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Fourth World Eye Blog

Terra preta de índio, Global Climate Change

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Shortly before Spanish, Dutch and English sponsored ships arrived on the western hemisphere's shores more than five hundred years ago, infectious disease rubbed out between 50% and 95% of the human inhabitants. Jerad Diamond's sweeping effort to explain (in his book Guns, Germs and Steel) how it was possible for a few conquistadors to subdue the Mexica and the Inkas  pointed to the dominant role germs--alien bacteria and viruses--played. His point was that Europeans weren't in any way superior to populations in the western hemisphere. Their germs preceded them and like wildfires decimated whole nations generations before European boots touched the soil.

Not only did germs play the dominant role in the destruction of nations throughout the western hemisphere, the consequences for all of human kind has been a disaster from which recovery is apparently tenuous at best. Charles Mann's well written book entitled 1491 (2005, 2006 Vintage Books) reveals the pre-European settlement story of complex and rich civilizations that mostly figured out how to manage the environment without destroying the environment.  Mann's narrative describes the hemisphere's original peoples with huge populations far greater than 15th century Europe with cities five - ten times the size of Europe's London or Paris. 1491 describes a world where forests in Atlantic Coastal Canada and the United States, jungles in the Amazon and dry areas of Yucatan were exploited intensively, but in a manner compatible with the environment. Not all societies were particularly good managers. Some like those on the Mississippi River, in the souther Yucatan and in what is now southern Peru failed and their societies collapsed.

The greatest loss from disease, other than the people themselves, is the knowledge hemispheric civilizations developed over several thousand years.  That knowledge could benefit human kind now. An example of lost knowledge that could benefit human kind now is given the modern name of terra preta--the dark soil of the upper Amazon created by ancient occupants of the River. Terra preta is rich soil that, according to Mann, was developed more than 2000 years ago and is responsible for the development of large parts of the Amazon jungle.  That's right! Jungle we think of is actually a product of human management.

One of the most startling aspects of terra preta is its effectiveness as a method of carbon sequestration--a concern of great importance to scientists, environmentalists and politicians interested in the reduction of carbon emissions and the prevention of ecologic collapse from global climate change.  Peoples living in the western hemisphere long before Europeans arrived had developed a method for reclaiming carbon for the soil while exploiting the forest.  The most important point is that the soil reclaims more carbon than is generated in the exploitation of the forest. A healthy balance between carbon emissions and carbon sequestration was achieved in the Amazon jungle, but introduced diseases killed the people who know about how to produce terra preta. Modern scientists are generally mystified about how terra preta is made (it contains pottery chards, charcoal, organic matter and is able to sustain high levels of productivity over centuries).  Terra preta increases plant productivity enormously while retaining fertility.

There are numerous examples of knowledge like that which produced terra preta either lost or hidden still in native communities.

Fourth World nations are the "wild seed of humanity" the preservation of which is essential to the survival of human kind. No, native peoples in the hemisphere are not Rouseau's "Noble Savage." Romantic notions about lost tribes and "natural environmentalism" are nonsense. Fourth World peoples have among them inventors and creative problem solvers. They are human beings with failings and achievements.

Agricultural methods developed long ago by peoples in Mexico, Peru, the Atlantic coast of the United States, the south west and Mississippi regions and forest and fisheries management in the Pacific Northwest should serve human kind now. Terra preta is clearly an achievement the understanding of which is probably essential for the resolution of global climate change. We cannot afford to lose any more knowledge when global problems demand answers from past successes.


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8 Comments

  1. Probably the most important book for understanding our challenge in confronting disease is Betrayal of Trust by Laurie Garrett. In her expose of the collapse of global public health, she uses studies of actual responses to epidemics to illustrate how market-driven politics has set the stage for unstoppable global pandemics. Vine Deloria once remarked that the indigenous/colonial showdown was inevitable due to the humanity of the former and the inhumanity of the latter. With the evolution of bacteria now outpacing our ability to respond, the conflict between these contrasting philosophies is literally a matter of life and death for us all.

  2. I thought the current news and links on Terra Preta soils and closed-loop pyrolysis would interest you.
    SCIAM Article May 15 07;

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=5670236C-E7F2-99DF-3E2163B9FB144E40

    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.

    Could you please consider looking for a champion for this orphaned Terra Preta 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 2030by Ralph P. Overend, Ph.D. and Anelia Milbrandt
    National Renewable Energy Laboratory

    http://www.ases.org/climatechange/toc/07_biomass.pdf

    The organization 25×25 (see 25x’25 – Home) released it’s (first-ever, 55-page )”Action Plan” ; see; http://www.25×25.org/storage/25×25/documents/IP%20Documents/ActionPlanFinalWEB_04-19-07.pdf
    On page 29 , 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 25×25 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 and waste stream, all that farm & cellulose waste which is now dumped to rot or digested or combusted and ultimately returned to the atmosphere as GHG should be returned to the Soil.

    Even with all the big corporations coming to the GHG negotiation table, like Exxon, Alcoa, .etc, we still need to keep watch as the Democrats/Enviromentalist 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 web site I’ve been drafted to co-administer. http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=node

    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 EPRIDA , Dr. Antal of U. of H., Virginia Tech folks and probably many others who’s back round I don’t know have joined.

    Also Here is the Latest BIG Terra Preta Soil news;

    The Honolulu Advertiser: “The nation’s leading manufacturer of charcoal has licensed a University of Hawai’i process for turning green waste into barbecue briquets.”

    About a year ago I got Clorox interested in TP soils and Dr. Antal’s Plasma Carbonazation process.

    See: http://www.honoluluadvertiser.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2007707280348

    ConocoPhillips Establishes $22.5 Million Pyrolysis Program at Iowa State 04/10/07

    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 of carbon.

    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 or a Carbon tax in place.

    .Nature article, Aug 06: Putting the carbon back Black is the new green:
    http://bestenergies.com/downloads/naturemag_200604.pdf

    Here’s the Cornell page for an over view:
    http://www.css.cornell.edu/faculty/lehmann/biochar/Biochar_home.htm

    University of Beyreuth TP Program, Germany http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=taxonomy/term/118

    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):
    http://forums.hypography.com/earth-science/3451-terra-preta.html

    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.

    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). http://www.esd.ornl.gov/projects/qen/carbon1.html

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

    Carbon Diversion
    http://www.carbondiversion.com/

    Eprida: Sustainable Solutions for Global Concerns
    http://www.eprida.com/home/index.php4

    BEST Pyrolysis, Inc. | Slow Pyrolysis – Biomass – Clean Energy – Renewable Ene
    http://www.bestenergies.com/companies/bestpyrolysis.html

    Dynamotive Energy Systems | The Evolution of Energy
    http://www.dynamotive.com/

    Ensyn – Environmentally Friendly Energy and Chemicals
    http://www.ensyn.com/who/ensyn.htm

    Agri-Therm, developing bio oils from agricultural waste
    http://www.agri-therm.com/

    Advanced BioRefinery Inc.
    http://www.advbiorefineryinc.ca/

    Technology Review: Turning Slash into Cash
    http://www.technologyreview.com/Energy/17298/

    The International Agrichar Initiative (IAI) conference held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. ( http://iaiconference.org/home.html ) ( The papers from this conference are now being posted at their home page)
    .

    If pre-Columbian Kayopo 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.

    Erich J. Knight
    Shenandoah Gardens
    1047 Dave Berry Rd.
    McGaheysville, VA. 22840
    (540) 289-9750
    shengar@aol.com

  3. Finaly some legislation that talks of Charcoal sequestration in the soil, Please contact your represenative about how important it is to get this into the farm bill!!

    S.1884 – The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007

    A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884:

    Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative

    for the 2007 Farm Bill

    http://www.biochar-international.org/newinformationevents/newlegislation.html

  4. It is nice to know that even back then they had been thinking about their own environmental impact. It seems it was then lost, and finally it has become the center of our attention. We should have never lost it in the first place.
    muffin9129
    http://productreviewsby.me/

  5. Wow, you have done a great job on this article. Also, thank-you everyone for your links to related articles. I think you could not be more right. If we go back to the way things once were, We can fix what has been done to our environment.
    24-7 Bookie

  6. I hope this it will help you
    “The Biochar Revolution” with “The Biochar Solution”
    http://biochar-books.com/
    It is a truly biochar Bible.

  7. “The Biochar Revolution” with “The Biochar Solution”
    http://biochar-books.com/
    The Biochar Revolution collects the results and best practical advice that these entrepreneurs have to offer to the biochar community. When practice and theory advance to the point where they meet in the middle, then we will truly see a biochar revolution.

  8. You must read this
    “The Biochar Revolution” with “The Biochar Solution”
    http://biochar-books.com/
    The Biochar Revolution collects the results and best practical advice that these entrepreneurs have to offer to the biochar community. When practice and theory advance to the point where they meet in the middle, then we will truly see a biochar revolution.

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