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Protect rainforests in Congo

Belgium's Biochar Fund and its Congolese partner ADAPEL are pleased to announce that their project to protect tropical rainforests has been selected by the Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF). More than 200 organizations answered the CBFF's first call for proposals, but after what it described as "an extremely competitive selection process", only 6 projects were successful.

The Congo Basin Forest Fund is an initiative by the British and Norwegian governments, aimed at protecting the unique tropical rain forests of Central Africa and their biodiversity and ecosystem services. The fund is presided by Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai. The CBFF operates in 10 countries of the Congo Basin and is currently the world's largest fund for the protection of rain forests.

The Biochar Fund and ADAPEL proposed an innovative strategy that will help solve four of the most pressing problems in the tropics and in the developing world, simultaneously: (1) low crop yields and hunger amongst the world's poorest people, the subsistence farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa, (2) deforestation resulting from a reliance on slash-and-burn farming, (3) energy poverty and a lack of access to clean, renewable energy, and (4) climate change.

The scientific committee of the CBFF was impressed by this highly integrated concept, and granted the partners 300,000 euros to implement it in 10 villages in the Equateur Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

ADAPEL and the Biochar Fund's synergistic strategy is based on making the notoriously poor soils at the tropical forest margin more fertile by introducing 'biochar' into them. Biochar is the non-fuel use of charcoal and is obtained from the pyrolysis of agricultural residues and waste biomass.

When this char is added to the acidic, nutrient-poor soils of the tropics (ferralsols, acrisols), crop yields tend to increase dramatically as soil fertility, quality and productivity can be maintained. Biochar is an organic form of integrated soil management that increases the efficiency of both organic and mineral fertilizers, in particular on those fast draining soils in the tropics. By increasing crop yields amongst the poor subsistence farmers this way, both their food security and livelihoods are improved.

The introduction of biochar also helps to slow down the slash-and-burn cycle on which these farmers rely. Because their soils are so poor, subsistence farmers are forced to shift their cultivation to another plot after only a few years as crop yields decline rapidly. By slowing down the tempo of this cycle via biochar, deforestation can be prevented in a substantial way. Furthermore the project attempts to replace the slash-and-burn system with a slash-and-char concept. This will not only increase soil productivity but also conserve approximately 50% of the carbon otherwise released as CO2 into the atmosphere. As long as re-growing resources are used this would establish a considerable carbon sink.

The amendment of soils with biochar establishes a permanent, stable and easily measurable carbon sink. Char oxidizes over the course of centuries or millennia. Thus, by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the farm residues, and by transforming these into a highly recalcitrant form that is sequestered in soils, a low cost and extremely effective type of carbon storage emerges. Carbon credits or other forms of compensation may become available for this effort, opening up a novel source of income for the farmers.

Finally, biochar helps solve another key problem amongst the poor in the tropics: the lack of access to modern, efficient and clean energy. Most households in rural Congo rely on open fires for cooking and heating. This traditional form of energy consumption puts a pressure on forest resources as it is based on the inefficient combustion of fire wood. What is more, this process not only releases a substantial amount of greenhouse gases, it is also responsible for indoor air pollution - a 'killer in the kitchen', which, according to the World Health Organization, leads to the premature death of an estimated 2 million women and children each year. By switching to a biochar-based energy system, these issues are resolved. Via a technology that combines slow pyrolysis and gasification, farmers obtain access to clean and renewable electricity from agricultural residues. The co-product of this process is biochar, which will be stored into the farm soils to improve the output and sustainability of tropical agriculture.

In short, the biochar project will help solve the hunger pandemic in Central Africa by tackling one of its root causes – rapidly declining soil fertility – , it will slow down deforestation and the destruction of biodiversity, and it solves the household energy crisis amongst the poor. Moreover, the reduction in the rate of deforestation, sustainable soil fertility management, a more efficient fuel (fire wood) use and the establishment of a stable carbon sink all contribute to mitigating climate change.

The Congo Basin Forest Fund awarded ADAPEL and the Biochar Fund's project because it scored very high on the stringent selection criteria: (1) reducing the rate of deforestation in the Congo Basin, (2) alleviating poverty and improving livelihoods of the poorest forest communities, (3) strengthening the capacity of local partners (in this case grassroots farmer organizations in Congo), (4) improving humanity's knowledge of the forest ecosystem and the factors leading to its alteration (in this case the study of tropical soil dynamics and farming systems which put pressures on the forests), and (5) the presentation of a highly innovative and creative conservation concept.

Over the next two years, the partners will implement the project in the region of Pimu, which consists of a group of around 10 villages at the tropical forest frontier in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Equateur Province. The subsistence farmers there belong to the world's absolute poorest people (making less than $150 a year from farming), and suffer under permanent food insecurity. Their fate until now has been to burn forest in order to gain new farm land, after the soils of their plots have been depleted of nutrients.

Laurens Rademakers, managing director of Biochar Fund said: "We are very excited about our successful selection by the CBFF. It means that the biochar concept is scientifically sound and may help alleviate multiple environmental, social and economic crises amongst the world's absolute poorest people, while at the same time protecting a unique ecosystem that serves humanity as a whole: the rich forests of the Congo Basin. Moreover, our strategy is innovative because it does not force people out of their traditional livelihoods in the name of conservation, as some other concepts do."

Amede Daki Bopolo, director of ADAPEL said: "The Congo Basin forests are unique ecosystems that need to be conserved. Future generations will look back on us and see how we acted. Our project may offer a pragmatic way forward to forest conservation, as it looks at the ecosystem from multiple perspectives: the interaction between the pedosphere, the biosphere, the atmosphere and the anthroposphere. The Congolese forest is inhabited by millions of people, and they are the ones who hold the key to its protection and sustainable exploitation. Conserving these forests is also a form of social justice, because the pressures of modernity not only lead to the destruction of the forest, they also marginalize entire communities. Our project may help to turn these pressures around."

Christoph Steiner, professor of Biochemistry and Biorefining at the University of Georgia, U.S., provides scientific oversight to the project.

by S. C.
21 may 2009, World News > Africa