Eco-Heroes [EcoCupid on a Bike | EP 1]

Cham intellectual makes charcoal traditionally to grow a sustainable garden


by huy

Inra Jaka, a Vietnamese Cham shares his traditional coal making knowledge that fertilises the land for sustainable agriculture.

After half a month of working as a mural painter for a homestay in Mũi Né, Bình Thuận, my cycling journey led me to Phan Rang, Ninh Thuận – the city of wind and Sun. I was extremely fortunate to have a close friend in Ninh Thuận who let me stay at her house while I’m exploring the surrounding area for interesting environmental projects. She also introduced me to Mr Inra Jaka, a Cham artist and intellectual, who later would not only show me his amazing sustainable agricultural process but also change my perspective on learning and culture.

(Feature Photo: huy)

The Cham people are an ethnic group from Southeast Asia, primarily found in Vietnam and Cambodia. They have a distinct culture, language, and religion, among the most ancient cultures in South East Asia. It is no surprise that the Cham have profound knowledge and insight into the multitude of aspects of human life including agriculture.

Mr Jaka is a respected Cham intellectual who fights to preserve his ancient culture in modern times. (Mr Jaka)

At first, my plan was just to interview him about his work on preserving and promoting the various forms of art of Vietnam’s ethnic groups, especially Cham. But having heard his profound insight into art and culture, I decided that I must stay to learn more about him and the culture of Cham. I then asked his permission to let me visit his house and help him around with his work while he shares his knowledge.

The tree house, which is still under construction, where the interview of Mr Jaka happened. (huy)

Mr Jaka is a calm and collected man, he always speaks slowly when it comes to serious matters as if he is cradling the words. He has very analytical and logical insight into the Cham culture, and balances well between scientific approach and art-ly intuition. He likes to have good questions coming for him, so I never hesitated to ask him about the Cham culture.

Mr Jaka in Cham traditional clothes (Mr Jaka)

My learning at his house started the next morning. The first thing we did was make a pit for traditional charcoal making. At first, I was purely into the cultural aspect of this practice but then after careful explanation from Mr Jaka, I was taken aback by his insight about using this practice as a part of his sustainable agriculture.

Mr Jaka, as an artist himself, took charcoal making as a form of art. He took great care in every step, from placing the branches in the pit the right way, to observing and solving unpredicted scenarios that may arise during burning, to waiting for the correct colour of the fire before removing the charcoal out of the pit. The result of his efforts is charcoal so beautiful that it retains the original shape of the tree without getting smashed into bits, and as Mr Jaka proudly said “some of the best charcoal even has the sound of metal when dropping”.

Mr Jaka may not be the first to practise traditional charcoal making, but he is the very first among his people to recognise its potential for sustainable agriculture through his understanding of science. The key to his approach is the concept of “biochar”. Biochar is a type of charcoal produced from organic materials, such as wood chips, crop residues, or animal manure, that have been heated in a low-oxygen environment (a process called pyrolysis). The resulting material is a stable form of carbon that can be used as a soil amendment to improve soil health and fertility.

Biochar has several benefits as a soil amendment. It can increase soil water-holding capacity, improve nutrient retention, and enhance soil structure. Additionally, biochar can help to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change. The charcoal making process also significantly speeds up biomass decomposition in the soil.

The process of making biochar. Source: ScienceDirect

Ninh Thuận province in Vietnam has a tropical savanna climate with a long dry season, which presents challenges for agriculture. The region’s arid soil makes it difficult to grow some crops, and the shortage of freshwater and high temperatures require costly irrigation systems.

So basically, by making charcoal the traditional way, Mr Jaka has gained soil fertilised enough to grow fruits, trees and plants that have never before been possible to plant there without the need for any artificial fertiliser.

EcoCupid believes such important knowledge about sustainable agriculture and climate change mitigation should be shared with a wider audience. That’s why EcoCupid will come back to Ninh Thuận to film Mr Jaka’s traditional charcoal-making process.

Stay tuned with huy for more environmental projects with EcoCupid On A Bike!

(Edited by Bryan Yong)

This article was produced with support from YSEALI SEEDS for the Future grant 2023.

Our featured Eco-hero

Inra Jaka is a Cham scholar who advocates for preserving his people’s nature-loving culture. Based in Ninh Thuận province, Vietnam, Inra Jaka focuses on making charcoal traditionally and using the resulting biochar as fertiliser for this garden. You can reach out to them at


huy, from Vietnam, is Ecocupid’s web developer. He is currently riding his bicycle all around Southeast Asia doing crazy stuff, learning about various cultures and discovering emerging environmental projects for EcoCupid’s platform.

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