April 4, 2008
“Jatropha: miracle plant for biodiesel”, said a recent Cash Daily headline. The free daily is by no means alone in hailing the shrub as the new energy source and saviour of the climate, since “biodiesel” from wheat, soybeans, corn and sugarcane have become suspect owing to its negative environmental and social ramifications. Unlike other fuel-yielding plants, Jatropha entails no competition between gas tank and plate, the optimists claim. For the plant grows in very poor soils and hardly needs water. Growing this plant would bring «barren wasteland» into cultivation and create jobs, as the oil fruits must be harvested by hand. Diesel from Jatropha oil will soon be powering cars in Switzerland as well. The Bad Zurzach company Green Bio plans to launch production next year at the rate of 130 million litres of diesel per annum. Two-thirds of this will be from Jatropha imported from Mozambique.
Big business for multinationals
Agrofuel crops are big business, and Jatropha cultivation too looks set to take up its place. Automakers are forming alliances with multinational agricultural, oil and genetic engineering groups to promote the business. The US Archer Daniels Midland agricultural corporation has agreed on a research cooperation project with Germany’s Bayer CropScience and automaker Daimler to launch Jatropha diesel production in a big way. In their press release they cited studies showing some of 30 million hectares of land to be potentially available worldwide for this cultivation, especially in South America, Africa and in the Asian countries of China, India and Indonesia.
Britain’s energy multinational BP too has big plans. It has launched a joint venture with another British company D1 Oils, which specialises in Jatropha diesel, to secure the expertise needed for commercial success. There are D1 plantations in Indonesia, Cambodia, China, India, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and the African countries of Ghana, South Africa, Zambia and Swaziland. BP aims to be the world’s largest producer of Jatropha diesel by 2011. This will mean planting some one million hectares of land over the next four years – or the equivalent of one-quarter the size of Switzerland! Another 300,000 hectares should follow every year thereafter. Investors too are in the starting blocks. Liechtenstein’s Mother Earth Investments has announced the creation of an appropriate fund. The business press recommends that those who cannot wait till then can get in on the Jatropha boom by purchasing shares in D1 Oils.
Resistance in India
Many governments are receptive to corporate plans to bring huge tracts of land under Jatropha cultivation. Their aim is not to provide their own people with renewable energy, but rather to tap new sources of foreign exchange by means of industrial export plantations. Hence the Indian Government for instance is planning to transform 11 million hectares of so-called «wasteland» into Jatropha plantations by 2012.
These plans are meeting with resistance within the population. Vandana Shiva’s NGO Navdanya, which advocates the conservation of the biodiversity and the rights of poor subsistence farmers, has launched an extensive campaign against the mass cultivation of Jatropha. Late last year it published a study on the experiences of three federal states where D1 Oils is active along with other firms. The study shows that the state-aided Jatropha boom is having serious consequences for the rural population and their habitat. It also refutes the constantly repeated claim that Jatropha will be grown only on so-called «marginal» or «barren» land and will not compete with food. In many cases it is precisely on such «wasteland» that poor indigenous rural dwellers – and not only in India – grow their staple food crops, as they have no better land.
The Navdanya study tells of farmers who have come under massive pressure from multinationals to give up their land for Jatropha cultivation. This even involves violations of documented land rights. Jatropha is often being planted on land previously used to grow traditional crops like rice, and thus poses a threat to food security and the biodiversity. Areas that have traditionally been used for cattle grazing by poor rural families are also being gobbled up in this insatiable quest for land and energy. The study also points to cases of bio-piracy, in which D-1 Oils has illegally appropriated for itself valuable seeds of rare Jatropha varieties. Hence Vandana Shiva’s demand that the Jatropha should neither be patented nor genetically modified.
The new scramble for AfricaIn Africa too, multinationals are acquiring millions of hectares of land to promote the large-scale cultivation of Jatropha and other biofuels. Africa seems to have been chosen to satisfy the industrial and emerging countries’ ever-growing thirst for gasoline and fuel. Fifteen countries are already being called «Green OPEC». Their governments have laid the political and commercial groundwork for large-scale biofuel production.
Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras has concluded agreements with several African countries for the importation of ethanol. Mali has signed an agreement with a French investor under which the Sahel region should become Africa’s leading biofuels producer in the next ten years. Senegal has set up a ministry for agrofuels and renewable energy sources. To attract foreign investment, the Government of Tanzania is making land available in the most fertile areas for growing export crops. Britian’s Sun Biofuels is keen to plant 18,000 hectares of Jatropha in the Lindi region. Small farmers who used to cultivate cassava, rice and maize there must move away. In rain-starved Ethiopia, the Government has declared large agricultural areas as suitable for Jatropha cultivation, including the areas with the highest rainfall.
Irrigation for higher yields
Even the claim that Jatropha does not compete for scarce water resources fails a reality check. To achieve an optimum yield, for example, D1 Oils prefers good, artificially irrigated soils for its plantations. Indian studies have shown that irrigation can increase the yield fivefold. Is it any surprise that big corporations are flaunting their power in order to profit from this?
Categories: Carbon Credit Watch