Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The jatropha bandwagon

In the past few months there has been a surge of interest in the growing of the physic nut Jatropha curcas for the oil content of its seeds. The plant grows in the tropics on soils too poor for most other crops and the oil can be used as diesal for car engines. This is going to meet rural energy needs in poor countries, help prevent soil erosion, create income for women, etc.

All this sounds familiar. In the 1980s somebody calculated that Africa and other tropical regions were going to suffer a fuelwood crisis. Women were having to walk longer and longer distances to gather fuelwood for cooking meals. Eventually, people would have to spend more time gathering wood than cooking food. Forests would disappear, soil would be eroded, etc. Huge amounts of international development aid money were spent on fuelwood research.

Earlier, in the 1960s, another person had calculated that there was going to be an acute world paper shortage by 2000, putting a brake on the growth of literacy, so large amounts of international development aid money went into the establishment of pine forests all over the tropics.

The pinewood and fuelwood bandwagons each ground to a halt after 10 years and the predicted crises never developed. What makes Jatropha different is that it is not international aid agencies this time, but business corporations that are investing in a crop. The research will presumably be more genuine, but I am sceptical. Too many people doing the same things under top-down direction and repeating the same mantras!

I am all for research on biofuels, but the research should be more diversified, not concentrated on Jatropha curcas alone. This species is only one of many possibilities.

1 comment:

tricia said...

As a Malaysian living in this land of flora and fauna in abundance..obvious proof of a very fertile land...will it not be a waste of good fertile soil to harp on Jatropha? Is it justified to cultivate Jatropha to a volume where it will actually create a sustainable supply of biofuel as compared to Palm Oil, Nipah, Sugarcane, Corn and etc? These alternative plants are 'multipurpose' as well..
Just a thought...