Getting down and dirty: Digging up the key to carbon neutrality

Getting down and dirty: Digging up the key to carbon neutrality

Ambitions for a carbon-free impact and few emissions: At eco-town Kalu Yala, members of the community live as sparingly as possible, using what they can from the environment around them while replenishing what they can. (Candace Butera/Medill)

Related Topics:
Biofuels, Efficiency, Food, Natural Gas

By Candace Butera

Manure, fish bones and charcoal. Ancient native farmers in Central America recycled these wastes in an intricate system to sustain water resources as well as replenish the land.

They used fire and ashes as a natural way to fertilize their land. With these sustainable systems, the natives developed their complex and diverse farming techniques and expanded the types of crops they cultivated.  These communities received all that they needed to survive from the land, and did as much as they could to make sure they gave back to their environment.

Fast-forward to modern day Panama, where the eco-town Kalu Yala strives to attain levels of sustainability like those who laid the groundwork for them in Central America thousands of years ago. In a small valley, high up in the mountains, more than 100 members of the Kalu Yala community of interns and staff have started to establish irrigation systems for fish and water farming systems. They are also testing new crops that can flourish in the jungle’s hot and sticky climate, or during the daily downpour of the several-months-long rainy season. When it comes to sustainability, the members of Kalu Yala use the eco-town as a living laboratory for the best ways to reduce their carbon footprint and become as self-sustaining as possible. Growing their own food and producing their own fuel from organic wastes helps meet that goal.

Calling out those environmental myths: Kalu Yala Sustainability Coordinator Clare Bassi, 23, lists the top 10 misunderstandings about sustainability, one of which includes understanding of the carbon footprint impact. Other myths that Bassi debunks are that “sustainability” is synonymous with “green,” and that recycling is all you need to do to be sustainable. (Candace Butera/Medill)

“We don’t want to be constantly reactive to (fixing) things that are unsustainable,” says Rachael Maysels, 26, the assistant director of biology, one of several internship programs at Kalu Yala. “We want to think about it ahead of time and act in advance of our actions so there is room for mistakes.”

In the conversation surrounding sustainability, carbon footprint and carbon emissions are topics that often come up. A person’s carbon footprint measures the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds emitted as waste products due to consumption of materials — particularly fossil fuels.

“We’re not just trying to shoot for being carbon neutral at Kalu Yala. It’s trying to be carbon negative,” Maysels says. “That’s something we can do with reforestation, pruning and turning (the plant matter) into charcoal. There are all these ways to kind of take one step further and it’s more of a proactive approach.”

Caring capacity: The five Kalu Yala biology interns and director of biology Ryan King discussed in their morning lecture that as waste products collect, human growth and adaptations contribute to unequal distribution of resources. (Candace Butera/Medill)

Maysels is helping the eco-town through the production of biochar, one of many ongoing programs that involve the interns that come to Kalu Yala from across the globe.

“It’s a simple idea and a simple method that can make a really big impact,” Maysels explains. “It’s the idea of turning waste plant material, organic material into charcoal through a method of pyrolysis,” or the heating of materials without oxygen.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, biochar is thought to have been used as a soil supplement in the Amazon basin thousands of years ago. Indigenous people created areas of “Terra Protta,” or “dark earth,” to regenerate fertilized soil for planting. By burying biomass, a combination of burnt wood and other organic materials, deep in the ground, the material heats up under pressure and goes through the process of pyrolysis, the thermodynamic decomposition of organic materials.

“Almost like if you have a campfire, what’s left at the end is ash” – and char, Maysels says. But when the burning process is buried, “you’re releasing all of the other material except for carbon.” This captures the carbon and prevents it from escaping back into the air, slowing down the release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. This release prevention negates the carbon footprint that the burning of wastes would generate.

The creation of biochar also has other benefits, such as increasing soil fertility and water retention, as the ancients knew. “This really helps when it comes to the rainy season here,” Maysels says. “We want to prevent erosion and hold on to as many nutrients as possible.”

But in the jungle, there are many challenges when it comes to accessing resources to make these experimentations with biochar more elaborate. “Having a lot of the resources … to keep you going out here can be tough,” says Ryan King, the director of biology at Kalu Yala.

“We’re trying to switch over everything to renewable energy.” Biochar is one of the key ways to do so.  

To jump these hurdles, Maysels finds that creativity and her college training in indigenous farming help make the process as simple, yet as effective, as possible.

“Initially, my first design was a biochar system that took a lot of materials, which took some specific style hardware that couldn’t easily be found,” Maysels says. “I think by setting limitations is when you get creative. Restricting the ease of things, your brain starts to work around those obstacles.”

Keep heaping it on: “How can I offset my carbon?” asks Kalu Yala’s assistant director of biology Rachael Maysels. By creating biochar through the scientific process of pyrolysis, she answers. Maysels wakes up early several times a week to help facilitate the process through burying burnt scraps and waste. (Candace Butera/Medill)

The process comes along with a lot of trial and error, but the community at Kalu Yala emphasizes learning from mistakes in experimentation. “Here, they want you to do as much as you can and be creative, passionate, and make mistakes and keep doing it again,” King says. “Having sterile and pristine equipment is definitely needed in certain fields of work, but you can’t control our systems. Our earth systems have proven to be a lot more complicated with interacting factors. You have to study it through a different type of ecology.”

Fewer resources, more creativity: “We need to think of low tech, high productivity designs,” says Rachael Maysels, about the biochar development process at Kalu Yala. “I’m not going to be able to run to the hardware store to get the facet that I need. It might be frustrating in the moment that you can’t get what you want, but hopefully it leads to a creative solution.” (Matthew Zdun/Medill)

Since joining the Kalu Yala staff in January and experimenting with biochar, Maysels has combined her background knowledge with new and creative adaptations to progress toward reducing carbon from campfires. One solution involves digging a hole for the fires to hold more carbon in place.

“I graduated college in 2012 and did my field research part of my degree in the Himalayas,” Maysels says. “On a backpacking trip, I studied indigenous agriculture and high mountain ecology. I got launched into agriculture and since then have been to maybe about 20 countries and worked on maybe 18 farms in those countries, just studying internationally different styles of farming, food systems, small scale techniques, indigenous techniques.”

Like the indigenous communities thousands of years before, the Kalu Yala systems are not perfect on the first try, but they strive to utilize what they can from the environment around them, reusing and replenishing as much as possible. The community members like to say it’s a culture of learning. But the learning at Kalu Yala would not happen without doing.

At sunrise, Maysels heads down the dirt path to the area of campus with a large compost pile and stacks of burnt wood and organic waste ready for her to bury. She starts digging.

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biochar, biofuel, Carbon Offsets, climate change, fertilizer, Food Waste

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