Around the University TownThe Starting BlokeJatropha island, jatropha country

Jatropha island, jatropha country


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The title here is from an email sent to me by a colleague of the Friends of the Environment of Negros Oriental (FENOr), which counts among its members the eminent former DENR Secretary and CHED Chairman Dr. Angel Alcala, officials and members of academe, and several prominent residents of Negros Oriental:“In the Negros Chronicle (June 6) is a half page article by Herminio Teves on jatropha as the plant that would uplift our country from poverty and ecological degradation. I have set some of my thoughts here. I believe we, the FENOr, should write and publish a counter article because jatropha plantations are also a burden to ecology. Mr. Teves’ article only shows in glowing terms what this plant can do, meaning, it can be made into oil, and oil is what the world wants. What about planting food? The Tamlang Valley was meant for food production! Food production in the organic way is what our people need. The organic way is the ecological way. And we need to be planting trees, not clearing forest lands, not even killing other trees for jatropha that will feed cars and machinery.”

Not knowing much about jatropha myself, but addicted to the National Geographic advice to “Live Curious”, I rushed to my laptop and in the Google search box, typed: the good and bad about jatropha.

Jatropha, a bushy shrub that grows in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia is touted as a ‘miracle’ biofuel because its seeds contain a potentially-valuable, non- edible vegetable oil that can be used for biodiesel.

The controversy surrounding jatroha is fueled on the experiences of countries like India, in Africa and in Southeast Asia, the question being: “Is jatropha really a miracle plant that will solve world-wide hunger and poverty?”

The arguments around jatropha fall into several distinct categories. First, the land-use debate: can it actually be grown on marginal land? Should valuable land be used for food, or fuel? And how should land be partitioned, both nationally and at village level?

Second, the water and forests on that land: how does one calculate their actual economic, social, cultural, ecological and projected value, and to whom? Locals or investors?

About 95 percent of the articles I read in the Internet are against the mass production of jatropha because the claims of its proponents have not proved to be true.

From the Manila Bulletin (Jan 29/10) titled Jatropha too good to be true: To its fans, jatropha is a miracle crop, an eco-friendly answer to India’s growing energy needs, but some experts are starting to question whether the wonder-shrub is too good to be true. The seeds of the wild plant, which grows abundantly across India, produce non-edible oil that can be blended with diesel to make the biofuel that is part of government efforts to cut carbon emissions and combat climate change. That, combined with the shrub’s much-vaunted ability to flourish on poorly-irrigated land should make it the perfect crop for wasteland in the drought-prone nation. But new research shows jatropha, which has received huge government backing in recent years, yields less than experts had first predicted, and is now being grown on fertile farmland -— undermining two of its best selling points.

“Jatropha is being talked of as a crop that will grow on marginal an uncultivated land, and which will not compete with mainstream cultivation,’ said Sharachchandra Lele, a senior fellow at ATree, an Indian environmental research group promoting sustainable development. “But this is not what is happening in practice. Some state governments are promoting its cultivation on regular agricultural land where it will displace existing crops including food crops,” said Lele. “We are basically subsidizing the urban elite’s petrol consumption at the cost of rural livelihoods and food production.”

Andrew Wasley of Ecologist (March 30/1010) writes: “UK fund managers are selling investments in jatropha plantations as a wallet-swelling, planet-saving financial bonanza. But the reality for poor farmers is very different… A number of UK-based investment companies are marketing a controversial biofuel crop as an ‘ethical investment’ despite it being linked to conflicts over land, food security, and growing hunger in developing countries.”

The investment companies are selling jatropha as the new ‘green oil’ and claim it has the potential to alleviate poverty and improve livelihoods in developing countries.

One of the plants’ biggest benefits, the companies claim, is that it thrives on low-grade marginal land, and in semi-arid areas with poor soils, thus, not competing with food production.

But according to campaigners, the supposed benefits of jatropha are largely unproven, and the experiences of many farmers encouraged to plant the crop do not tally with the claims of the biofuel industry or its investors.

Yields have fallen short of predictions, say farmers, and good agricultural land has been given over to jatropha, threatening food security. Promised incomes have also failed to materialise, it is claimed, because of poor demand for jatropha seeds.

The Ecologist’s findings come as a new report by ActionAid links the expansion of industrial biofuels, derived from crops including jatropha, palm oil, soya and sugar cane, to rising food prices and increasing global hunger.

Meredith Alexander, head of trade and corporates at ActionAid, told the Ecologist: “ActionAid deals with the harsh realities of a billion people going hungry now, and the threat that climate change will make matters even worse. Like snake oil salesmen of old, propagandists for jatropha oil have a list of miraculous claims a mile long, but no matter what they say, jatropha is not a solution to climate change, and actually makes hunger worse.’”

Friends of the Earth’s Kenneth Richter, said: ‘The positive spin about jatropha made by investment companies doesn’t marry up with the experiences of farmers growing the crop. This so-called biofuel wonder crop is failing farmers, and failing the environment. Companies should stop investing in jatropha until they have properly assessed its social and environmental impact.’

In an article titled Jatropha biofuels: the true cost to Tanzania, Jo Anderson, a Tanzanian environmental consultant, wrote: “There’s a lot of theory about jatropha. Despite acres of scientific research, there’s no evidence of it working on a large scale at all. It’s driven by the industrialized countries’ and donors’ need to find potential fuel to mitigate against environmental problems: it’s sold as a plant that grows anywhere: on degraded land, as a hedgerow…Any poor farmer can just put it in, and get rich. But jatropha doesn’t grow on the commercial industrial scale needed to run biodiesel plants: the transaction costs of large scale don’t add up. On a small scale, say 500 villages, you could produce the oil for this village to cook on, but not enough to run it at the size the investors need.’”

From Kenya: “A key question is whether jatropha really is as hardy and durable as its supporters claim. Geoffrey Howard of the International Union of Conservation of Nature says, ‘Because jatropha is used locally on graves by East Africans, we assume it’s indigenous. It’s not. Jatopha is essentially an invasive species. It is thirsty, needs irrigation, and in no studies has it met the expectations of projected yields, either in terms of fruit or oil produced.”

From Zaheerabad, India, Andhra Pradesh (IPS/IFEJ) wrote: “Our experimentation with jatropha shows us that it is unsuitable for Indian small farmers due to its need for watering, manuring, and its long gestation period,” says Srinivas Ghatty of Tree Oils. Raju Sona, another farmer said: ‘No one will buy jatropha. People said if you have a plantation then surely, you have a good market, but we didn’t see such good market. When I got the message that there was no market, I got discouraged. I felt very bad. I expected profit. I threw [the seeds] away. They were no use to me. I destroyed the plants because of lack of market. The thing is that we have land, but if I use it for jatropha and I don’t get good production after spending money, it will be a great loss for me.

But that area too is hazy, and not just in India. The spacing, height, and pruning needed for commercialized jatropha bushes do not give sufficient density or biomass for effective sequestration.

In Senegal and Swaziland, evidence suggests the plant will only survive with irrigation systems, contradicting industry claims that jatropha grows well with limited water usage.

In (India’s) Rajasthan’s Udaipur district, farmers became hostile to jatropha after seeing their cattle die from eating the toxic leaves of the plant. ’’We were encouraged to grow jatropha by agents who sold us saplings at Rs 10 (US 5 cents) each and extolled the virtues of jatropha,’’ Sukh Ram, a farmer, told IPS. ‘’We were told that jatropha, being unpalatable to cattle, the saplings would stay safe. But no one told us what would happen to the cattle. In the end, we not only lost what we paid for the saplings but also possible earnings from three hectares of land, three years in a row. We are not prepared to take such risks again.’’

A reader of the Economist reacted: “I have worked in an area in West Africa where two trial plots of 20 hectares each were planted with jatropha, as the land was not considered suitable for the crop they wished to grow. After one year, they had harvested approximateliy one wheelbarrow full from 40 hectares, and had learnt that the crop needed a lot of water, and did not do well on poor land. In general, it is nonsense to suggest the crop would not detract from food growing as it is bound to use the same allocation of land. It would also be used as yet another monocrop which is quite quickly killing off our Worlds biodiversity. All monocropping is destructive creating ‘living’ deserts.

A FENOr member emailed: “From the point of view of someone who desires to have sustainable agriculture for our continued survival on this planet, I would say that indeed, large scale production of jatropha, especially in mountainous areas which should be best for centennial trees of varied species, is hazardous to the environment. We should need deep-rooted trees to be planted in the mountains to let water seep into the soil and form part of dwindling water deposits. In organic farming, we discourage the use of oil-based fertilizer because of its bad effects on the fertility of soil. It follows then that oil- producing jatropha planted in large scale is not beneficial to soil enrichment because of the heavy oil content. We certainly can live without oil but we cannot live without food.”

And for the children, this article by Sujeet Kumar titled Jatropha harmful for kids, soil, and aquatic life. “According to author Panaj Oudhia, a Raipur-based agricultural scientist, jatropha plant can harm the soil and aquatic life, cause skin cancer, and even affect the brain of children if accidentally consumed. Researchers found in 1987 that jatropha oil contains tumor-promoting substances. People across the world know that jatropha oil is harmful for the skin. This is the reason why it is also known as ‘Hell oil’,” said Oudhia.

According to Oudhia, the plant has negative effects on the soil, flora and fauna as well. “Jatropha is a poisonous weed and is harmful for soil, especially in the case of monoculture. Research has shown that jatropha has harmful effects on Indian crops. Jatropha monoculture is considered a future natural disaster by environmentalists.”

The scientist said that planting jatropha near water sources is also hazardous for indigenous fish species. And yet, as one author puts it, “jatropha cannot be thrown out along with the bathwater in India.” Some say it will work. It was shown that organic manuring, average watering, and interspersing jatropha with nitrogen-fixing crops produce the best results for both jatropha and the soils. And in many cases, it is government policy and people who are to blame, rather than jatropha itself. Jatropha proponents claim that if well-managed, jatropha and other biofuel crops can work.

Viren Lobo, director for the Society for Promotion of Wastelands, a government-funded organisation based in New Delhi, says jatropha plantations need to incorporate “questions of livelihood, food, fodder, energy, and biodiversity security.’’

My take on this issue? It’s an important subject that should be studied, discussed, debated on, and resolved. Anybody from University Town who is willing to start the ball rolling?

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