Date of release: Thursday, July 14, 2016

Making charcoal and teaching woodland skills Indian farmers have received a double boost thanks to scientists from the University of Greenwich.

On their recent trip to Kachchh district in Western India, the Greenwich team found new uses for a 'problematic' plant.

The small shrub or tree Prosopis juliflora, seen as an invasive plant, has got out of control and is seen as damaging the environment and economy.

Dr Debbie Bartlett, Programme Leader of the university's Master's degree in Environmental Conservation, says: "This plant was perceived to be a major problem in many countries, and we were asked to get involved in developing a strategy to control it. We suggested an alternative approach, based on ecosystem service assessment, and found that the locals actually found the plant very useful in many ways.

"To improve soil fertility, we made a kiln from metal drums. Working with Ravibaug Model Farm, we used two drums, one inside the other. We filled the inner one with Prosopis wood and lit material in the space between the two to heat the contents to produce charcoal. Small pieces of this – biochar – make a great soil conditioner, as it can increase water holding capacity and has been reported to ameliorate salinity."

The 12-day trip saw Dr Bartlett joined by Dr Sarah Milliken, a Greenwich research assistant, and her former Master's student, Ben Bower, who now works for Kent Woodland Employment Scheme.

The second use for the plant was in creating a 'living fence', where stems are partially cut through and bent down to create a strong barrier, while still growing. This is Ben's area of expertise and he was able to train the locals in woodland skills.

"There's no point in training people how to use a chainsaw if they won't have access to one, so Ben was invaluable," adds Debbie. "He was able to demonstrate using tools we brought in the local market. The reaction to the fence was really good, with one farmer pointing out that, as the fence grows thicker, it will keep wild boar from his crops."

The trip was an extension to the original project, which has been running for the last three years and has provided nine MSc students with vital experience working in India.

For more on studying environmental conservation, within the university's Faculty of Engineering & Science: http://www.gre.ac.uk/engsci/study/pharchemenv

For more on Kent Woodland Employment Scheme: http://www.kwes.org.uk

Story by Public Relations

Picture: Ben Bower from Kent Woodland Employment Scheme.