Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Biochar in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu

Mumbai wasn't nearly as much of a shock to the senses as I'd expected, but the sleeper class train (basically the lowest class and cheapest trains where you can lay down) I took to Hyderabad was a bit more of an experience than I thought it would be. I guess I had gotten used to the relative comfort of the AC trains with their cleaner berths, fairly sane comings and goings of passengers, and controlled environment, so the wide-open windows, tons of people squeezing onto one seat, and unkempt nature of the ride was yet another adjustment in this country of constant assaults on the senses. It really wasn't so bad and despite being constantly stared at by the youths crowded together I really enjoyed being able to see the scenery so clearly, as well as the random conversations with folks happy to practice their English skills.

The next stop was Hyderabad, a mostly uninteresting city which is now becoming one of India's fast growing IT outsourcing hubs. I was there to meet with Dr. Saibaskar Reddy, a fellow trained in geology but now one of the country's main proponents of biochar as a means to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide in charcoal and use it for improving agricultural land. The approach his group, GEO, has taken is to build and distribute low-cost small cookstoves to rural villages which enable people to remove the charcoal before it completely turns to ash and which also create much less smoke than traditional wood-fired cooking methods. I spent a couple of days out in the countryside with him visiting places where the stoves are made from completely recycled materials, seeing their biochar training center, and also villages where the stoves are being used.

This was definitely one of the poorer areas I'd visited so far, and it's been strange to see the limited means people have to work with yet how they generally seem to be in better spirits than people from more "developed" places. They were also uniformly friendly and happy to share with outsiders like myself. I was also a bit surprised to see a couple of monuments adorned with communist flags; apparently this region produces some of the leaders of the Maoist Naxalite movement from time to time. Through Dr. Reddy I made a contact with a group in Tamil Nadu that was just starting to work on a biochar project, and after receiving a positive response from them I made plans to travel to the Nilgiris area of the Western Ghats mountains as my next stop. After checking out Golconda Fort and a nice museum, I boarded a bus headed to Bangalore where I would get another bus to Gudalur.

One of my favorite aspects of this trip is watching the countryside change from a bus or train window, and this time I got to see the arid plains of Andhra Pradesh turn into the tropical farmlands of Karnataka and then into the forested hills of NW Tamil Nadu. I was lucky enough to see a wild elephant as I passed through the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, and soon I was finding my way to the office of the Shola Trust where I would be collaborating on their biochar project for a couple of weeks. The Shola Trust has a few different focus areas (biological conservation, tribal livelihood development, etc), and this biochar project touched on a few of these. There is an invasive shrub known as lantana camara which has taken over large areas of the ecologically sensitive Mudumalai Tiger reserve, and it's particularly nasty because the leaves are inedible to wildlife, the roots exude chemicals which prevent other plants from growing nearby, and it resprouts more vigorously when cut or burned. Therefore Shola is working with the Forest Service and nearby tribal communities to uproot lantana, remove it from the forest (open burning in the forest leads to forest fires and actually encourages lantana), use the nicer branches for tribal-made furniture, and convert the rest into biochar to be mixed with manure/compost and applied to agricultural land.

My task was to design and build a portable, efficient biochar kiln that could be taken to villages to utilize the nearby lantana and also use the excess heat to remove the bark from the lantana branches that they would be using for furniture making. After some hours of internet searching I had a basic design, and the next day I started working with a local metalworker to cut, weld, and put everything into place. This was a growing experience in a few ways. First, this fellow spoke almost no English, and I had to communicate only through drawing, gestures, and moving pieces of metal around. Second, I was amazed at their working methods, as they use hammer and chisel to cut thick pieces of angle iron and there was no welding mask in sight, despite quite a bit of high voltage arc welding. Finally, this fellow and his family were devout Christians, and they were the first I'd met in those mostly Hindu country. I came to find out that South India and Tamil Nadu in particular has a much more even mix of Christian/Muslim/Hindu peoples, and that here they coexist very peacefully.

After a few days it was time to test this oil barrel + galvanized pipe + angle iron contraption, and thank the Lord it worked as it was supposed. It always ended up being a bit of a party when we would do a test firing as everybody wanted to come and help with building the containment walls, getting the wood ready, starting the initial fire, and watching the flames roar out of the gasification pipe. As far as I know they're using the unit out in the field now, but unfortunately I felt like my time was too limited to stick around for more than 2 1/2 weeks.

I'll just say a quick note about some other people and projects in the area that are definitely worth mentioning. Many parts of India have serious problems with the exploitation of the indigenous tribal peoples (known as Adivasis), and this mountainous area is no different. Back in the 1980s a very inspiring fellow named Stan Thaekaera started an organization called Accord, and they have had many important victories which have forced the government and non-tribal Indians to recognize Adivasi land rights even when they don't have a formal document asserting their ownership. There is a hospital and school in Gudalur dedicated to Advasis, and both were excellent models of non-condescending ways to help locals. From Accord, a side group known as Just Change developed in the 1990s with the aim of empowering Adivasis through community owned sustainable enterprises and an international marketing framework that takes "Fair Trade" a step farther. The Shola Trust was started by the Stan's son Tarsh, and they share an office with Just Change. Finally, there's this awesome guy Madhu who rescues snakes (including lots of cobras) who have come into contact with humans as Shola's wildlife conservation fellow and releases them into safe habitats, and sometime soon I'll try to post a youtube video of one of his capers.

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