Biochar currently attracts technological and market optimism, promising multiple wins – for climate change, food security, bioenergy and health – not least for African farmers. This paper examines the political-economic and discursive processes constructing biochar as a novel green commodity, creating new alliances amongst scientists, businesses, venture capital firms and non-governmental organisations.
Carbon market logics are not only threatening large-scale land grabs for biochar feedstocks but also other forms of resource, labour and ecological appropriation through driving research and development and shaping small-scale pilot projects. In these, soil carbon is ‘chopped out’ of its ecosystem and social contexts and revalued as exchangeable pieces of carbon nature. Farmers are hailed as green actors and market winners, provided they discipline their practices according to these new technical and market logics. These discourses contrast strongly with the farmers’ existing conceptual and practical repertoires; a case study from Liberia illustrates how farmers already manipulate soil carbon in creating locally valued anthropogenic dark earths, but within diverse farming repertoires, ontologies of human–nature interrelationship and historical and political ecologies.