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    Spanish company Ferry Group is to invest €42/US$55.2 million in a project for the production of biomass fuel pellets in Bulgaria. The 3-year project consists of establishing plantations of paulownia trees near the city of Tran. Paulownia is a fast-growing tree used for the commercial production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Hungary's BHD Hõerõmû Zrt. is to build a 35 billion Forint (€138/US$182 million) commercial biomass-fired power plant with a maximum output of 49.9 MW in Szerencs (northeast Hungary). Portfolio.hu - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Tonight at 9pm, BBC Two will be showing a program on geo-engineering techniques to 'save' the planet from global warming. Five of the world's top scientists propose five radical scientific inventions which could stop climate change dead in its tracks. The ideas include: a giant sunshade in space to filter out the sun's rays and help cool us down; forests of artificial trees that would breath in carbon dioxide and stop the green house effect and a fleet futuristic yachts that will shoot salt water into the clouds thickening them and cooling the planet. BBC News - Feb. 19, 2007.

    Archer Daniels Midland, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, is planning to open a biodiesel plant in Indonesia with Wilmar International Ltd. this year and a wholly owned biodiesel plant in Brazil before July, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The Brazil plant is expected to be the nation's largest, the paper said. Worldwide, the company projects a fourfold rise in biodiesel production over the next five years. ADM was not immediately available to comment. Reuters - Feb. 16, 2007.

    Finnish engineering firm Pöyry Oyj has been awarded contracts by San Carlos Bioenergy Inc. to provide services for the first bioethanol plant in the Philippines. The aggregate contract value is EUR 10 million. The plant is to be build in the Province of San Carlos on the north-eastern tip of Negros Island. The plant is expected to deliver 120,000 liters/day of bioethanol and 4 MW of excess power to the grid. Kauppalehti Online - Feb. 15, 2007.

    In order to reduce fuel costs, a Mukono-based flower farm which exports to Europe, is building its own biodiesel plant, based on using Jatropha curcas seeds. It estimates the fuel will cut production costs by up to 20%. New Vision (Kampala, Uganda) - Feb. 12, 2007.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has decided to use 10% biodiesel in its fleet of public buses. The world's largest city is served by the Toei Bus System, which is used by some 570,000 people daily. Digital World Tokyo - Feb. 12, 2007.

    Fearing lack of electricity supply in South Africa and a price tag on CO2, WSP Group SA is investing in a biomass power plant that will replace coal in the Letaba Citrus juicing plant which is located in Tzaneen. Mining Weekly - Feb. 8, 2007.

    In what it calls an important addition to its global R&D capabilities, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is to build a new bioenergy research center in Hamburg, Germany. World Grain - Feb. 5, 2007.

    EthaBlog's Henrique Oliveira interviews leading Brazilian biofuels consultant Marcelo Coelho who offers insights into the (foreign) investment dynamics in the sector, the history of Brazilian ethanol and the relationship between oil price trends and biofuels. EthaBlog - Feb. 2, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan has announced its renewable energy target: 12% of all energy should come from renewables by 2020. The plan is expected to revitalise Taiwan's agricultural sector and to boost its nascent biomass industry. China Post - Feb. 2, 2007.

    Production at Cantarell, the world's second biggest oil field, declined by 500,000 barrels or 25% last year. This virtual collapse is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos. Wall Street Journal - Jan. 30, 2007.

    Dubai-based and AIM listed Teejori Ltd. has entered into an agreement to invest €6 million to acquire a 16.7% interest in Bekon, which developed two proprietary technologies enabling dry-fermentation of biomass. Both technologies allow it to design, establish and operate biogas plants in a highly efficient way. Dry-Fermentation offers significant advantages to the existing widely used wet fermentation process of converting biomass to biogas. Ame Info - Jan. 22, 2007.

    Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited is to build a biofuel production plant in the tribal belt of Banswara, Rajasthan, India. The petroleum company has acquired 20,000 hectares of low value land in the district, which it plans to commit to growing jatropha and other biofuel crops. The company's chairman said HPCL was also looking for similar wasteland in the state of Chhattisgarh. Zee News - Jan. 15, 2007.

    The Zimbabwean national police begins planting jatropha for a pilot project that must result in a daily production of 1000 liters of biodiesel. The Herald (Harare), Via AllAfrica - Jan. 12, 2007.

    In order to meet its Kyoto obligations and to cut dependence on oil, Japan has started importing biofuels from Brazil and elsewhere. And even though the country has limited local bioenergy potential, its Agriculture Ministry will begin a search for natural resources, including farm products and their residues, that can be used to make biofuels in Japan. To this end, studies will be conducted at 900 locations nationwide over a three-year period. The Japan Times - Jan. 12, 2007.

    Chrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint has launched an arrogant attack on "quasi-hysterical Europeans" and their attitudes to global warming, calling the Stern Review 'dubious'. The remarks illustrate the yawning gap between opinions on climate change among Europeans and Americans, but they also strengthen the view that announcements by US car makers and legislators about the development of green vehicles are nothing more than window dressing. Today, the EU announced its comprehensive energy policy for the 21st century, with climate change at the center of it. BBC News - Jan. 10, 2007.

    The new Canadian government is investing $840,000 into BioMatera Inc. a biotech company that develops industrial biopolymers (such as PHA) that have wide-scale applications in the plastics, farmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Plant-based biopolymers such as PHA are biodegradable and renewable. Government of Canada - Jan. 9, 2007.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Tropical shifting cultivation practise increases soil fertility - farming in a post-oil world

Earlier we reported about the ancient 'terra preta' technique of agriculture which boosts the fertility of poor soils in the tropics. The technique promises to become the basis for biofuel farming in some parts of the South, because not only does it enhance soils and increase yields, it also offers a strategy for carbon sequestration.

Several years ago, a Duke University doctoral student in botany found another indigenous agroforestry technique, a type of shifting cultivation long practiced on the Indonesian island of Borneo, that can boost the fertility of tropical soils. Deborah Lawrence made her findings during five years of research at a remote Dayak village whose inhabitants periodically clear 2 acre patches of land for rice farming or rubber and fruit tree cultivation. In between cultivating these patches, the Dayaks allow them to revert to native shrubs and trees during 20 year long "fallow" periods, with surprising results. This way, the Dayaks succeeded in cultivating plots of land sustainably for more than 200 years, without any loss in fertility.
Since she published her dissertation, Lawrence has been studying the phenomenon in other places (Southern Mexico and Costa Rica) and the results are largely confirmed.

The fallow and active farming sites of the Dayaks are nested within a matrix of "primary" forest land that has never been cleared for farming -- forming a mosaic of differing land uses. Lawrence's analyses of soils and trees focused on seven grown-over fallow sites that had not been cultivated for 10 years, and three other never-disturbed primary forest sites.

The results show that the Dayak method of shifting cultivation actually makes soils more fertile than those in undisturbed primary forest. Those results themselves are "surprising," she said in a recent interview at Duke, because they contradict negative perceptions of "slash and burn" methods that the Dayaks themselves employ to clear land.

In her newest study, Lawrence found that -- especially when she combined all her data from all her sites -- tree biodiversity was "negatively correlated" with soil fertility. In other words, the less carbon, calcium, magnesium, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium she found in the soil, the more varieties of trees she found growing in a given study plot.

Each of those elements is an essential nutrient, Lawrence said. Carbon is the building block for all organic life, while nitrogen and magnesium both contribute to the photosynthetic process that uses sunlight to create plant sugars. Phosphorus is essential for energy production. Calcium is used to make plant cell walls. And potassium contributes to plant water regulation.

When she separated the fallow site data from that for the primary forest sites, Lawrence found some interesting differences. Not only was there more tree diversity in the never-disturbed woodlands, she said, but to some extent, the relationship between biodiversity and soil fertility was actually reversed when primary forest plots were analyzed alone:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
With increasing fertility, diversity increased in primary forest, whereas it decreased in periodically-cultivated plots. "It's as if cultivation takes the soil over some critical threshold where nutrients increase to the point that they then actually limit diversity in a negative way," said Lawrence, who is specializing in biogeochemistry and community ecology.

Her latest findings offer mixed signals for the prospects of reclaiming former tropical rain forests that have been cleared of their trees. On the one hand, she said, they corroborate a paradoxical finding of other scientists. Tropical rain forests may grow the world's most diverse array of plant life. But conditions are so delicately balanced there that the soils actually contain relatively few nutrients.

That means that subsistence farmers who clear tracts of the rich forests in the hopes of a quick return in bountiful row crops are quickly disappointed. They then must move on to destroy additional rain forest, leaving behind soil too depleted to grow anything but scrub grass.

But Lawrence's findings also suggest that Borneo's Dayaks have found a way to manage rain forest land much more productively by alternating various parcels between rice production, tree gardening, and decades-long resting periods.

"It's a broad mosaic of uses, much richer in species than any other land use system around," she said. "It's certainly richer than tree plantations or oil palm plantations or clove plantations or pulpwood plantations. But, within this land use system itself, there's no doubt that there's a decline in diversity and that it will probably continue."

By improving the soil's fertility, though, Dayak methods may actually create the conditions for the long process of generating the next rain forest, Lawrence added. All that would be needed would be seed from nearby remaining patches of primary forest.

"It means that we don't have to bring fertilizers in to get the forests to come back," she said. "We just have to leave them alone and make sure there are seed sources."

Fluent in Indonesian, Lawrence collected an oral history of the changing uses of each patch of land in her study area by gaining the Dayak's trust over a five-year period. She would ask farmers how many times they had "opened" a given patch for cultivation, knowing that there were intervening fallow periods of approximately 20 years.

She also asked the farmers what they remembered about their parents and grandparents use of various tracts. "I think that by going back three generations you can get a rough but pretty reliable estimate about how many times a patch was used," she said.

Land in her study area around the Dayak village of Kembera has been in continuous though shifting cultivation for at least 200 years.


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