Lexie Gary Gropper, one of the restorers and allies to the work of Humans for Abundance, is enthusiastic and passionate about restoration.
From her, we have learned techniques to protect the soil, but above all, she has transmitted her dedication to conservation and communication to us.
All it takes is to see one of her videos on her Youtube channel to recognise her passion and dedication, which are reflected in her voice and expression.
After everything it provides us with, let's give something back to the soil.
This phrase resonates more and more when talking about protecting and feeding the soil, but if we do not understand it as an ecosystem, it isn’t easy to measure the power that this phrase implies.
Soil is a dynamic and complex body - it is Earth’s living skin. It holds unique stories, similar to those of a mountain or a forest, precisely because it is home to a great diversity of organisms.
Although we often describe it as an inert structure upon which we walk, the reality is that we have, under our feet, a mixture of elements that we depend on to maintain life on earth as we know it.
These elements are in constant succession because they result from natural history and the interactions of the organisms that inhabit the soil. Its characteristics also depend on climatic conditions and change due to the influence of events, some natural and others perhaps not so much.
Taking a Closer Look at Soil
The perfect combination of minerals gives plants the nutrients they need to grow and nurture the animals that feed on them. These animals will later become food for other animals.
When each of these organisms dies, it returns to the soil in the form of nutrients that help maintain the natural cycle of life. Thus, soil is a mysterious combination of the inert, the living, and the dead.
Rocks are full of minerals that are part of the first layer of the Earth and that are fragmented into tiny pieces by the action of wind, water, and tree roots that penetrate the rocks until they break them into pieces.
Thousands of species of insects, fungi, and bacteria burrow into the soil to let in water and air or break down and fix essential nutrients that plants use to grow.
Organisms that, when they die, enter a decomposition process. Leaves (leaf litter) or animals feed the soil as they degrade to give it the ideal characteristics and keep it alive.
45% of soil compounds correspond to the inert matter, 50% is divided into equal amounts between water and soil, and only 5% is organic matter. The latter is known as humus and is not a homogenous matter because the rate at which it decomposes is not uniform.
Despite this minimal percentage, soils are enormous reservoirs of biodiversity because they are the habitat of a third (at least) of organisms, thanks to the great diversity of insects, fungi, and bacteria that are responsible for the decomposition.
So... Why is it Important?
Organic matter is so essential that it is what defines the properties of soil. When soil is healthy, it increases water retention and nutrients transferred to the plants.
This nutritious soil prevents erosion; it also improves groundwater quality by acting as filters that remove contaminants and reduce the impact on ecosystems.
In turn, it increases production and, therefore, food security.
On the other hand, soil is one of the central carbon reservoirs in the world. It contains about 75% of this element's reserves in terrestrial ecosystems.
A large part is deposited during the decomposition of living organisms since we are mainly composed of carbon.
Soils can retain this element for thousands of years, but deforestation, changes in land use, and degradation in general release carbon directly into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.
This fact contributes to the increase in global temperatures and shows that soils play a fundamental role in the climate balance.
Soil degradation also causes it to lose its structure, nutrient content, and productivity. The excessive use of chemical elements during intensive agricultural activities degrades and pollutes the soil.
These toxic substances, almost always used in monocultures, are transferred to the products that later become food for human beings.
The good news is that there are ways to restore soil health and maintain it long-term through sustainable practices such as agroecology and permaculture.
How Can Soil Be Restored?
Recovering the soil means promoting the proliferation of good microorganisms to fertilise it by giving it the necessary nutrients. The result translates into better permeability and aeration of the soil, providing more room for root growth of all surrounding vegetation.
Due to studies that have been done on the soil in ancient indigenous settlements from the Amazon, it is now known that one of the best ways to feed the soil is through biochar. It can be obtained from carbon -a very porous structure with the capacity to store water and nutrients-combined with any nutritional aggregate such as compost or humus (decomposed organic remains).
Lexie Gary Gropper from Amisacho Restoration is an expert in soil restoration.
“imitating the terra preta of the ancestral settlements is like a tribute to the work of the Amazonian communities who lived before the time of the conquest.
They had a reciprocal relationship with the land because they took advantage of the nutrients provided by the soil, and in return, they fed it with organic waste. Today we call this biochar, it gives fertility to the Amazonian clay soils, which are low in nutrients”.
IT IS LIKE GIVING BACK TO THE GROUND, SOMETHING THAT PROVIDES US SO MUCH.
Lexie adds that “agriculture and ecology are related, and it is exciting to think about all that can be learned daily.”
Many Amazonian communities fully understand this relationship and have sustainable practices without having taken courses in this regard.
In other words, their knowledge is generated thanks to their connection with nature, which facilitates experimentation and allows them to understand each natural process of the forests. “It is a permanent exchange of knowledge and flavors.”
The Mushullakta community’s projects to produce edible forests and restore natural areas are succeeding. First, thanks to the commitment of restorers and co-restorers to conserve the land with natural vegetation and native products. Second, because the soil on their land has not been completely degraded and they can still use it.
Chochi Iturralde, the CEO of Humans for Abundance, says that “in the communities, they have begun to experiment with biochar and have witnessed the difference in the growth of a plant with only fertilizer and another with added charcoal.
"Now the goal is to develop a permanent oven to facilitate the process of burning organic matter and to be able to generate biochar in greater quantity.”
During the experimentation process, they carried out the process in two phases:
1. Carbon elaboration
The first step is collecting branches, fallen trunks, green leaves, bones of dead animals, or everything within reach without cutting down healthy trees. Then, they burn the collected material inside a hole in the ground. The idea is to cover the spot while the burning occurs for two reasons. The first is to avoid contact with oxygen that may turn the organic matter into ashes; the second is to prevent CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.
2. Carbon nutrition to turn it into biochar
Coal by itself does not have nutrients, but it does have the ability to attract them; therefore, it is essential to mix it with organic matter. In the community, they have begun to make "biol" and "compost," which results from the anaerobic and aerobic digestion (respectively) of plant and animal residuals.
For two weeks, away from sunlight and rain, they mix the charcoal with organic matter so that it absorbs all the nutrients like a magnet. Then, it is ready to be incorporated into the soil and let the magic happens.
The benefits of biochar are many, but it has four essential characteristics that we cannot overlook:
Thanks to its ability to absorb nutrients, it allows the proliferation of beneficial microorganisms, and the soil becomes a constant source of humus production.
It can retain carbon and thus reduces carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.
It allows more oxygen to flow into the soil, giving tree roots enough room to grow vertically and horizontally.
It can absorb a large amount of water. Because it conserves moisture, it protects the soil and cushions the impacts of long periods of drought.
In the Amazon, despite being one of the most diverse regions in the world, the soils have few nutrients. This is a characteristic of clay soils in which the mineral material is very compact and prevents rainwater from penetrating to moisten the soil and fix nutrients.
Biochar becomes an essential component of increasing soil fertility. It is interesting to know that the terras pretas have a deeper fertile layer than clay soils. It is no coincidence that this fertile soil grows close to the ancient human settlements of the Amazon. The indigenous communities, including the ancestral ones, who inhabited the tropical forests 2,500 years ago, already understood that the soil had to be fed to make it productive.
Next time you enter a forest, don't forget to look down because all the life and colors within it result from the soil’s level of health. This life-sustaining substance is also a source of communication between trees and plants underneath. Our connection with the soil is vital to learn how to take care of it and recover it in such a way that we also recover biodiversity and food security.