The Legend of Jatropha

eup_spl.jpgNo, Jatropha is not an illustrious King, nor is it a war hero. Jatropha, is a weed. It grows on almost barren land and requires very little water and hardly any fertilizers. For many years, Jatropha was a pain for the farmers, an unwanted wild plant that would grow alongside their precious crops. Its awful smell and taste repel grazing animals, but alas, little jatropha’s secret was finally out. Its seeds could be crushed to produce biodiesel!

In the seeds of that wild plant, lay the answer to a momentous question of a periled generation of humans. This is the magic of renewable sources of energy.

Originally grown in Central America, the Jatropha plant is believed to have reached foreign shores across the world courtesy Portuguese explorers. Its potential to meet fuel needs, especially in developing countries is very high. It is advantages are many. The very nature of the plant is such, that it can be produced on infertile land, as a result of which, fertile land as an important and limited resource needn’t be compromised on. While other bio-diesel alternatives like palm oil, corn and sugarcane require productive land, additional irrigational facilities and expensive fertilizers, thus impinging on fertile agricultural land, jatropha can grow on waste land. It can survive on minimum irrigation while nutrient-rich seed cakes, left after the seeds are crushed, serve as a fertilizer. It can even grow alongside food crops without hampering their growth; in fact it can serve as a repellant to keep the animals away due to its smell.

A country’s foremost worry is its food security, especially with regard to the third world. Since this plant does not encroach on agricultural land, food crops do not suffer indicating a better utilization of land resource. Environmentalists hail this new discovery since the plant prevents soil erosion and does not even demand felling of forestlands, at the same time provides an effective solution to fuel crisis hovering over our heads. Underemployment and poverty, the two major problems faced by developing nations find an answer in the seeds of the jatropha plant. Like tea, jatropha too is labour intensive. Its production, distribution and various other stages of cultivation, require the setting up of estates, at least if it is to be made commercially viable. If a bottom-up effort is worked at, it can tackle the problem of poverty by making it an agricultural practice by the farmers. In Mali, Africa, one of the poorest nations on earth, a number of small-scale projects aimed at solving local problems — the lack of electricity and rural poverty — are blossoming across the country through use of the existing supply of jatropha to fuel specially modified generators in villages far off the electrical grid. Thus, this tiny seed can empower a tiny village in some remote part of India to produce their own electricity or even run their tractors. The blessed plant can even be grown in the harsh terrain of Rajasthan.

With a little clairvoyance, we all can predict that in the near future, ‘fuel’ will be the buzzword. With a limited supply of fossil fuel, it is essential that nations are ‘independent’ in their energy production. In the long run, by producing large yields of jatropha, countries could cut down on their fuel imports, and maybe gradually start exporting bio-fuel.

Most experiments with the use and growth of this plant have proven to be successful. A company based in Singapore has announced plans to plant two million hectares, about 4.9 million acres of jatropha in the Philippines. In September this year, a vehicle fuelled with oil from the jatropha plant traveled from Atambua in West Timor to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, a 3200 km trip. Jakarta plans to make at least five million hectares (12 million acres) of former forestland available for palm oil, jatropha, sugarcane and cassava plantations in a bid to create jobs for up to three million people. The government hopes that biofuels will look after almost 10 per cent of Indonesia’s transport and electricity fuel needs by 2010.

However, it seems that the jatropha carcus has no takers in India. The big shot corporations display a lack of foresightedness by ignoring the demands and need for effective investment in renewable and environment friendly sources of energy like the jetropha. It would not be incorrect to say that most, hold huge stakes, rather have their hands dipped in ‘oil’ at the moment.

Even if jatropha proves a success in Mali, it is still not without risks. If farmers decide that the cultivation of these plants is more rewarding and viable than food crops, it could have an adverse impact on the country’s food production. In light of such undesirable effects of biofuel, the UN report states that, “the benefits to farmers are not assured, and may come with increased costs.”

One thing is for sure, in a world where the control over limited energy source might be the raison d’être for the third world war, the jetropha seed, could well be hailed as a messiah of peace.

Natasha Puri