How much better that our old habits fall away like the cocoon left behind as a butterfly emerges
After the biochar tour of Cuba’s experimental agriculture stations with researchers Hans Peter Schmidt and Ruy Anaya de la Rosa, described in this space last week, I hopped over to Dominican Republic to visit my friends Santiago Obarrio and Carolina Chicero.
When I first came here a few years ago, there were no paved roads and in some cases not even anything resembling a road. The slopes our host Tomás drove his four-wheel-drive truck over were no more than rocky landslides that slid away as we traversed.
Erosion was easy to see when we pulled the LANDSAT images for El Valle. There were long bare swaths across hillsides that wildfires burned away during the dry season. In rainy seasons these turned to mud, and the mud into rivers. Why such burns? Too many unpicked coconuts and dead palm fronds on the forest floor. The solution was simple: Santiago found a buyer so there could be immediate returns to anyone wishing some quick income for a little investment of labor in gathering coconuts.
By last winter my friends had broken ground for their hotel enterprise and Kathleen Draper and I included their story in our soon-to-be-released book from Chelsea Green, Burn:
Obarrio enlisted a few friends to join with him in a business partnership for the purpose of developing an ecological plan for the valley. They called the business Qi. Their business plan consisted of three elements — Cool Farms, Cool Lab, and Cool Design. His partner, Carolina Chicero, told us, “Watching how other developers are slowly destroying paradises with ‘eco-development,’ especially there in the Dominican Republic, we decided to take this example as far as we could envision. More than thirty experts came to design this ecoregion. The 3,000 hectares [7,400 acres] are a watershed sanctuary where six defined ecotones interact, creating astounding biodiversity of trees, birds, turtles, and soils.” It is little wonder the local residents can live on fishing and agriculture with little need for the outside world much of the year.
“We are currently working with the local community and building our own lodge, which will be sustained entirely by products coming from El Valle. We use the mineral water from the land, leave no wastes, and plant more food. We have already regenerated a spring and are harvesting freshwater fish and shrimp.”
The company brought in an ecovillage architect, Greg Ramsey, to design the master plan for the entire district. Ramsey convened valley residents, spoke with the farmers and fishing families, and together they worked up a code of covenants and restrictions. Much of the car traffic will be kept at the periphery. Within the district, marked by an entrance gate and transition point, transportation can be restricted to slow micro-vehicles, including motorized bicycles and tricycles, hoverboards, and electric carts that can operate within the pedestrian paths. Gradients are restricted and the speed limit is 15 miles per hour (24 km/h). Landscaping must comply with standards for organic land care and the native plant species list. Development will be held to a 90:10 offset density ratio, meaning that only 10 percent of the land area of the valley will be permitted to be developed. The remaining 90 percent will be kept wilderness or mixed age, mixed species ecoforestry.
Lacking deep-pocket investors, Obarrio’s company pulled itself up by its own bootstraps with its Cool Farms. Assisting local farmers to do what they knew best, Qi introduced organic, regenerative methods such as biochar-compost blends, compost tea inoculants, mineralization, and hybrid seed for fast-growing plant strains. Leading with this allowed Obarrio to get going at minimal expense but maximum impact. From the carbon fixation point of view, the drawdown is better than 10:1 over solar or wind power, and the energy return on energy invested is better, too. The internal rate of return is 90 percent, ten times the usual rate of return for solar power.
“We expect to cover our operating costs for the company in the Dominican Republic for the next eight to ten years with this operation alone,” Obarrio said. “Although there are many products we can produce after we fix carbon from the air, we have decided to focus on the most essential commodities and the ones that can virally grow inside huge markets. One hundred and fifty dollars invested in a Cool Farm erases the carbon footprint of an individual for ten years and can double your investment in four to six years.”
The first of QI’s commodities are biofuel feedstocks made from hybrid perennial grasses produced at net drawdown — Cool Fuels. For the clients who are purchasing these, Cool Farms are able to meet their needs for 33 percent less than what they had previously been spending on fossil fuel. Second-tier commodities, planned for 2020, will be nutrient-dense Cool Foods, both those that grow in the tropical valleys, and the proteins and medicinals extracted from leaves of biomass crops or seaweed before they are used to make electricity and biochar.
According to the World Economic Forum, if public-sector investment (governments and international agencies) was increased to $130 billion and more effectively targeted, it would eliminate the investment gap between the Paris climate goals and actual drawdown projects by mobilizing around $570 billion in private capital. Cool Farms illustrate how that could happen.
After their first season, which included being battered by Hurricane Irma, Obarrio’s Cool Farms, now 100 percent organic and massively making and applying biochar, were able to show a 33 percent increase in soil carbon. The company’s projection is an average drawdown rate of 10–20 tons of CO2 per hectare per year.
Once their lodge is complete, the couple plans to construct more cabins for guests and vacation home owners. Wild side ecotourism will help pay the way for cool development of the ecodistrict. Obarrio says, “Since our energy source is carbon negative (microhydro plus gasifier and generator), if a guest turns on the LED lights he will be cooling the planet. His trip will become carbon negative by adding biochar to soil with waste wood from the forests turning it into fertilizer for local producers. This is how we are teaching locals not to cut their trees but to value the forest as their source of high yields for their farms.”
The other element that can help pay the way is phase three — a village Cool Lab. Qi is taking its profits from the Cool Farms and other projects and, rather than selling raw farm commodities to outside buyers, will develop value-added cascade products.
Obarrio says he expects to pay the early investors around 24 percent profits per year on the first model. After that, the company says it can use El Valle as a showroom to help others construct Cool Labs at scales of anywhere from $1 million to $100 million. It may even help finance them by offering Cool Bonds.
Obarrio told us, “We are open source. We need this to go viral. The fight between economic growth and sustainability starts from a mistaken premise. Regenerative systems can fuel economic growth. The only difference in our development is that this time carbon must come from the atmosphere and go under the soil, cooling the planet rather than warming it. It is very simple, but also very revolutionary. It will change the lives of the poor, the rural people, those who have suffered from the old way. It will energize the protection of nature.”
It is now nearly two years since the visit and interviews that led to those passages and I am a guest in the newly finished El Valle Lodge. Tucked into the highlands at the inland edge of the floodplain, it survived last year’s Hurricane Irma tides that swept a meter over the tabletops in the beachside restaurants. The surge subsided just at the corner of the hotel’s property. From Carolina’s restaurant, as I watch trout jump in the freshwater stream and wild ducks come and go, I realize how elegantly chosen their site was.
The Lodge, now just 3 cabins but soon to be 8, then 16 and more, recalls the eco-chic decor of Tulum, Ibiza or Bali: thatched roofs, tropical hardwood furnishings and trim, handcrafted details in local stone, shell and fabric, tasteful art, spacious rooms and airy en-suite bathrooms with high-end hardware and local herbal soaps, and high thread-count linens on the beds. You may be deep in nature (the sound of waves breaking on the beach lull you to sleep), but seldom out of your comfort zone.
Reversing climate change with solutions of this kind are a radical diversion from the usual conception that pits ecology against economy and insists on a hair-shirt approach to lifestyle change and de-growth. Those things will happen, but how much better that they fall away like the cocoon left behind as a butterfly emerges.