The saying ‘one man’s trash, is another man’s treasure’ may never have rung more true than in the story of how biochar-creating MontBio came to be formed.
Four families living in the coastal mountain community of Montnegre and El Corredor park, a 15,000-hectare nature reserve, north of Barcelona, were thinking about how they could improve their lot in life, in an area characterised by high unemployment, poor accessibility, and challenging terrain, when Alfred Decker, who would become the company’s director, had a “Eureka!” moment.
“What is our most abundant natural resource here in the mountains? Wood. What happens to much of the wood that is legally required to be cut to reduce the risk of wildfires? It is burned to ash and wasted. How could we do things differently? Biochar!”
Biochar is a naturally occurring charcoal produced through a process called pyrolysis that happens when plant matter is stored in soil. “We love the Mediterranean forest around us and wanted to develop a local economy that regenerates instead of damages the ecosystem and community,” say Mont Bio. “So far we have formed a group of neighbours who want to work together, and created an agreement with the local foresters to be able to use forestry wastes in order to create high-value biochar products.”
Rich in carbon, biochar is used as an amendment to boost the fertility of acidic soils and provides protection against a number of foliar and soil-borne diseases, which in turn increases agricultural productivity. What’s more, when biochar is created it removes carbon dioxide from the air, and as such is currently under investigation as an approach to carbon sequestration, which could potentially help mitigate climate change.
As such, the plucky entrepreneurs suggest if biochar is produced on an appropriate scale, from renewable resources, and using regenerative design principles, it could play a significant role in addressing some of the world’s most critical problems, including climate change, fossil fuel dependence, declining soil fertility, and the economic crisis.
The founding families of the cooperative, who will earn an equal part-time salary, will create the biochar by using wood that has been deemed as ‘waste’, which is actually wood that has been cut during forest thinning operations and is either too small or the wrong species to have market value.
As MontBio’s website explains, it’s a win-win for everyone involved. “Every year we watch in frustration as a large amount of forest prunings are burnt instead of made into biochar, wasting human time and labour and all of the opportunities to use carbon intelligently. Meanwhile, the community residents produce very little of what we consume, bringing resources from afar up into the mountains and sending out raw logs that are made into low value products such as pallets and paper pulp. Yet Montnegre could demonstrate how a community can live differently, adding more to the forest than it takes out, and producing a high value product right where we live. By thinning the forest and then fixing the carbon in biochar, we simultaneously reduce the risk of wildfires which endanger lives and homes; improve the fertility and water retention of the soil; decrease the amount of climate change-causing emissions; and increase the resilience of the forest ecosystem.”
Although MontBio’s plans are in their infancy, the tradition of making charcoal in Montnegre is an ancient one. Translated as ‘Black Mountain’, the area was named by passing sailors centuries ago due to its dark smoky appearance, a consequence of the region’s former economical lifeblood, the production of charcoal from its forests. This time however, the charcoal will be created by putting the carbon in the ground instead of the atmosphere.
But as positive as this all sounds, the world is relatively unversed in the benefits of biochar and with the economic crisis still prevailing, creating a market for the product and regenerating the local economy is going to be tough. However, as one of five winners to collect the Lush Spring Prize Intentional Projects Award, MontBio’s dreams of changing the future of its members as well as the earth’s could be one-step closer with the prize’s funding of £10,000.
“Winning the Lush Spring Prize has given us both encouragement and confidence to go for it and dedicate the necessary time and energy to develop a community project that can be replicable worldwide,” they enthuse. “While we will use the funding to do some training in biochar production and business development, our most urgent necessities are the acquisition of practical materials to build the production unit, a truck and trailer to transport it to the different forestry worksites, and some basic work materials such as safety goggles and gloves. Basically the funding provides the essential money needed to get the project off the ground... to put biochar into the ground!”
To follow MontBio’s efforts in producing biochar, tune into www.12pdesign.net/montbio