Diversifying Agriculture for Better Lives

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27 September 2012
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Jatropha on less fertile land in Zimbabwe (Source: Mubonderi, 2012)

For many years Jatropha curcas has been hailed as a wonder plant. We were told that this shrubby tree, native to Central America but now distributed across the tropics, is a near-miraculous source of biofuel that can be extracted from its seeds. Essentially an undomesticated plant, jatropha occurs on arid, infertile land, and –as the story went- cultivating it would provide the world with large supplies of biofuel from wastelands and avoid displacing food crops.

A global survey of jatropha projects in 2008 revealed the total cultivation area at the time to be around 1 million hectares, much of it in Asia and Africa. Aggregating the projections for jatropha expansion of the 242 projects, the study predicted further exponential growth of global plantings reaching 22 million hectares in 2014.

Meanwhile, it seems that the jatropha planting frenzy, which had started in earnest in the mid-2000s, has fizzled out in a rather dramatic fashion. Large and small jatropha biofuel investment projects have been abandoned, such as those of BP, D1 Oils, Elaion, to name just a few. In recent years, a number of reports and publications have appeared that paint a consistently bleak picture of the status of jatropha development.

A new study from Zimbabwe (July 2012) illustrates the general problems with jatropha. The crop survives indeed in dry and infertile locations but is no exception to the inescapable fact that a plant’s productivity is conditioned by the provision of inputs such as water and nutrients. So it is no surprise –except to agriculturally illiterate industry and government planners- that jatropha consistently fails to provide economically feasible yields on marginal land. Jatropha doesn’t die on such land and that has been misinterpreted as meaning that the plant is productive under adverse conditions. Even when grown on fertile land, jatropha yields remain below expectations and a 2009 paper in PNAS showed that jatropha is the least water-use efficient of 13 bioenergy crops.

The Zimbabwe study describes how the delusional promotion of jatropha and the eventual failure of the national jatropha programme has left behind many disappointed smallholders who dedicated much effort to establish several thousand hectares of unprofitable plantings. In other countries, jatropha projects have brought heartbreaking suffering to the poor smallholders to whom production risks have been “outsourced” or that were removed form their land to make place for large-scale plantations. There are reports about broken purchase promises, land grabs and the displacement of rural people in Tanzania and other African countries, about farmers coerced to plant jatropha in Myanmar, etc.

A study from Tamil Nadu, India, on the agronomic and economic viability and livelihood impacts of jatropha concludes “that Jatropha yields are much lower than expected and its cultivation is currently unviable, and even its potential viability is strongly determined by water access. On the whole, the crop impoverishes farmers, particularly the poorer and socially backward farmers. Jatropha cultivation therefore not only fails to alleviate poverty, but its aggressive and misguided promotion will generate conflict between the state and the farmers, between different socio-economic classes and even within households. The water demands of the crop can potentially exacerbate the conflicts and competition over water access in Tamil Nadu villages.”

It remains a mystery to us, how in the light of so much negative experience a 2010 FAO/IFAD consultation report acknowledges the “importance of […] jatropha biofuel development for poverty reduction” meekly recommending “the need to consider potential risks to food security, the environment and livelihoods of the rural poor”. We would prefer to see more advocacy of the ten reasons why jatropha is neither profitable nor sustainable, for jatropha evangelists are still out there to preach their misleading gospel such as in this recent news piece from Borneo.

Is it possible that small-scale jatropha production can contribute to making rural areas self sufficient in fuels for cooking, lighting and perhaps local power generation? Artisanal soap making from jatropha oil has been reported from Mali and Zimbabwe, but we find the evidence for the long-term viability of such operations unconvincing. Still, if you know about jatropha success stories that go beyond its traditional and wide-spread use in hedges (animals will not eat the toxic jatropha leaves), and that have been sustained beyond the life of subsidized development projects, we would love to hear about them and we would be delighted to feature them on this blog. It can’t all be bad news about Jatropha….

One Response so far.

  1. Six years ago many people made a mistake by running with the crowd that proclaimed Jatropha is THE solution to poverty and the fuel crisis. Today the crowd has turned around and proclaims that Jatropha is a universal failure. Again many people make a mistake by following the crowd. The negative stories get repeated and amplified so massively that there is no room for critical reflection.

    With the current knowledge about the optimal agro-climatic conditions for Jatropha we can see that most of it has been planted in areas where it will never perform well. We also know that at many locations it can not compete with alternative crops as long as it is only used as an alternative fuel. There are however regions where Jatropha is an attractive option that can contribute to local development without negative effects. Most of them are in African countries with abundant land, low wages and expensive fossil fuel. This is not just theoretical: After most of the over optimistic/unrealistic projects have fallen by the way side a smaller group of professional organisations and companies are moving ahead. Some of them are already profitable even though the Jatropha has not reached full production, and several are expanding. They are mostly outgrowers schemes and cooperatives. That farmers are willing to plant more Jatropha shows that they find it attractive.

    Rapid progress is being made in breeding/selection, agronomics and processing so the area where Jatropha is an attractive option is likely to grow. Value added products are increasingly made from the press cake. We are also seeing the first cases of certified carbon financing and more will follow soon.

    No crop can provide a universal solution to poverty and Jatropha is no exception. However, under the right circumstances it can be an attractive option.

    The question is therefore not whether Jatropha works but where it works.

    Flemming Nielsen from Banana hill

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