It began innocently enough, like any other workshop—a large university auditorium; speakers from the United Nations, foreign business consortia, and local government; and an obscure member of the Thai royal family ringing an auspicious gong.
However, the hundreds of delegates seated in the auditorium were not savvy investors or scientists but raw-boned, palm-blistered Thai rice farmers, paid and plied with a lavish two-day luncheon and meditation sessions to hear that, if they chose to grow Jatropha, they could see profits within 12 months.
They were even offered free bean-sized seeds to start their own plantations and “grow a golden egg that could be passed from father to son to grandson.” However, unlike the fabled Jack who traded his mother’s cow for a handful of magic beans, these impoverished Thai farmers would be giving up a lot more than they bargained.
Much has been written about Jatropha, the so-called miracle plant that the New York Times recently called the darling of the second-generation biofuels and Goldman Sachs, the world’s largest investment bank, has identified as a promising source of biofuel in the future.
This explains why farmers in China, India, Indonesia, and Africa are being swept up in the rush to grow the Jatropha curcas in what can only be compared to the mass hysteria to grow tulips in the Netherlands in the late 17th century—before the speculative bubble burst.
A lot is still unknown about Jatropha, however.
A poisonous weed, it can grow almost anywhere in many climates, is known to repel insects and animals, and lives for up to 50 years. Cuttings take root quickly and easily. Some say it is a future natural disaster waiting to happen, especially if hybrid strains of the Jatropha species outgrow plantations and propagate wildly across farmlands, contaminating soil and displacing native species—and eventually people.
This may sound like pure fantasy—even something out of The Day of the Triffids—especially since others claim Jatropha is a miracle crop that will relieve poverty and suffering throughout the Third World by allowing the poor to cash in on a low-maintenance crop that grows anywhere.
It is widely acknowledged that Jatropha can grow in wastelands, sand, and rocky and saline soil; however, there is no evidence that it can produce seeds in these conditions, especially in the longer term. In fact, there have not yet been any published substantive studies into the long-term benefits or effects of farming Jatropha.
With corporations currently sizing up Jatropha as a socially acceptable biofuel alternative to fossil fuels, what we do hear is the hype of a potentially billion-dollar industry—that is, billions of dollars of savings and profit for corporations and governments.
Air New Zealand, in collaboration with Rolls Royce and Boeing, has announced that by next year it will launch a test flight of a 747 powered by Jatropha biofuel.
Phoenix-based Honeywell Aerospace is collaborating with Airbus, JetBlue Airways, and others to create a Jatropha-based biofuel to reduce costs and increase profitability. The technology was developed from research conducted by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to fuel military aircraft.
The military regime of Burma has ordered poor subsistence farmers to stop growing rice, once a major export crop, and to plant Jatropha as biofuel for domestic consumption and export.
In India, the widespread popularity of Jatropha farming has taken on such epidemic proportions that many are comparing the phenomenon to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where townsfolk are subverted by alien imposters grown from plant-like pods.
However, not everyone is blinded by the hyperbole and hysteria. Yahoo internet groups have formed to fight the growing craze and expose the dangers of Jatropha. One such group based in India posted an article from the Hindustan Times reporting that 50 children were hospitalized after eating the popular Jatropha seeds from a plantation near a school.
In Australia, where Jatropha is regarded as an invasive weed, cultivation has been banned in two states because it is harmful to livestock, other plants, and people. Reportedly, the ingestion of as few as four small seeds can be fatal.
The virulent characteristics that make the plant such a survivor also make it a noxious weed that can threaten local ecosystems, natural habitats, and established farming communities. Jatropha contains the seeds of its own destruction.
In the Philippines, farmers have begun abandoning their Jatropha plantations after discovering poor yields and a nonexistent market for seeds.
In East Africa, where Jatropha is being farmed on new biofuel plantations, there is growing concern that it may spread outside of the project areas and invade adjacent farmland, with a devastating impact on the local food chain and natural biodiversity.
In Thailand, the farmers at the workshop were encouraged to plant great swathes of Jatropha without being told that there are no trucks, storage facilities, or refineries to process the seeds into oil. This, at a time when the Saudis, short of rice, sent a special business delegation to Thailand to persuade the Thai government to support a Saudi-Thai joint venture that would see the Saudis renting Thai farmland to grow rice for the sole purpose of exporting the crop back to the Middle East.
More importantly, these farmers, who have toiled on their own land for generations growing rice, would lose something more precious than a few biofuel dollars if they replace traditional food crops with Jatropha plants.
With up to 70 percent of all Thais living and working in rural areas outside of Bangkok, rice farming is part of the traditional Thai lifestyle, history, and social system.
Thai language, art, and music reflect the importance and lyrical beauty of bristling, fertile paddies during the wet season. Each year the rice harvest is celebrated by a national festival during which family members all return home, many to Thailand’s rural areas.
With rising global food prices—caused, some say, by the unfettered farming of food crops to produce biofuels—Thai farmers growing rice will always be able to feed themselves. Biofuel profits would only be spent on a new Toyota truck or Honda motorbike, enriching those corporations and impoverishing the Thai farmers who have to run them at today’s fuel prices.
And of course there are the risks with farming Jatropha on a large commercial scale with little research on the potential problems it may create for people, livestock, other plants, and the environment.
With many of the world’s poorest nations teetering on collapse because of rising food prices and civil unrest, many more farmers will be beguiled—and subverted—by biofuel’s blue-sky promise before the speculative greening of the gold rush ends.
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