1 April 2024 Local Innovation and Technologies

As narrated by Javeria Afzal, Climate Change Advisor, HelpAge International and Chanyuth Tepa, Program Manager, Foundation for Older Persons’ Development, with additional written contributions from the authors

In the hills around the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, the air fills seasonally with the choking smoke of slash-and-burn agriculture. Farmers traditionally burn off crop waste to clear their fields for the next crop. Air pollution levels, especially particulate matter (PM2.5) are considerably higher than normal during the burning months.

The smoke causes people headaches, difficulty in breathing, and other respiratory problems. Furthermore, air pollution increases the risk of many non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer.

Thailand is among the most polluted countries in Southeast Asia. In 2020, its particulate pollution levels reached five times the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline. At current levels, air pollution is shortening the average Thai resident’s life expectancy by 1.8 years. Reducing ambient air pollution by 20% could prevent up to 25% of avoidable fatalities each year and would stem losses in economic productivity.

It is against this backdrop that Older People’s Clubs (OPCs) in Chiang Mai began to develop biochar and associated products, as a way of addressing environmental health and, by extension, pursuing locally led adaptation and mitigation.

Biochar is recognized internationally as a promising way to lock up carbon and contribute to more fertile agricultural soils. It is a form of charcoal produced from burning organic material at high temperatures with little to no oxygen availability. This method locks up the carbon from crop wastes into a kind of semi-porous form of hard carbon, which can be added to soil as fertilizer. If the crop waste were simply left to decompose or burn in oxygen, it would release carbon dioxide.

The potential of biochar for climate change adaptation is also very high: biochar is a very stable carbon form, and when incorporated in soils, scientists suggest it may lead to improved water-holding capacity, nutrient retention, and microbial processes.

The production and application of biochar is relevant technology for poor, resource-constrained rural households. Biochar enables them to achieve high crop yields because of its high moisture retention capacity, high potential to limit the leaching of nutrients, and suitability as a habitat for micro-organism growth.

Older People’s Clubs Dedicate Time and Wisdom to LLA

OPCs were established in 13 villages in Chiang Mai’s Sarapee District, with the support of the Foundation of Older Persons’ Development (FOPDEV). For the last three years, these OPCs have been actively producing biochar.

Their interest in biochar grew out of training provided by HelpAge International to leaders of three OPCs on limiting air pollution and sequestering carbon. Since then, the idea of creating biochar from agriculture waste – sourced from plant stalks and husks in the fields that would otherwise be unused – has become very popular. Other OPCs joined the initiative, producing biochar for household use. Recently, they started selling it for income.

"I have kept on making biochar for income generating and as a soil enhancer for my own farming. I have provided training to older farmers and environmental community volunteers for expanding biochar making. Communities are using biochar in their home kitchen gardens," says Boonma Phukumsakda, a 60-year-old farmer, who is one of the resource persons on biochar making in his community.

Since they were trained, the OPCs have increased the capacities of 100 local farmers, who are developing different biochar products. On average, farmers’ income from selling biochar as a soil enhancer and source of fuel, together with biochar-derived wood vinegar, is US 180–200 per month.

Organic agriculture networks in Chiang Mai have shown interest in the OPCs’ biochar, requesting the biochar as an input for their own activities, and providing access to biomass from Longan (a subtropical evergreen tree) as a raw material to create the biochar. OPCs also recently started producing wood vinegar as a byproduct of biochar production, for use as an insecticide.

"I have worked with farmers to produce biochar to use as a soil enhancer, mixed with compost. These soil enhancers have been used by 26 club members and their families to grow vegetables for home consumption. This project has been expanded and integrated with the organic farming network in the municipality and in Chiang Mai province," says Boonrat Mihittri, a 67-year-old Advisor to the Tha Wang Tan OPC, Sarapee, Chiang Mai.

Members of OPCs are also collaborating with local agriculture extension services, by showcasing their work and motivating farmers to avoid burning agricultural waste in the open. Importantly, their work translated into local policy: biochar production by the OPCs is now formally included in the agricultural plan of the Provincial Agricultural Extension Office in Chiang Mai. In locally led adaptation, local government plays a central role in reinforcing and scaling adaptation along with civil society to ensure accountability and the flow of information.

A dedicated ten-member resource team of OPC members has emerged. This resource team is training more farmers in biochar production, especially young farmers. The OPCs created a laboratory for training and practicing biochar making. So far, 100 farmers have been trained and more are showing interest. Members of the group are exhibiting their biochar and its by-products in local exhibition spaces. They are also beginning to establish relationships with private sector firms to sell the biochar at a better price.

"I have decided to make quality biochar and wood vinegar to generate income and usage of biochar for safety and environmentally friendly home-based farming, making clean water for farming, and to make the air cleaner," says Nuttapong Punthakul, a 70-year-old Deputy Chairperson of Tha Wang Tarn OPC, Chiang Mai.

Biochar production activities have succeeded in putting older people, many living with disabilities and marginalized from decision making, at the center of a productive and sustainable agricultural development and circular economy process.

Biochar production led by older people means improved health, both mental and physical, building community resilience and helping to prevent ageism. The project resulted in giving agency to older people – they are now managing, making decisions, and implementing biochar interventions.

How Challenges are Addressed

Mobilizing older people is important, not only for older people themselves but also to challenge the widely held opinion that they are a burden, rather than contributors, to society. Empowering older people requires dedication and regular follow-up to sustain motivation. When organized into groups or clubs, older people can be a powerful force for planning and implementing climate actions built on local wisdom and innovation and to enhance their mental and physical health. When engaged, organized, and empowered, they are powerful forces for change.

HelpAge and its local partner, FOPDEV, have learned that organizing older people in groups is key to enabling them to support each other and to fi nd common activities with which to engage. Seed funding, along with awareness of new climate solutions, can go a long way to inculcate new ways of doing things and be an inspiration to young community members. Leading from the front and convincing others is a skill that the older community brings to the table.

Young people around the world have taken a leading role in calling for action to address the climate emergency. In contrast to the agency of young people, older people are often viewed as vulnerable to extreme weather events and high temperatures caused by climatic changes. Collective action by older people challenges this narrative, as the key principle of OPCs is that almost 70% of the clubs’ members are older and 30% are younger. This intergenerational collaboration brings the agency of older and younger people together for a whole-of-society approach, ensuring that no one is left behind