Biochar Solutions, Ecocide & Indigenous Inspiration

Maddy Harland
Tuesday, 8th November 2011

Maddy Harland describes how reading The Biochar Solution by Albert Bates and meeting Ecocide campaigner, Polly Higgins, has inspired her resolve. She encourages us all to connect with the spirit of our own 'indigenous' nature.

I have been slowly reading a book for the last few months, a few pages at a time, like savouring a good meal. It is The Biochar Solution by Albert Bates. I met Albert at the Ecovillage Conference at Findhorn in 1995. He was an established permaculture teacher and leading light of the ecovillage movement and I was an unknown editor. It was an amazing event where the Global Ecovillage Network was founded.

Albert interested me. A former environmental rights lawyer, paramedic, brick mason, horse trainer, he is proud to be a permaculturist, ecovillage designer and natural builder – he is a polymath. You might think this book might be dry and factual but you would be wrong. Albert is a storyteller. He describes an epic adventure through pre-Conquistador South America where the black soils of the indigenous people, 'terra preta' made from biochar mixed with kitchen compost, were so fertile they supported sophisticated cultures in cities deep in the Amazon. The Europeans invaded these lands, fought the inhabitants and imported infectious diseases and viruses that decimated the indigenous population. As Amazonian civilisations died out, the forest reclaimed the land.

"So great was the burst of vegetation over open fields and mounded cities that the carbon drawn from the air to feed this greening upset atmospheric chemistry. Analysis of the soils and lake sediment of both pre-contact population centers and sparsely populated surrounding regions reveals that the reforestation of land following the collapse drew so much carbon out of the atmosphere so rapidly that Europe literally froze."1 My childhood history lessons – stories of the Thames freezing over and of Europe being so cold that Louis XIV installed parquet floors in the Palace of Versailles – have been entirely reframed.

When these civilisations died out, with them were lost agricultural sciences developed over millennia and the recipe of terra preta. There follows a journey through the history of agriculture: the rise and fall of civilisations who exhausted their soils; an exploration of self-sustaining and highly sophisticated indigenous organic polycultures (oh, how arrogant we are in the West thinking we are 'civilised' with our chemical, oil-based monocultures!); carbon farming techniques; the production of biochar that makes soils capable of supporting huge colonies of micro-organisms, creating symbiosis between soil and plants; and how to lock up carbon in the soil. There is also a calculated rationale on how many people are needed to grow, plant and care for enough trees to reforest the planet. All these techniques will stabilise the global climate – indeed cool it – and within a few decades if we act in concord and quickly. This is permaculture design applied to global climate change.

It is BIG systems-thinking broken down into bite size chunks and presented as an inter-related web of practical, scientifically researched solutions.

I have been meeting remarkable people who are undeterred by the collective inaction of the status quo and are 100% committed to building a new world. Polly Higgins, the barrister who is campaigning for Ecocide, a UN amendment to outlaw the deliberate destruction of ecosystems, is one of them. Like Albert, Polly has fuelled my resolve to carry on doing what I can to effect change.

A recent trip to the Houses of Parliament in London reminded me that positive change is unlikely to stem from the Western establishment or the enriched nations of the Orient, but it could come from the global voice of the 'indigenous' of all nations. This is me and you, my friends. We share a bond beyond race, ethnicity, class, nationality, education, religion... We share a love for the Earth and its people, and our deepest concern for the future. Yes, another world is possible, but only if we believe we can make the change. Choose your strategy, your campaign, your activism, your research, your passion – however humble – and stick to it not for a year or two, but for the rest of your lives. Speak up. Seek the company of like minds, of inspirational people. Treat every day as a miracle. Don't give up and become bitter when things don't go your way. Be here for the long haul. 


The Biochar Solution by Albert Bates is a swash-buckling romp through the 'discovery' of South America, a tour of the world's agricultural systems and a tour de force about rebuilding soils and thereby sequestering carbon with biochar, the 'coral reef' effect for the soil. Do not be dissuaded by the title, this is a piece of literature as much as it's an environmental exploration, charting the rise and fall of civilisations by their agricultures and presenting the latest data on biochar and its properties, all in a digestible and interesting form. If you suffer from climate change 'the end is nigh' depression, this my friend is your Prozac! 

RRP £14.99. SAVE £3.00 - BUY HERE FOR £11.99 from

Eradicating Ecocide by Polly Higgins provides a comprehensive legal overview of the past 200 years,and  explains the crime of ecocide, how it will apply and who can stop the ecocide, for present and for future generations. This is essential reading for anyone who is engaged with current issues; it is also for leaders and policymakers in all countries. 

RRP £17.95. SAVE £2.96 - BUY HERE for £14.99 from 

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Ed Lord |
Thu, 10/11/2011 - 14:21
Hi, found your article interesting and have been following the boichar debate for a while now. It does sound promising. I just wanted to point out that we should be looking to our pre-domestication/civilisation ancestors and the few remaining hunting and gathering peoples. These ancestors were overrun by the spread of farmers in the Neolithic. This is a far greater store of inspiration and wisdom than domesticating/farming/civilising cultures who instigated division of labour, patriarchy, massive clearance of vegetation, hierarchy, organised religion. etc. Ok so they wern't using fossil fuels, but they had much in common with our current damaging behaviour.
Lynn Lough |
Tue, 15/11/2011 - 20:58
Albert's book is the best current work. I collaborated on the paleoclimate section with my correspondence with Dr. William Ruddiman at UVA and Dr Dull's work on carbon forcings of the little Ice Age. My reviews of the agronomic field trials & literature using Biochars clearly show consistent positive effects in temperate & tropical soils, what is not known, and in debate, are some of the mechanisms for the "black box" nature of biochar effects : MYC / AMF & microbe refuge theory, Glomalin soil aggregation & water films, microbial mats & quorum sensing, expansion of aerobic soil horizons & suppression of the anaerobic. As a feed ration for livestock & aquaculture; and the most startling, plant chemical signaling for expression of dormant genetic traits. I sent DuPont work with heavy metals from last year's ISU Biochar Conference which initiated field trials for Hg remediation, showing a 95% reduction of food web uptake! Their lab bench results showed good binding, but did not hit 95% reductions until the in situ study with the full complement of microbes, fungi and the bioturbation's of macro fauna. This same problem remains for explanation of the mechanisms of other char applications, The internal biology changes when char is used as a feed ration, The role of Phosphorous chars for both plant availability and an heavy metal binding remediation techniques. The intricacies of fostering increased aerobic conditions into deeper soil horizons, I'm just so glad we have all these positive affects that tantalize researchers and will build funding support to answer the mechanism questions. What the CFC / Ozone success story was for raising the importance and attention to atmospheric chemistry, I feel biochar soils will be for carbon soil chemistry, Mycology and Microbiology. So Much work to be done, Healing Mine Scarred Lands; Erich J. Knight Chairman; Markets and Business Committee 2010 US BiocharConference, at Iowa State University EcoTechnologies Group Technical Adviser
James George Salomons |
Sun, 20/11/2011 - 11:24
I think the following link is of some relevance to those who want to give biochar a try :)
Lynn Lough |
Tue, 22/11/2011 - 06:08
UK Biochar Research Centre Imperial College test, This work in temperate soils gives data from which one can calculate savings on fertilizer use, which is expected to be ongoing with no additional soil amending.