Terra Preta sanitation: re-discovered from an ancient Amazonian civilisation

Ecosan researchers have found inspiration in the Pre-Columbian black soil (Terra Preta) of the Amazon Basin for “the re-creation of the most successful sanitation system ever”. They will share their enthusiasm in the 1st Workshop on Terra Preta Sanitation with up to 60 participants from 27-30 September 2010 in Groß Ippener (near Bremen), Germany.

The recent discovery of the bio-waste and excreta treatment of a former civilisation in the Amazon reveals the possibility of a highly efficient and simple sanitation system. With the end product that was black soil they converted 10% of former infertile soil of the region into excellent land: Terra Preta do Indio (black soil of the Indians). These soils are still very fertile 500 years after this civilisation has disappeared. Deriving from these concepts, Terra Petra Sanitation (TPS) is in re-development [from the Workshop brochure].

Terra preta soils made by sanitation (adapted from Guenther 2007)

The 3-day Workshop is organised by the Institute of Wastewater Management and Water Protection, of the Hamburg University of Technology (TUHH). Besides presentations, discussions and hands-on-work, the organisers promise that there “will be sufficient time for walking, jogging, music (bring your instruments!) or meditation”.

Resource persons are Prof. Dr. Ralf Otterpohl (TUHH), Dr. Jürgen Reckin (10 years of experience with Terra Preta and one of the wold’s best experts in garden plant varieties), Christopher Buzie (years of research in ecological sanitation and vermicomposting, networker in West Africa, TUHH), Torsten Bettendorf and Horacio Factura (Terra Preta Sanitation researchers at TUHH).

Prof Otterpohl and his colleagues have recently published an article on TPS:

Factura, H. … [et al.] , Bettendorf, T., Buzie, C, Pieplow H, Reckin J, Otterpohl R. (2010). Terra Preta sanitation : re-discovered from an ancient Amazonian civilisation : integrating sanitation, bio-waste management and agriculture. Water science and technology ; vol. 61, no. 10 ; p. 2673-2679. doi:10.2166/wst.2010.201

TPS includes urine diversion, addition of a charcoal mixture and is based on lactic-acid-fermentation with subsequent vermicomposting. No water, ventilation or external energy is required. Natural formation processes are employed to transform excreta into lasting fertile soil that can be utilised in urban agriculture. The authors studied the lacto-fermentation of faecal matter with a minimum of 4 weeks followed by vermicomposting. The results showed that lactic-acid fermentation with addition of a charcoal mixture is a suitable option for dry toilets as the container can be closed after usage. Hardly any odour occured even after periods of several weeks. Lactic-acid fermentation alone without addition of bulking agents such as paper and sliced-cut wood to raise the C/N ratio is creating a substrate that is not accepted by worms. [from the abstract]

See also a Powerpoint presentation by Prof. Otterpohl on Terra Petra Sanitation.

Download the Workshop brochure

8 responses to “Terra Preta sanitation: re-discovered from an ancient Amazonian civilisation

  1. This is the result of confusing science with business. It seems to be a PR campaign with a strong interest to market some products. TPS is based on speculation only and I doubt that this group has a lot of experience on Terra Preta. The main conclusion that it is possible to increase soil fertility by adding human excrements to the soil is certainly right. However the hypothesis that Terra Preta was created by a complex Terra Preta Sanitation System (with lactic-acid fermentation and vermicomposting) is pure speculation, highly unlikely and more advertising than science. A business man does also not need to prove his hypothesis and this makes a big distinction between science and business. Which worm species was used by the native population? Terra Preta may be a product of all human activities including the deposition of excrements, dead bodies, fire management, waste deposition, etc. Today we are very efficient in turning these products into problem sites called landfills or load rivers with excess nutrients. Therefore, it is a good idea to cycle precious nutrients and store carbon in soils. However it is rogue to use Terra Preta for marketing purposes in particular if it is based on pure speculation. There is no need to do so because we are able to do better with our modern technology. We can learn, improve and apply. To invent something and claim: “This is how Terra Preta was created” is rogue.

    • Dear Alfan,

      With 20 years of intense work on all sorts of sanitation (mainly Ecological Sanitation) with teams of up to 30 people from around the world I can say that I have some experience. Finding exact explanations for what was done in the Amazon is highly interesting and indeed not well established. However, the phantastic end product of highly fertile soils gave us mainly two highly functional hints: we can collect and store excreta easily with lactic acid fermenters. That can be done by ererybody e.g. with sauerkraut leacheate. There are microbe mixtures both commercial (EM = Efficient Microorganismes) and free. The other trick is adding some charcoal and that works very well and there are a lot of scientifically sound reasons for this. With 10 years of work in vermicomposting of feacal matter at my institute there is no doubt that this is a highly efficient and it is well documented scietifically as well as applied in many places in ecological sanitaiton. The sanitation problem is now solved for the pathways that work out. It would be more appropriate if you would attac the chemical agro business that is destroying the base of our future, and that is good soil. If I would be interested in business I would not work with shit and the business model is one for those who are kept poor by parasitic business. Our model is social entrepreneurship and teh knowledge we generate is public domain. Yes, there are some people offering products and services liked to this. Do you want to attac them for selling composting toilets. It would have been nice if you could inform yourself about the issue before you made me sad and angy…. Anyway, thanks for your contribution to the discussion and I will get over it. Are you paid by agro-industry? : )) I also want to add that there are commercial groups that misuse Terra Preta to make money from CO2 certificates by simply puttion charcoal ito soil. We promote proper composting of organic waste with some charcoal addition.

  2. Bjorn Brandberg

    Terra Preta sanitation
    This is very interesting. The question is how much pooh we will be able to collect and how. Having a biochar kiln at household level, I am afraid, is not economic, and I am afraid we will lose a lot of carbon dioxide digesting in the pit latrines if we want to use the latrine sludge.
    Municipal garbage I think is more close at hand for biochar production and we can mix it with latrine sludge for the sake of killing the pathogens. With an industrial kiln we could use the hot fumes from the garbage to sterilize the sludge and may be mix is with compost soil, or simply throw it in the kiln with the garbage.
    To increase the biomass we could also include the garden waste. Here in Maputo (Mozambique) we have lots of acacia trees in the streets that are producing a lot of biomass not to mention the garbage that is littering our city. And it would be a blessing to convert the municipal garbage dumpsite that no longer is outside the city, and continuously is burning producing a nasty smoke, to a biochar plant producing household gas and biofuel not to mention all the biochar.
    What about all the the nitrogen?
    I would love to see a pilot project on this in Maputo.

    Bjorn Brandberg

  3. You must read this
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