The claims made on behalf of burying charcoal, otherwise known as “biochar”, are extraordinary. According to the International Biochar Initiative, it will “fight global warming”, it will “boost food security”, and it will “discourage deforestation”. Meanwhile, it is “inexpensive, widely applicable, and quickly scalable”.
One of the most obvious problems with biochar is that vast monocultures of fast-growing tree plantations would be needed to provide the raw material if biochar were to be implemented on a large scale. Peter Reed, an energy lecturer in New Zealand, coined the word biochar in 2005. He reckons that an area of 1.4 billion hectares should be enough. That’s a little more than the total area of arable land in the world.
But there are other problems with biochar, even when it is applied on a small scale. In this guest post, Almuth Ersting of the UK-based NGO Biofuelwatch describes a two-year biochar pilot project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is supposed to “replace slash-and-burn farming with a system that uses bio-char”. The post is based in part on research recently carried out by researcher Benoit Anthony Ndameu and Biofuelwatch into a biochar project in Cameroon: “Biochar Fund Trials in Cameroon: Hype and Unfulfilled Promises”.
The video referred to in the post, which is embedded below, was produced by the African Development Bank in May 2011. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the project’s attitudes towards local farmers. Their agriculture is consistently described as “slash and burn” and while the video-makers allow farmers to describe their agricultural system, the “problems” are pointed out by outside “experts”: Vincent Kasulu Seya Makonga from the DR Congo Ministry of Environment and Laurens Rademakers of the Biochar Fund.
“Slash and burn”, biochar and REDD in DR Congo and Cameroon
By Almuth Ernsting, Biofuelwatch
In May 2009, the Congo Basin Forest Fund announced the first and so far only REDD-related grant for the use of biochar, i.e. fine-grained charcoal added to agricultural soils. The €338,000 grant went towards a project in the Democratic Republic of Congo called “Phasing out Slash-an-Burn farming with Bio-char”. The project was initiated by a Belgian-based ‘social profit organisation’ called Biochar Fund, together with a local partner organisation, ADAPEL. According to the Congo Basin Forest Fund’s (CBFF) website, the project will “replace slash-and-burn farming” because biochar,
“maintains soil fertility and constitutes a stable and easily measurable carbon sink. Bio-char thus enriches the soil and makes it more productive, which lessens the pressure to encroach on forest land. Using crop residues to produce bio-char also generates renewable energy in a low-cost manner, and this reduces local dependency on firewood.”
None of those claims have been borne out by scientific field trials. The very limited number of biochar trials shows that different types of biochar have very different impacts on different soils. In some cases, crop yields are raised in the short term, in others they are not affected, and in yet other cases, they are suppressed – longer-term effects have not been researched. Far from being a “stable and easily measurable carbon sink”, field trials show that biochar does not reliably increase soil carbon even in the short term – in one study in Colombia, for example, one year after a high amount of biochar was used on some plots, those plots held less carbon than ones without biochar.
The Congo Basin Forest Fund was launched in 2008, with a £100 million (around €116 million) grant from the UK and Norwegian Governments. It is hosted and administered by the African Development Bank. The priorities are formally aligned with those set by the Central African Forest Commission (COMIFAC) and three out of five relate to building capacity for REDD and Payments for Ecosystem Services. CBFF collaborates closely with the UN REDD Programme.
The CBFF biochar grant was not only a ‘first’ as far as biochar funding is concerned – it is also the only CBFF grant (and possibly REDD grant in general) to support a technology or practice claimed to sequester carbon in soils. Carbon credits for soil carbon sequestration are one of the aims pursued by the World Bank in Durban and beyond.
So far, the only update from the project comes from a video on the African Development Bank’s website, which is not very informative. The footage shows biochar being produced and spread on soils – there is no indication that it has progressed any further or, if it has, what it has done for farmers, soils and crops. It does however show that promises about producing renewable energy were misleading. The ‘technology’ shown on Biochar Fund’s video is nothing other than a basic charcoal kiln, which cannot possibly capture energy.
While the fate of this DR Congo project is unknown, Biofuelwatch, together with Cameroonian researcher Benoit Ndameu has now published a report about Biochar Fund’s first project, in South-west Cameroon. The reported ‘success’ of this Cameroon project had helped them obtain the CBFF grant for a similar project in DR Congo. According to a Mongabay interview with Biochar Fund’s founding director, Laurens Rademakers, published in August 2010, 1,500 small farmers had been involved/represented in that ongoing project, which, he stated, has increased crop yields on average by 240%.
What Benoit Ndameu found when he visited the area and interviewed farmers, as well as members of Biochar Fund’s Cameroonian partner NGO, Key Farmers, was rather different. At most 75 farmers had participated in biochar trials which had lasted for just one single harvest season in 2009 – and many had dropped out during that season for one reason or another. A brochure handed to them at the start of the trials confirmed that it had always been meant to be a small, one-season trial, but had held out the prospect of a much bigger biochar project funded through voluntary carbon markets from 2010. The farmers who had participated and who were interviewed made it clear that they had been enthusiastic because they were told to expect future income for themselves and their community as well as better yields. Many were still hopeful that such funding would arrive soon – but they had seen or heard nothing from Biochar Fund for a long time. They had given up significant amount of time and labour for free and some had even rented plots for the biochar trials. Apart from one farmers group having made a small amount of biochar to a plot of chilli, biochar had not been produced or used in any of the villages visited since the project had terminated. Farmers had not been shown how to make biochar and in any case Biochar Fund had used one of the cheapest and most inefficient charcoal making methods of all, one in which 90-95% of the biomass is lost.
At the start of the trials, participants had been given hybrid maize seeds and chemical fertilisers as well as the biochar, inputs which poorer farmers cannot routinely afford. Each participating farmer had had to sub-divide each trial plot into 16 different sub-plots to which different combinations of fertilisers, with and without different amounts of biochar were added, and then to separate and deliver the maize taken from each of the sub-plots to be measured and analysed.
If this had been a genuine scientific study, it could have contributed to the still very scant understanding of how different types of biochar affect crops and soils. This opportunity, however, was squandered. Results have not been published in any peer-reviewed study and there is no indication that Biochar Fund had ever intended to submit them to peer-review. Only 31 of the 75 trial plots yielded complete results and no statistical analysis of data was ever published.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the purpose of the project has always been to leverage future funds, including carbon offsets for biochar. Yet it is difficult to imagine that Biochar Fund, who, after all, have close links with the International Biochar Initiative (the main lobby group for biochar carbon offsets and other funding), could have genuinely believed what they told the farmers about likely imminent carbon finance. The IBI has been working for years – so far unsuccessfully – to get biochar recognised by any voluntary carbon offset certifiers or included into any trading mechanisms. And as investigations into a different soil carbon offset project by the World Bank, in Western Kenya, show, the transaction costs of such schemes are so massive that farmers will end up with virtually none of any such funds.
Yet while the farmers involved in the Cameroon biochar fund gained nothing from the project, it appears that Laurens Rademakers has done rather well from it. Not only did it help him raise the grant for the DR Congo project, but it also helped him leverage a second slightly larger CBFF grant for an unrelated project in Cameron, São Tome and Equatorial Guinea. According to his personal website, he has created 13 different NGOs, eight of them in Africa, since 2006 and managed to obtain a total of $1.325 million in funds for different projects since 2009, most of it from ‘public calls’.