Waste To Energy Systems

Category Archives: Education

Solar Powered Classrooms Offer Rural African Children a Chance

Blogger’s Note: What better way to use alternative energy technology than to brighten the future of a child. That is exactly what a collaboration of organizations is doing. They developed the Digi-Truck. Not only is it recycling old shipping containers but it is offering children in rural Africa an opportunity to peer into a world of technology that they might have never been exposed to. A recent article from offgridquest.com discusses how this technology is bringing a much brighter future to these rural communities. 

Shipping container-turned-digital-classroom, this vehicle helps to educate African children in impoverished areas. The exclusively solar-powered, mobile and completely independent classroom is geared towards increasing accessibility to education and connectivity across Africa,” said Shin. “It is designed specifically for use in remote areas with limited or no access to electricity.

In this digital day and age, one can only sigh in disbelief that digital literacy is inaccessible to children in Africa, particularly the remote areas where infrastructure is lacking. Close the Gap, in partnership with Arrow Electronics and Hoops for Hope, made the Digi-Truck, a solar-powered truck that serves as a digital classroom to teach students about digital literacy.

The Digi-Truck aims to combat two issues. The first is the absence of electricity and communication lines in the remote areas. The solution? Putting solar panels on top of the truck that will provide several days of power for the classroom. The other issue is being able to teach the kids how to use digital technology. Hence, the truck is equipped with 20 laptops, a LED screen, two routers and a printer that will give the kids hands-on experience. Eighteen students can be accommodated at a time.

Moreover, the beauty of the Digi-Truck is its mobility. In fact, the Digi-Truck is actually made of a 40 ft. shipping container put on top of a trailer. This way, the truck can go from one remote area to another without transferring the parts of the digital classroom piece-by-piece. It is designed with insulation, bolted window shutters, LED lighting and steel doors. Additionally, if there’s no school that day, the truck can also double as a health center or a cyber café.

The Digi-Truck project was launched in January 2014 and has served different rural communities in Africa. It is currently in the Village of Rau in the Kilimanjaro Region where it provides a digital learning environment for 80 orphans from the Neema International-supported Tuleeni orphanage. By 2016, the Digi-Truck will move to a new location. However, all current equipment will be donated to the Tuleeni orphanage and the truck will be supplied anew.

Oliver Vanden Eynde, Founder of Close the Gap said:

“More than 75 percent of the population in Africa live in rural communities where infrastructure presents a huge barrier. Modern information and communication technologies, coupled with solar-powered solutions like the DigiTruck, are able to help bridge this digital divide and to bring quality training and education to remote communities.”

It’s hard not to admire the efforts of these organizations to bridge the gap and still deliver education to children who need it.


Antidepressant Microbes In Soil: How Dirt Makes You Happy

Blogger’s Note: Scientists are quickly discovering that with all the technological advances in the world are leaving people in a deficit of nature exposure. Recent studies have shown that dirt contains microbes that act as an antidepressant. A recent article from Gardening Know How discussed this topic and how dirt scientifically acts as an antidepressant. So next time you are feeling down, the best remedy could be going out, channeling your inner child and playing in the dirt. 


Prozac may not be the only way to get rid of your serious blues. Soil microbes have been found to have similar effects on the brain and are without side effects and chemical dependency potential. Learn how to harness the natural antidepressant in soil and make yourself happier and healthier. Read on to see how dirt makes you happy.

Natural remedies have been around for untold centuries. These natural remedies included cures for almost any physical ailment as well as mental and emotional afflictions. Ancient healers may not have known why something worked but simply that it did. Modern scientists have unraveled the why of many medicinal plants and practices but only recently are they finding remedies that were previously unknown and yet, still a part of the natural life cycle. Soil microbes and human health now have a positive link which has been studied and found to be verifiable.

Soil Microbes and Human Health

Did you know that there’s a natural antidepressant in soil? It’s true. Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has indeed been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress.

Lack of serotonin has been linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar problems. The bacterium appears to be a natural antidepressant in soil and has no adverse health effects. These antidepressant microbes in soil may be as easy to use as just playing in the dirt.

Most avid gardeners will tell you that their landscape is their “happy place” and the actual physical act of gardening is a stress reducer and mood lifter. The fact that there is some science behind it adds additional credibility to these garden addicts’ claims. The presence of a soil bacteria antidepressant is not a surprise to many of us who have experienced the phenomenon ourselves. Backing it up with science is fascinating, but not shocking, to the happy gardener. Mycobacterium antidepressant microbes in soil are also being investigated for improving cognitive function, Crohn’s disease and even rheumatoid arthritis.

How Dirt Makes You Happy

Antidepressant microbes in soil cause cytokine levels to rise, which results in the production of higher levels of serotonin. The bacterium was tested both by injection and ingestion on rats and the results were increased cognitive ability, lower stress and better concentration to tasks than a control group.

Gardeners inhale the bacteria, have topical contact with it and get it into their bloodstreams when there is a cut or other pathway for infection. The natural effects of the soil bacteria antidepressant can be felt for up to 3 weeks if the experiments with rats are any indication. So get out and play in the dirt and improve your mood and your life.

EPA Addresses Potential of Biomass

Blogger’s Note: The Clean Power Plan was implemented on August 3, 2015 by the EPA. The Clean Power Plan finalized new rules, or standards, that will reduce carbon emissions from power plants for the first time. As a result, new focus is being placed on biomass as a fuel source for renewable energy systems like biomass gasification . Recently, the EPA addressed the potential of biomass and is planning a workshop on land and forest management for responsible biomass production. Biomass Magazine recently published an article on this attention and workshop in their article “EPA addresses biomass in Clean Power Plan, plans workshop”.

Janet McCabe, U.S. EPA acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, has published a blog that addresses the potential role of biomass in the Clean Power Plan, and announced that the EPA will hold a workshop on the topic early next year.

Since the Clean Power Plan was issued, states and stakeholders have shown a strong interest in the role of biomass to help hit targets, McCabe said, and many states are seeking to understand how to craft plans that will be federally approvable under the final CPP guidelines. “To respond to this interest and to support state and stakeholder efforts to incorporate bioenergy in their CPP plans, we will be holding a public workshop in early 2016 for stakeholders to share their successes, experiences and approaches to deploying biomass in ways that have been, and can be, carbon beneficial,” McCabe wrote. “Biomass derived from land that is managed under programs that ensure the long-term maintenance of healthy forests can serve as an integral part of a broader forestry-based climate strategy, so the CPP expressly includes bioenergy as an option for states and utilities in CPP compliance.  It reflects the fact that, in many cases, biomass and bioenergy products in the power system can be an integral part of state programs and foster responsible land management and renewable energy.”

In the blog, McCabe emphasizes state flexibility as being a key component of the CPP, and points out that many already have expertise in sound carbon- and GHG-beneficial forestry and land management practices. “The CPP’s flexibility will give states the ability to build in approaches to biomass and bioenergy unique to their forests and land management programs and policies.  It recognizes the importance of forests and other lands for climate resilience—in addition to the carbon benefits of biomass—fostered by a variety of land use policies, renewable energy incentives and standards, and GHG strategies.”

The final CPP creates a pathway for states to use biomass as part of their plans to meet their emission reduction guidelines, according to McCabe. She said EPA expects many states to include biomass as a component in their state plans. “We look forward to reviewing plans that incorporate well-developed forestry and other land management programs producing biomass that can qualify under the guidelines laid out in the CPP, and we are confident that the CPP offers sufficient lead time and flexibility for states to develop approvable programs.”

Key goals of the workshop, the date of which was not announced, will be to provide an opportunity for states with well-developed forestry and land management practices to share their experiences, and to “foster a constructive dialogue about how states can best include biomass in their compliance plans if that is a path they choose to follow.”

McCabe added that the workshop will showcase the constructive compliance approaches many states are already implementing or developing, and as the first step to prepare for the event, EPA will be reaching out to key stakeholders to get ideas on the agenda.

Why We Make New Years Resolutions and How to Make It a Green One This Year!

It’s that time of the year. The end of 2015 is right around the corner and once again, the world gets a chance for a fresh start in the new year. Ever wondered why we make New Years resolutions? Are you looking for some #resolutions this year that will help make a difference in the #environment? Then you have come to the right blog! (Following was sourced from www.livescience.com)

Ancient people practiced the fine art of New Year’s resolutions, though their oaths were external, rather than internally focused. More than 4,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians celebrated the New Year not in January, but in March, when the spring harvest came in. The festival, called Akitu, lasted 12 days. An important facet of Akitu was the crowning of a new king, or reaffirmation of loyalty to the old king, should he still sit on the throne. Special rituals also affirmed humanity’s covenant with the gods; as far as Babylonians were concerned, their continued worship was what kept creation humming.

Centuries later, the ancient Romans had similar traditions to ring in their new year, which also originally began in March. In the early days of Rome, the city magistrates’ terms were defined by this New Year’s date. On March 1, the old magistrates would affirm before the Roman Senate that they had performed their duties in accordance with the laws. Then, the New Year’s magistrates would be sworn into office. After Rome became an empire in 27 B.C., New Year’s Day became a time for city leaders and soldiers to swear an oath of loyalty to the Emperor.

As Romans gradually became less warlike, the switch from celebrating the New Year during a month (March) associated with Mars, the god of war to one (January), associated with Janus, a god of home and hearth, seemed appropriate, he added. The first half of New Year’s Day in Rome would have been taken up by public ceremonies, oath-taking and temple sacrifices, he said, while the second half of the day was for social activities. Citizens would bring each other gifts of honey, pears and other sweets as presents for a “sweet new year,” Alston said.

There is no direct line from ancient Roman tradition to modern New Year’s resolutions, but the desire to start anew pops up repeatedly in western civilization. In 1740, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, invented a new type of church service. These services, called Covenant Renewal Services or watch night services, were held during the Christmas and New Year’s season as an alternative to holiday partying. Today, these services are often held on New Year’s Eve, according to the United Methodist Church. Worshippers sing, pray, reflect on the year and renew their covenant with God.

New Year’s resolutions have become a secular tradition, and most Americans who make them now focus on self-improvement. The U.S.government even maintains a website of those looking for tips on achieving some of the most popular resolutions: losing weight, volunteering more, stopping smoking, eating better, getting out of debt and saving money.

Here are some Green options to add to your list of New Years Resolutions .

1) Drink Less Bottled Water and Soft Drinks: It takes a tremendous amount of energy to produce a plastic bottle. So why not use a water filter to drink tap water? Or use a water filter in a water container? Both are easy and much less costly than buying bottled water or expensive soft drinks.

2) Drive Less Often: Walk, bike or take public transport to work. Ask your employer if you can telecommute 1-2 days per week to further minimize your carbon footprint. Whatever you can do will mean you’re driving less and creating less pollution.


3) Use Recyclable Shopping Bags: Over 1 million plastic bags are used every minute of every day worldwide. We recommend keeping a few recyclable vinyl or canvas bags in your car and using them every time you shop. You’ll be amazed at how many plastic bags you can eliminate weekly by doing this one simple step.

4) Take Shorter Showers: Where Americans use an average of 100 gallons of water per day, Europeans only use about 50. All countries need to conserve water and we know that in Marin County, we’re in the middle of a multi-year drought. So have the mindset to use less daily by taking shorter showers, turning off the water at the faucet when you brush your teeth, and only flush the toilet when you absolutely need to.

5) Cut Your Paper Use: A ton of paper from recycled paper saves up to 17 trees. Recycle your newspaper, computer paper, envelopes and other papers you receive daily. Start a digital subscription to your magazines or newspapers. Request electronic statements from your bank and utilities.

6) Recycle Your Bottles, Cans and Compostables: More U.S. cities are offering expanded programs for curbside recycling, especially throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Ask your local waste management provider about it.

7) Green How You Eat: Consider fresh, organic ingredients from your local farmers’ market or grocery store. These are grown without pesticides and are healthy for your whole family, too.

8) Green Your Garage: A hybrid car used to be unusual, today, most car manufacturers offer hybrid or even all-electric cars that drastically cut your dependence on fossil fuels. At Good Green Moving, we’ve been able to reduce our carbon emissions by 80%. Furthermore, when available, we use recycled vegetable oil to power all of our vehicles and utilize 100% renewable energy to power our warehouses.

9) Green Your Home with Sustainable Materials: Think about an eco-friendly home that has bamboo flooring, a cotton or hemp shower curtain, zero-VOC paints, wooden blinds from sustainable forests, and more.

10) Let The Sun Be Your Energy Source: Finally, let the sun do the work for you. The latest solar powered photovoltaic systems are more energy efficient than ever and can get you off the grid. You’ll not only lower your electric costs, you can even earn energy credits by selling your excess energy to the power company.


The World Could Have An Unexpected Renewable Energy Leader

Blogger’s Note: The world is seeing the start of a global shift toward Renewable Energy as a primary source of power. With several organizations focusing on bringing alternative energy technology to third world countries in hopes of growing their economy and bettering their standard of living through affordable utilities, there are some unexpected leaders developing in the renewable energy world. A recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian discusses how Africa could quickly become the cleanest continent. 


An Africa-wide mega-scale initiative backed by all African heads of state should see the continent greatly increase its renewable energy over the next 15 years.

The African Renewable Energy Initiative (Arei) plans to develop at least 10 GW of new renewable energy generation capacity by 2020, and at least 300 GW by 2030, potentially making the continent the cleanest in the world.

The International Energy Agency, which has said that Africa is at the “epicentre of the global challenge to overcome energy poverty”, estimates that annual electricity consumption per capita in Africa for 2012 was around 600 kWh, compared with the world average of 3,064 kWh.

The plan to accelerate solar, hydro, wind and geothermal energy could see Africaleapfrogging other continents by developing thousands of small-scale “virtual power stations” that distribute electricity via mini-grids and would not require transmission lines, which involve a loss of up to a quarter of power during the process.

The initiative, which is tentatively estimated to cost at least $500bn over 20 years, is billed as “by Africa, for Africa”, and is intended to reduce Africa’s present reliance on coal. As well as reducing emissions, it will help at least 600 million people switch from lighting homes and cooking with diesel, kerosene and wood, and reduce air pollution in homes and cities.

Solar is expected to play a leading role. “We are ready to engage in massive solar and wind energy production to attain 100% electricity reach for our people,” said Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s environment cabinet secretary.

Speaking at the launch of the initiative at the COP 21 talks in Paris, the president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Akinwumi Adesina, said the continentcurrently loses 4% of its GDP due to a lack of clean energy.

“Africa is the continent suffering the most from the scorching heat from rising temperatures, and droughts have become more frequent and with greater intensity than ever before. Africa needs more money for adaptation.

“The continent has been short-changed by climate change. But we must ensure that it is not short-changed by climate finance. AfDB will triple its climate finance to $5bn a year by 2020,” he said.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where the number of people without access to electricity is set to rise. By 2030, Africa’s share of the world’s population without electricity will increase from less than half today to more than two-thirds.

Detailed plans for each country will be worked out over the next five years, but the AfDB and other financial groups, including the World Bank, have pledged an initial $5bn.

News of the initiative comes as a coalition of 12 countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia and Malawi set themselves a goal to replant 100m hectares (247m acres) of forest across the continent in the next 15 years.

It follows the successful planting of millions of trees and bushes in parts of Tigray, Ethiopia, and elsewhere where droughts, overgrazing and deforestation have devastated and eroded landscapes. Where land has been replanted with trees and bushes, farming communities have seen rapid improvement in soils, water supplies and increased food security.

Outdoor Living Classroom used to Teach Children about Nature

Blogger’s Note: Today’s children and families often have limited opportunities to connect with the natural environment. This “nature deficit” is believed to have a negative effect on children from childhood obesity to social and psychological issues. Connecting children with nature has a huge impact on the following: enhancing cognitive skills, reducing stress, improving problem solving skills and helping children develop an appreciation and respect for nature to name a few. As a child fortunate enough to grow up in the country surrounded by nature, this blogger is a huge advocate of the importance of exposing children to the natural environment. Teaching children to respect nature will allow them to grow into well-rounded, environmentally conscientious adults resulting in a greener future. One architecture studio agrees and has built an outdoor classroom that evolves to constantly teach children about nature. 

Great design can bring kids closer to nature without hurting the bank. Just ask AP+E, an architecture studio that designed Hedge School, a competition-winning pavilion used as an outdoor classroom for a primary school in Carlow, Ireland. Made of natural and sustainable materials, this low-cost timber amphitheater creates a playful and sensory environment surrounded by nature.

Set in a green lawn, the Hedge School is defined by a circle of plywood columns of varying heights that support a staggered row of wooden planters. A steel wire mesh for growing vines covers the space between the pavilion floor and planter. The interior of the pavilion, which was designed with the scale of a child in mind, features a gravel floor and plywood platforms that double and steps and seating. The unnprogrammed space is large enough to accommodate a class can be used for a variety of purposes including performance, cooking lessons, and play.

AP+E also created a year-round planting design to give the Hedge School a continuously evolving appearance with minimal maintenance. The pavilion’s raised plant beds allow students to grow their own food and watch the plants develop over the seasons. “Through planting, growing, studying and finally eating their plants the children are not only taught basic skills but more importantly also learn how their actions directly affect their surroundings,” write the architects. Over time, the entire pavilion will be cloaked in a veil of greenery.

From the article “Outdoor living classroom constantly evolves to bring children closer to nature” by Lucy Wang.

Renewable Energy’s Unexpected Allies

Blogger’s Note: As Renewable Energy becomes a stronger driving force, it is beginning to pick up some unexpected heavy hitters. The Waste to Energy Systems Team is thrilled at how popular alternative energy is becoming and with each prominent backer, the success rate of these types of technologies improves by bringing awareness to the masses. 

From the blog “Unlikely Coalition Forms To Back Renewable Energy” from huffingtonpost.com:

Nine of the country’s biggest companies just helped set a new standard for corporate sustainability. Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, Nike, Salesforce, Starbucks and Walmart are among the handful of hugely recognizable names that on Wednesday committed to using 100 percent renewable energy, with several expecting to reach their goals within the next decade.

Goldman Sachs set a target of 100 percent renewable energy by 2020, while Nike aims to hit that by 2025, and Johnson & Johnson by 2050. Procter and Gamble set its sights on a short-term goal for 30 percent renewable energy by 2020, while some companies, like financial services firm Voya International and furniture maker Steelcase, are closing in or have already reached a full reliance on renewable energy.

That these Fortune 500 firms have thrown their significant weight behind RE100, a global campaign to cut down on CO2 emissions by turning to renewable sources of energy, suggests a major shift in corporations’ awareness of their responsibility to lead their respective industries away from carbon.

And companies are realizing the business boost gained by placing financial incentives on themselves to use renewable sources. A recent report by the environmental nonprofit CDP, which organizes RE100 in partnership with The Climate Group, found that the number of companies putting a price on their carbon emissions has tripled since last year.

“Lowering risk, protecting against price rises, saving millions and boosting brand is what shaping a low carbon economy is all about,” Climate Group CEO Mark Kenber said in a statement.

The corporate sustainability movement is gaining speed: RE100 launched last year with 13 members, including Ikea, H&M, Nestle, Unilever and Mars. That number has since grown to nearly 40, with groups joining from across various industries. Recent members include financial services provider UBS and Dutch sciences company Royal DSM. Ikea, everyone’s favorite furniture go-to, has installed 700,000 solar panels on its buildings and last year generated renewal energy to match 42 percent of its total energy consumption. H&M, among the many retail outlets facing pressure for contributing to wasteful fast fashion, plans to cut its electricity usage by 20 percent by 2020.

Companies are finding various ways to harness efforts to reduce their carbon footprint as an economic opportunity. Under The B Team, a nonprofit led by top business leaders, companies like Unilever and Virgin are seeking to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

And as part of a coalition to promote sustainable business practices, HP expects to hit its emissions target early after partnering with SunEdison to rely on wind power, while L’Oreal is expanding its use of solar panels at various facilities across the globe. Kellogg will implement water reuse projects at one-fourth of its sites and has committed to zero net deforestation.

WES Team Attends National Bioenergy Day Conference

As a testament to the growing popularity of biomass and bioenergy, October 21st marked the 3rd annual National Bioenergy Day. Over 60 organizations across 24 states, spanning from the west coast to east coast all the way up to Canada, held events focused on environmental and economic benefits of bioenergy on the local, state and national level. The WES team attended the National Bioenergy Day conference in Baton Rouge, LA at Louisiana State University’s Agricultural Center

National Bioenergy Day Map

The top keynote speakers, Dr. Charles Reith, Professor of Natural and Environmental Sciences and Sustainability Director at the American University of Nigeria and Dr. Dan Len, Regional Biomass Coordinator for the Southern Region Forest Service, left the attendees with a positive message on the endless possibilities that biomass and bioenergy present. Their message was supported by other industry speakers such as pellet companies, area business development leaders and local energy companies.

National Bioenergy Day

Dr. Les Groom of LSU discusses Biomass as a Feedstock for Gasification.

Events like National Bioenergy Day will continue to increase awareness among the general population of the alternative energy applications that are available, including processes like downdraft gasification systems, and build confidence in biomass as a fuel source.

National Bioenergy Day

Food Found In Your Backyard

Homesteading and foraging are very popular sustainable trends these days. Ideal for those that live in rural areas and the time to dedicate to growing their own food. The idea is wonderful but not realistic for everyone’s living situation. So how do those that live in more urban areas with only a backyard available to them have the opportunity to live off the land? The answer could be as simple as what naturally grows in your backyard. Here is a list of edible plants that most people have easy access too!

  1. Violets- This lovely purple flower often grows wild and most consider it a weed. However, the leaves and blooms are actually edible! They contain vitamins A and C. They can be used in salads or cooked as greens. The flowers can be made into jellies, candied, or tossed into a salad.
  2. Evening Primrose- Native Americans have been using this plant as food and medicine for thousands of years. The entire plant is edible. The seeds are used to make an oil that have medicinal properties. The blossoms are sweet and can be mixed in salads or as garnish for desserts. The roots and seedpods can be cooked. This plant is a great source of gamma-linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid that is not found in many plant sources.
  3. Creeping Charlie- Known as an invasive weed to most, the Creeping Charlie is very edible. Young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. The leaves have a mild bitter flavour and can be tossed into salads to add a slight aromatic tang. They can also be cooked like spinach, added to soups, stews, or omelet. Tea is made from the fresh or dried leaves. It is often used mixed with verbena leaves or lovage. This wild edible has been added to beer in much the same way as hops in order to clear it and also to improve its flavor and keeping qualities.
  4. Goldenrod- Often blamed for allergies in most, this low pollen plant is a plentiful source of nutrition and medicinal benefits. Research has shown that Goldenrod reduces inflammation, lowers blood pressure, and helps with muscle spasm and infections. All aerial parts of the plant can be used. The flowers are edible and make attractive garnishes on salads. Flowers and leaves (fresh or dried) are used to make tea. Leaves can be cooked like spinach or added to soups, stews or casseroles. Leaves can be blanched and frozen for later use in soups, stews, or stir fry throughout the winter or spring.
  5. Dandelion- Probably one of the most common weeds, Dandelions are completely edible.  Leaves, root, and flower can all be eaten. Dandelion leaves can be added to a salad or cooked. They can also be dried and stored for the winter or blanched and frozen. Flowers can be made into juice, or added into many recipes. The root can be made into a coffee substitute. The root and leaves can be dried, stored and made into tea. Dandelions are a rich source of vitamins, minerals and it even has antioxidants. For example, one cup of raw dandelion greens contains 112% of your daily required intake of vitamin A and 535% of vitamin K.


How Can Ancient Farming Methods Help With Climate Change?

Technological advances have helped the world in many ways from longer life expectancy to space exploration. However in some areas, new technology may increase efficiency and mass production but it also harms the environment. One big area of debate is farming, sustainable vs. industrial. An important question in this debate is what methods did ancient farmers use for thousands of years in harmony with the environment and could they still hold merit in today’s world, particularly with the climate issues.  A recent article from www.worldwatch.org discusses this very topic.

From “Indigenous Farming Methods: Mitigating the Effects of Climate Change While Boosting Food Production” written by Mel Landers. 

Spanish conquistadors had great respect for the crops developed by the indigenous farmers of the Americas. A full 60 percent of the food eaten today worldwide originated in the region. But the conquistadors failed to appreciate the importance of the production methods used by those innovative local farmers.

There are over 600,000 hectares of terraces in Peru alone. Many of these are still in use today. They were constructed with rock fill at the bottom, between the rock face and the slope, to allow for good drainage. Most were built with stairs for ease of access.

Indigenous American crops were introduced in colonies around the world. But the farmers’ innovative production methods were shunned and, for the most part, lost to the world for 500 years. Serious efforts to rediscover these methods have only begun during the last few decades.

Sophisticated hydraulic engineering projects can be found, on a massive scale, in the Andes Mountains and along the Pacific Coast of South America, developed by people who had no metal tools. Using only simple devices and their own manual labor, these farmers built thousands of hectares of terraces in the mountains and thousands of giant water-trapping depressions (Qochas) in the high plateaus.

In Bolivia’s Altiplano, hundreds of square kilometers are covered by raised farming platforms (Waru Waru), causeways, canals, and manmade islands in an area that resembles a lake for half the year and is completely dry for the rest of the year. All this, as well, was built by hand.

Much of ancient Mexico City was built over a lake, on which the Aztecs built thousands of floating platforms (Chinampas) on which to grow their crops. Other farmers directed rainfall into spiraling holes that led to underground storage chambers. And many indigenous cultures constructed irrigation canals.

Land Improvement

The practice shared by all these farming societies was their use of raised beds, covered with thick layers of organic matter, or mulch. It appears that indigenous populations built such systems throughout the Americas. It was arguably their most important method of coping with the climate variability caused by the El Niño/La Niña cycle. The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia has proven the value of this type of system by creating a lush raised-bed garden in the Jordanian desert.

Raised beds, when tied together with ridges every few meters, can retain 100 percent of the rain that falls on the field, compared with less than 10 percent infiltration in a flat, ploughed field. During a drought, it is important to maintain the highest soil moisture content possible.

During periods of excess rain, the beds hold part of the root system up in well-oxygenated soil, above the level of the standing water. This prevents anaerobic decomposition of roots and helps guarantee at least some production. Unlike today, there was no “food aid” available to ancient indigenous peoples.

The raised structures were of variable lengths, but most were about a meter wide. If not formed on elevated platforms or terraces, they were commonly built on the contour to hold water and prevent erosion. When built in depressions, however, they radiated to the center. Crops were planted on the beds as the retained water receded.

The organic mulch shaded the soil, keeping it cool and moist. It also prevented raindrops from eroding the soil surface. As the organic matter decomposed, it provided food for earthworms and myriad other beneficial micro-organisms. Earthworms help aerate and fertilize the soil. A permanent mulch also created the proper environment for mycorrhizal fungi, which help ensure that plants receive nutrients and pest protection.

Soil Improvement

Heavy rains in the Amazon River Basin severely leach nutrients from the soil, leaving the native soils useless for agricultural production soon after forest is removed. Yet the first conquistadors to enter the Amazon Basin described their encounters with great agricultural societies, living in large cities that endured until European diseases devastated their populations.

These cities were made possible by soil improvement techniques that have only partially survived in a few remote communities of indigenous farmers. For 2,000 years, famers in the rivers of the Amazon Basin were producing fertile soil on which to grow their crops, where no such soil had existed before.

These soils, known as “black earth,” are still fertile 500 years after they were last made. They contain high concentrations of humus, powdered charcoal, and pieces of broken pottery. Although they are located high above the river levels, they contain aquatic plant remains and sand. The sand indicates that the people scooped up the river muck in the dry season and spread it over their beds.

The pottery chards provide soil structure where no natural rock exists. The charcoal (potentially stable for thousands of years) provides a long-term depository for nutrients, buffers the pH of the soil, and mitigates the toxic effects of aluminum in the soil. The humus (potentially stable for hundreds of years) is like a sponge for nutrients and moisture.

These soils cannot be reproduced simply by adding charred material. The humus is vitally important to the functioning of these soils. Fortunately, there are ways to produce large amounts of humus to recreate these super-fertile soils. Developing these soils today would contribute greatly to efforts to feed a world full of hungry people.

Putting These Methods into Perspective

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2007 assessment, suggests the use of ancient indigenous technologies from the Americas as a means of mitigating the effects of climate change. Evidence indicates that global warming is increasing the frequency and severity of both droughts and inundations.

These ancient agricultural technologies hold promise for increasing food production worldwide. With nearly a billion people suffering from chronic hunger, the time is overdue for another agricultural revolution. The introduction of indigenous American crops 500 years ago started one. The introduction of their innovative production methods could start another.