I write this from the once-lush rice fields of Northwest Cambodia. The region has just completed its rice harvest for the year, so the vistas are slightly beige with thick smoke in the air. The smoke comes from two main sources: preparing charcoal through burning timber, and burning of the harvested rice paddy.
Despite the tropical heat, both practices send shivers down my spine—primarily at the thought of burning out topsoil and chopping down trees at such an alarming rate to make charcoal. However, such harmful practices are quite common across Cambodia, because it doesn’t require labor or financial input for clearing the fields. Plus, it is quick! Most farmers also believe these practices are improving soil fertility. But while adding biochar can be a great addition to the soil for fertility as well as regulating pH and water retention qualities, burning off topsoil is never recommended.