A social-ecological system evaluation to implement sustainably a biochar system in South India

  • Stefanie Müller
  • Norman Backhaus
  • Prakash Nagabovanalli
  • Samuel AbivenEmail author
Research Article


Biochar has been proposed as a technology to mitigate climate change as well as improving soil fertility, energy production, and organic waste treatment. However, the implementation of such techniques in existing cropping systems requires knowledge about potential adaptation barriers. These adaptation barriers are only partly dependent on expected benefits but are deeply embedded in the place-specific settings and livelihood practices of agricultural communities. An integration of adaptation barriers in the development of biochar system designs has the potential not only to facilitate farmer’s decision but also to enhance community resilience and reduce their vulnerability. We propose a holistic methodology that considers communities as social-ecological systems. We applied this approach to agricultural communities in two villages with different cropping systems in South India. First, we modeled the social-ecological system of each village, based on qualitative interviews with local farmers, using cognitive mapping. Second, we tested the implementation scenarios of two types of biochar system designs (small-/large-scale) and a worst-case failure scenario, which were developed by triangulating theoretical information from literature review with information from qualitative interviews and focus groups. Third, we analyzed the outcome on the resilience and vulnerability of the social-ecological systems to define the place-specific adaptation barriers. We were able to successfully capture for the first time the adaptation barriers of two communities concerning a biochar system implementation. We could show that sustainable biochar system designs not only differ depending on site but also demonstrate particularly the relevance of procedural processes independent of site, such as maintenance of autonomy, provision of participation in planning, or promotion of farmers’ cooperatives with regional industries. We are certain that this approach could be used for the setting up of future biochar systems or novel technology in general not only in tropical regions but elsewhere.


Biochar Agricultural practices Implementation Social-ecological systems Cognitive maps 



Foremost, we thank all the local interviewees proving us with valuable information. Further, we thank the staff of the Department of Soil Science and Agricultural Chemistry, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, India for their hospitality and their efforts in enabling local contacts and Rajani Mandhyam Chennu for her excellent translation work.

Funding information

The InnoPool Fund of the Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Switzerland provided financial support.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© INRA and Springer-Verlag France SAS, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Swiss Federal Research Institute WSLBirmensdorfSwitzerland
  3. 3.Department of Soil Science and Agricultural ChemistryUniversity of Agricultural SciencesBangaloreIndia

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