was all that had ever been possible.

But not so. In the Bolivian Amazon region, the land is a savannah, interspersed with “islands” of forest. When these forests were investigated, it became clear that they were places where people had lived in large numbers, for the soil was bursting with shards of pots, including huge vats that had been used to cook meals for hundreds of people. These archaeological sites were hundreds, even thousands, of years old. Moreover, there were stripes connecting them that could be seen from the air. These had been roads in ancient times.

Next the scientists explored the inland regions of the Brazilian Amazon, where they found large areas where the soil was remarkably different from the usual yellow dirt. As much as ten percent of the land is actually rich, dark soil called “.” As the photo shows, this soil is often two feet deep, and occasionally even two meters. It is full of pottery shards dating back possibly even 9,000 years, plus food scraps and other plants that had been used as much. This rich soil had been created intentionally by the inhabitants, and it remained rich throughout the whole period since then. It is so fertile that the owners today even mine it and sell it to other farmers. The dark color comes from the remarkable component that makes it so special: charcoal. The people did slash-and-burn, to be sure, but the way they burned the wood was special: call it "slash and char.” They built mounds around the logs so that they burned incompletely, creating , which they mixed into the soil. (Complete burning, on the other hand, reduces the plant material to ash, which can be swiftly washed away by rain.) Because the terra preta was so fertile, the ancient farmers did not have to move on and burn new patches of jungle, but could live in settled towns of large population size as long as 1,000 or even 3,000 years continuously. This discovery, if applied today, could confer the same blessings on contemporary farmers.

To explore this old technique, , of the University of Beyreuth, replicated the method experimentally, comparing it to current techniques. With the traditional slash-and-burn methods, there was nothing growing anymore after the first harvest. In another plot, he applied mineral fertilizer, but it too failed to produce enough grain to support a family. But where they applied additional charcoal, there was a big improvement, and when charcoal and mineral fertilizers were applied together, the crop was 880 percent higher then just the mineral fertilizer without charcoal. The charcoal seems to hold the nutrients in the soil.

There’s an even more astonishing discovery, too. In the areas where the owners are mining the ancient terra preta soil and selling to their neighbors, the old terra preta regenerates itself! A farmer digs into the soil but leaves 20 cm of it, which he allows to rest for about 20 years, with new vegetation falling on it. At the end of this time, the dark soil is the same as it was before the mining took place. Apparently there are some kinds of micro-organisms in the soil that allow the soil to grow. If this secret can be unlocked, scientists think the technique could be used all around the world, boosting . Not only would it bring slash-and-burn methods to an end, but it could help feed the world’s population, save the rain forest, and even help protect the earth’s climate, for terra preta is an excellent , absorbing and holding carbon dioxide in the earth. To some extent this could compensate for the disastrous destruction of the rainforest.

That research is worth celebrating! Hooray for those brilliant ancient Amazon farmers – and for today’s archaeologists!



Blogger erich said...

After many years of reviewing solutions to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) I believe this technology
can manage Carbon for the greatest collective benefit at the lowest economic price, on vast scales. It just needs to be seen by ethical globally minded companies.

Below is my review of these efforts in the Academic and private sectors, please forward this to all the experts you know, if you think it merits their time and support.

Could you please consider looking for a champion for this orphaned Terra Preta(TP) Carbon Soil Technology.

The main hurtle now is to change the current perspective held by the IPCC that the soil carbon cycle is a wash, to one in which soil can be used as a massive and ubiquitous Carbon sink via Charcoal. Below are the first concrete steps in that direction;

Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.
Potential Carbon Emissions Reductions from Biomass by 2030
by Ralph P. Overend, Ph.D. and Anelia Milbrandt
National Renewable Energy Laboratory

The organization 25x25 (see 25x'25 - Home) released it's (first-ever, 55-page )"Action Plan" ; see
On page 31, as one of four foci for recommended RD&D, the plan lists: "The development of biochar, animal agriculture residues and other non-fossil fuel based fertilizers, toward the end of integrating energy production with enhanced soil quality and carbon sequestration."
and on p 32, recommended as part of an expanded database aspect of infrastructure: "Information on the application of carbon as fertilizer and existing carbon credit trading systems."

I feel 25x25 is now the premier US advocacy organization for all forms of renewable energy, but way out in front on biomass topics.

There are 24 billion tons of carbon controlled by man in his agriculture , I forgot the % that is waste, but when you add all the other cellulose waste which is now dumped to rot or digested or combusted and ultimately returned to the atmosphere as GHG, the balanced number is around 24 Billion tons. So we have plenty of bio-mass.

Even with all the big corporations coming to the GHG negotiation table, like Exxon, Alcoa, .etc, we still need to keep watch as they try to influence how carbon management is legislated in the USA. Carbon must have a fair price, that fair price and the changes in the view of how the soil carbon cycle now can be used as a massive sink verses it now being viewed as a wash, will be of particular value to farmers and a global cool breath of fresh air for us all.

If you have any other questions please feel free to call me or visit the TP website I've been drafted to administer.
It has been immensely gratifying to see all the major players join the mail list , Cornell folks, T. Beer of Kings Ford Charcoal (Clorox), Novozyne the M-Roots guys(fungus), chemical engineers, Dr. Danny Day of G. I. T. , Dr. Antal of U. of H., Virginia Tech folks and probably many others who's back round I don't know have joined.

Here is my current Terra Preta posting which condenses the most important stories and links;

Terra Preta Soils Technology To Master the Carbon Cycle

Man has been controlling the carbon cycle , and there for the weather, since the invention of agriculture, all be it was as unintentional, as our current airliner contrails are in affecting global dimming. This unintentional warm stability in climate has over 10,000 years, allowed us to develop to the point that now we know what we did,............ and that now......... we are over doing it.

The prehistoric and historic records gives a logical thrust for soil carbon sequestration.
I wonder what the soil biome carbon concentration was REALLY like before the cutting and burning of the world's forest, my guess is that now we see a severely diminished community, and that only very recent Ag practices like no-till and reforestation have started to help rebuild it. It makes implementing Terra Preta soil technology like an act of penitence, a returning of the misplaced carbon to where it belongs.

On the Scale of CO2 remediation:

It is my understanding that atmospheric CO2 stands at 379 PPM, to stabilize the climate we need to reduce it to 350 PPM by the removal of 230 Billion tons.

The best estimates I've found are that the total loss of forest and soil carbon (combined
pre-industrial and industrial) has been about 200-240 billion tons. Of
that, the soils are estimated to account for about 1/3, and the vegetation
the other 2/3.

Since man controls 24 billion tons in his agriculture then it seems we have plenty to work with in sequestering our fossil fuel CO2 emissions as stable charcoal in the soil.

As Dr. Lehmann at Cornell points out, "Closed-Loop Pyrolysis systems such as Dr. Danny Day's are the only way to make a fuel that is actually carbon negative". and that " a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to the total current fossil fuel emissions! "

Terra Preta Soils Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration, 1/3 Lower CH4 & N2O soil emissions, and 3X FertilityToo

This some what orphaned new soil technology speaks to so many different interests and disciplines that it has not been embraced fully by any. I'm sure you will see both the potential of this system and the convergence needed for it's implementation.

The integrated energy strategy offered by Charcoal based Terra Preta Soil technology may
provide the only path to sustain our agricultural and fossil fueled power
structure without climate degradation, other than nuclear power.

The economics look good, and truly great if we had CO2 cap & trade in place.

.Nature article: Putting the carbon back Black is the new green:

Here's the Cornell page for an over view:

This Earth Science Forum thread on these soils contains further links, and has been viewed by 19,000 self-selected folks. ( I post everything I find on Amazon Dark Soils, ADS here):

Here's a Terra Preta web site at REPP-CREST I've been drafted to administer .
It has been immensely gratifying to see all the major players, both academic and private companies, join the mail list & discussion, Cornell folks, T. Beer of Kings Ford Charcoal (Clorox), Novozyne the M-Roots guys(fungus), chemical engineers, Dr. Danny Day of G. I. T. , Dr. Antal of U. of H., many Virginia Tech folks and many others who's back round I don't know have joined.

There is an ecology going on in these soils that is not completely understood, and if replicated and applied at scale would have multiple benefits for farmers and environmentalist.

Terra Preta creates a terrestrial carbon reef at a microscopic level. These nanoscale structures provide safe haven to the microbes and fungus that facilitate fertile soil creation, while sequestering carbon for many hundred if not thousands of years. The combination of these two forms of sequestration would also increase the growth rate and natural sequestration effort of growing plants.

Charcoal / Ammonia Scrubbing Technology for Fossil Fuel Power Plants Emissions:

Here is a great article that high lights this pyrolysis process , ( ) which could use existing infrastructure to provide Charcoal sustainable Agriculture , Syn-Fuels, and a variation of this process would also work as well for H2 production and Charcoal-Fertilizer, while sequestering CO2, NO2 and SO2 from Coal fired plants to build soils at large scales , be sure to read the "See an initial analysis NEW" link of this technology to clean up Coal fired power plants.
Soil erosion, energy scarcity, excess greenhouse gas all answered through regenerative carbon management

The reason TP has elicited such interest on the Agricultural/horticultural side of it's benefits is this one static:

One gram of charcoal cooked to 650 C Has a surface area of 400 m2 (for soil microbes & fungus to live on), now for conversion fun:

One ton of charcoal has a surface area of 400,000 Acres!! which is equal to 625 square miles!! Rockingham Co. VA. , where I live, is only 851 Sq. miles

Now at a middle of the road application rate of 2 lbs/sq ft (which equals 1000 sqft/ton) or 43 tons/acre yields 26,000 Sq miles of surface area per Acre. VA is 39,594 Sq miles.

What this suggest to me is a potential of sequestering virgin forest amounts of carbon just in the soil alone, without counting the forest on top.

To take just one fairly representative example, in the classic Rothampstead experiments in England where arable land was allowed to revert to deciduous temperate woodland, soil organic carbon increased 300-400% from around 20 t/ha to 60-80 t/ha (or about 20-40 tons per acre) in less than a century (Jenkinson & Rayner 1977). The rapidity with which organic carbon can build up in soils is also indicated by examples of buried steppe soils formed during short-lived interstadial phases in Russia and Ukraine. Even though such warm, relatively moist phases usually lasted only a few hundred years, and started out from the skeletal loess desert/semi-desert soils of glacial conditions (with which they are inter-leaved), these buried steppe soils have all the rich organic content of a present-day chernozem soil that has had many thousands of years to build up its carbon (E. Zelikson, Russian Academy of Sciences, pers. comm., May 1994).

All the Bio-Char Companies and equipment manufactures I've found:

Carbon Diversion
Eprida: Sustainable Solutions for Global Concerns
BEST Pyrolysis, Inc. | Slow Pyrolysis - Biomass - Clean Energy - Renewable Ene
Dynamotive Energy Systems | The Evolution of Energy
Ensyn - Environmentally Friendly Energy and Chemicals
Agri-Therm, developing bio oils from agricultural waste
Advanced BioRefinery Inc.
Technology Review: Turning Slash into Cash

The upcoming International Agrichar Initiative (IAI) conference to be held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. ( )

If pre-Columbian Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep over 15% of the Amazon basin it seems that our energy and agricultural industries could also product them at scale.

Harnessing the work of this vast number of microbes and fungi changes the whole equation of energy return over energy input (EROEI) for food and Bio fuels. I see this as the only sustainable agricultural strategy if we no longer have cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer.

We need this super community of wee beasties to work in concert with us by populating them into their proper Soil horizon Carbon Condos.

I feel Terra Preta soil technology is the greatest of Ironies.
That is: an invention of pre-Columbian American culture, destroyed by western disease, may well be the savior of industrial western society.


Erich J. Knight
Shenandoah Gardens
E-mail: shengar at
(540) 289-9750

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