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  • Writer's pictureFrancesco Guglielmi

Bolivians Turning Forestry Waste Into Biochar For Indigenous Farmers

Andrew Wight Contributor

I'm a journalist covering #GlobalSouthScience, tech and development.

Bolivian researchers are taking forestry waste that otherwise would have been burnt and turning it into a carbon-dense product useful to farmers.

When biomass (like wood chips) decompose naturally, they emit the potent greenhouse gases CO2 and methane but by creating biochar in a low-oxygen environment, the carbon is locked in a stable form that resists decay, sequestering it for hundreds of years.

José Fernando Grajeda Cruz, Head of R&D at Exomad Green says biochar also has a wide variety of benefits which help mitigate additional emissions.

"For Bolivia the most important it would be the fact that by improving crop yields, it will reduce deforestation due to the fact, that the locals will no need to clear down more forest in order to compensate yield reduction due to soil degradation," he says.

Biochar is also recognized for its ability to retain water and nutrients in the surface soil for long periods benefits agriculture by reducing nutrients leaching from the crop root zone, potentially improving crop yields, and reducing fertilizer requirements.

Grajeda says that by using a facility in Concepción, Bolivia to recycle material that would otherwise be incinerated, this will prevent the release of 60,000 tons of CO2 in 2023, while also minimizing health risks and fire hazards.

"The project promises substantial benefits for the local communities in Concepción and beyond, including improved air quality for over 250,000 individuals and bolstered farm yields through free distributed biochar," he says, "Biochar has the capacity to lock carbon away in the soil for thousands of years.


Grajeda grew up in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

"I've always been passionate about the land; the freedom and opportunities it offers inspired me to pursue this path," he says, adding that his professional journey started with studying environmental engineering at Universidad Gabriel Rene Moreno in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, before going on to analyzing samples of soil, water, and air first in the university's laboratory and later at the Center for Tropical Agriculture Investigation.

Now Grajeda is the head of a laboratory that oversees the quality tests of the biochar and researching the optimal methods for applying biochar to the ground.

"The biochar we produce is provided for free to local indigenous communities, and my role involves developing guidelines to ensure it’s applied effectively for diverse applications on Bolivian soil," he says, "I am travelling to the communities and teaching them how to inoculate it and apply it to the ground."

Grajeda says that scientists from the Global South bring a unique, ground-level perspective to the challenges facing their communities, whether it's climate change, land degradation, or food security.

"My deep-rooted connection to Bolivian lands and communities allows me to understand and develop solutions that are both locally adapted and globally relevant," he says.

Carbon Savings From the Land

Stephanie Roe, an environmental Researcher at the University of Virginia and the lead author of a paper published in Nature Climate Change, researchers said new approaches in agriculture, forestry, wetlands and bioenergy could feasibly contribute about a third of the Paris Accord mitigation target by 2050– equivalent to 15 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) per year.

The paper outlined that the planting of trees on agricultural land could not only provide shade but other benefits as well, including the potential to sequester a total of four GtCO2 by 2030, about equivalent to one year all of the emissions from the European Union.

According to Roe and her colleagues, there are concrete steps that policy makers can take, particularly those in the tropical, developing nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America, for example, one of the biggest opportunities is in improving practices in forest management and agro-forestry schemes.

“We need to dispel the idea that agricultural productivity and sustainability are mutually exclusive — they can actually work hand-in-hand,” Roe said.

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