Bakary Jatta in Africa

This was a very welcome posting this past September from Bakary Jatta somewhere in Africa who is working to improve his soils. Two quick lessons arise from his hands on reporting that can easily escape even the most diligent investigator. The easy one is that necessary moisture is incredibly erratic making a thirsty crop like corn very problematic.

On the other hand, in the Amazon and for that matter the Congo were moisture is not an issue, I was actually surprised that corn was able to prosper in soils that are swiftly depleted of nutrients by excessive rainfall. Of course the magic ingredient was the terra preta soil base that held the nutrients.

The second item made very clear is that a tropical soil and biome is incredibly voracious toward the organic content of the soil itself, explaining the low fertility of such soils. I am more and more inclined to think that our historic concept of soil creation and maintenance is very wrong headed.

We have been used to clearing forest and turning the related soils into farmland. We never quite understood the soil equation itself. With this change the whole structure collapses to that sufficient to support the annual crops we rely on. I was taught that these soils had lost heavily from erosion which is not true at all. It was merely reduced by the resident biota as happens spectacularly in tropical Africa.

The power of the biochar intervention comes from direct nutrient retention and perhaps derivative biomass retention supported by the improved nutrient profile. My proposed earthen corn kiln system has the key advantage of producing enough char to properly set up a field with one crop. No other crop is likely up to that level of productivity. And it can be done with no tools except perhaps a basket and a garbage can lid.

European efforts to produce familiar soil profiles in the tropics have likely been bone headed because of this lack of natural soil integrity. Introducing char has been proven in the Amazon as the way to overcome this problem. I also think it will revolutionize temperate agriculture, allowing us to restore the thick fertile primeval forest soils.

Greetings to all esteemed list members.

The list is so active that it is very difficult to digest all the submissions. There has been a request for a simple recipe of producing and applying TP. Very good if that becomes a focus. Most of the world's people would probably do something about sequestering CO2, increased food production, and conserve the planet's environment, if they are aware of the urgency and magnitude of the problem to start with and if they have the means to do so.

At least the list members have the opportunity to be more informed. Having a different focus and possible entrenched ideas may delay coming up with some of the simple answers that are available for doing something big, or small, as individuals.

As an individual I am not in a position to produce tons of biochar, but I do produce some by pyrolysis using a 200 liter drum. A piece of pipe at the bottom lets the volatile gasses provide the heat to continue the process after starting with an external fuel supply. My feed stock is agricultural waste and the trimmings from a modified agro forestry system. Don't ask for proof or research results, my mind is made up that my trees are using up some CO2 and continue to do so as I keep trimming them.

Then we have this problem of soil erosion and leaching plus a host of other problems. Soil erosion is checked by using Vetiver grass on properly spaced low contour bunds. This grass has been successfully used world wide and the technology is simple for any normal person to apply. The roots grow straight down to a depth of 3 meters. It sequesters CO2 continuously and increasingly from three months after the first establishment. It probably out-performs trees but I am not going to argue if anyone says no. Of course, as it filters the runoff water, it deposits the debris and topsoil from the higher ground and thereby increases soil fertility and multiplies soil organisms. Don't ask for proof, I am observing it personally. Not the micro size, but I like those worms!

Now remains the leaching and losing all that water into the soil in a matter of minutes after a cloud burst. Organic material seems to melt away quickly during the rainy season. In the dry season the termites take care of the rougher stuff. Some of the mulch like the Vetiver grass lasts longer. No doubt the mineral content of the effluent from the Biogas digester also leaches out but the soil organisms must be protected from high heat and drought. Some species of living mulch may survive the dry season and termites. But I think I have to make biochar production a priority if I want a long term improvement on this site. Just warn me if there is proof that there is any danger of applying bio char. I doubt I will be able to overdose the soil with it at my level of production.

Now doing all this is very time consuming and my neighbors are definitely going to spend the extra time and energy doing this unless there is a significant increase of production noticeable. Anyone with money here will hire the tractor and apply the chemical fertilizer. They want results now and even if they know the long term consequence, they are not likely to change. I hope the members of the list are going to come up with answers that are applicable to the peasants of the world and deliver the message to them as well. There are sooo many of them. Their number can make a difference to the planet. Personally I don't think the 'developed world' will as they are tied up with the world economic system that leaves the 'poor' outside looking in.

I hope our friend from Swaziland gets good advice. Nice country there, would not want it to get sacrificed too like most of the third world.

Bakary Jatta

Dear Robert,

There is a problem keeping up with the volumes of information available on the net. Having an unreliable and very slow dial-up connection it is not possible to even download for later reading the material. Some friends sent me huge files with interesting funnies or philosophical homilies. At one time it took three days to open up my Google account so I could delete the files and was able to retrieve the rest of my communications. This eats up a major part of my limited income, and therefore have to request my friends to just send subject information and links.

I noted your contributions on the Terrapreta list via the digests I receive. My situation requires I glean whatever may be applicable in this particular location. Even if our long past cousins in the Amazon were using corn stover and or other materials, corn production in our poor soils and unpredictable rainfall patterns just does not apply. Even in other parts of Africa corn production replaced traditional crops and the resulting crop failures caused frequent famines. Corn here is grown for early food in the season and money. It is mostly grown close to the compounds where rubbish is thrown. Hardly ever do I see a healthy stand in fields.

My priority for the last twenty years has been to restore and improve soil fertility. Organic material is scarce and it takes a lot of time to find mulching material to make the soils protective of soil organisms, once they are re-introduced. So terrapreta alone just will not do the job, but appears to be a valuable aid in the process of restoring soil fertility and creating an improved micro climate, like an oasis.

My vision of adapting to climate change is just that, we need to create survival areas, as the point of no return has already been reached in many areas of the world. It is a good thing nature is so generous. If the most dangerous species of the planet starts using its intelligence to live in harmony with it, some recovery over a period of time will eminently possible. But some changes will be permanent and we will have to adapt accordingly.

Warm regards,

Bakary Jatta

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