Low-tech biochar production for smallholders as an opportunity for enhancing livelihood and promoting climate-smart agriculture.
An extension of our WAGS BIO programme, this scalable, carbon removal project supports smallholder farmers to convert oil palm wastes into biochar to regenerate soils, sink carbon and create new revenue streams for farmers.
Our mission is to show that improving soil health naturally is not only good for the planet but a means to improve farmers’ livelihoods. Over the next 10 years, we strive to build up to 1 million mt of carbon pools under agriculture. Using low-cost, low-tech methods, our network of smallholders will become de facto ‘champions’ who manage these carbon pools and advocate the value of biodiversity for healthy crops and healthier communities. In time, local peer-to-peer groups will be able to transfer the knowledge and skills to their fellow farmers.
Our story started with Wild Asia Group Scheme (WAGS) in 2011 with a simple quest to provide extension support to oil palm smallholder farmers. Today, there are over 1,000 Malaysian smallholder farmers who are part of the WAGS network. Over the years, we have been encouraging natural farming among smallholders. With a target group of farms, we tried out a number of BIO friendly methods like maintaining chemical-free farms and converting organic wastes into high-value products such as compost, fermented products and biochar, among others. The lessons learned and the know-how from these trials help farmers make the transition to chemical-free farms and improve their soil health.
Biochar is a form of charcoal produced in low-oxygen environments and essentially “fixes” the carbon in plant matter into a long-term, stable form that is stored in soils. Valued as a low-fertility soil amendment, biochar improves water and nutrient retention, assists in acidic soils, encourages soil microbiota and improves crop yields.
Our farmers can convert oil palm agriculture wastes into biochar that can be used as natural soil amendments on their farms. We expect to see an increase in yields, improved soil quality and higher farm profitability. Biochar technology is relatively inexpensive, scalable and accessible.
A simple tool to combat climate change, the use of biochar is one of recent strategies to restore carbon to depleted soils and sequester carbon for years. The oldest remaining terra preta soils in the Amazonias are over 4,000 years old.
Smallholders for Climate Impact
For every tonne of biochar that is produced, approximately 2 mt of carbon dioxide equivalent are stored in our soils for at least 75 to 100 years, based on conservative estimates from scientific studies.
Based on calculations by our technical partner Switzerland-based Ithaka Institute, an oil palm farmer with a 1-hectare land could produce 5 mt biochar annually (equivalent to a carbon pool of 10 mt carbon dioxide) from oil palm fronds that would have been typically left and the carbon that would have dissipated.
Ithaka Institute developed the European Biochar Certificate (EBC) which sets the standards and methods for biochar production and application that yields a carbon sink (e.g., carbon removal). We will be applying the EBC standard for tropical smallholder agriculture and biochar production in our project, as part of a network of projects across the tropics.
EBC-accredited partner Biochar Life will help validate and certify our farmer groups to provide the first EBC certificates for carbon renewals in oil palm to be made available (e.g. The Pond Foundation). Not only will the carbon removal (EBC) certificates provide the farmers access to global markets and financial incentives, the validation will enhance their visibility and inspire more farmers to adopt regenerative farming practices.
From April 2022, we will work with a target group of farmers to learn the process to convert their oil palm fronds to biochar. We have identified local partners who are interested to assist us on this journey and provide technical and in-kind support to the project, including Professor Dr. Robert Thomas Bachmann from UniKL MICET’s “Green Chemistry & Sustainable Engineering Technology.” Dr Bachmann has been studying the performance of low-tech kilns and providing valuable technical support to our study. We will use this feasibility study to extend our engagement with other farming networks and relevant government agencies. We hope a wider coalition of partners will join us on this project to deliver a much wider impact.
What our WAGS BIO farmers say
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Targets and projections
Our current target is to be able to work with 100 ha of oil palm farms to create 240 mt carbon removal credits per year.
We are looking for partners to support the work with grants or funding, to improve the monitoring of the trials and to contribute towards the purchase of the resulting carbon removal credits.
Wild Asia believes in partnerships. We bring small producers, technical and industry partners together to support a network of farmers who are learning and practicing sustainable agriculture. We call this network SPIRAL, or Small Producer Inclusivity Resilience Alliance. WAGS BIOchar for Smallholders is one of a number of ways SPIRAL partners can improve livelihoods, create opportunities for improving farm profitability and increase valuable carbon stores under agriculture.