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Jittery journey of jatropha

 Jatropha farming and Nepal

Tej Narayan Yadav, a teacher and researcher preaches the benefits of jatropha to the villagers and anyone he meets on the way. He is dedicated to introduce biofuels in Nepal. “Almost three litres of biofuel can be extracted from 10 Kgs of jatropha seeds,” he says. “The by-product can be used as fertilizer or insecticide.”

There is much hullabaloo going around in biofuel sector these days and Nepal is not new to the catching trend. Thanks to the jatropha researchers – petty farmers are gearing up for jatropha cultivation albeit in scattered small plots of land. The local names of jatropha vary with the geography, namely baghandi, sajiwan and ratanjot.

Till date, the biofuel extracted from jatropha has been used in low speed engines like pump-sets and tractors in Nepal. The transesterification of the thick jatropha oil is a costly process and due to the viscosity the fuel is considered not suitable for use in high speed engines. During the transesterification its natural glycerine is replaced by methanol.

The purified fuel has been shown to operate in modern diesel engines without drawbacks and is nearly CO2 neutral, since burning it releases only the CO2 that the jatropha plants had originally extracted from the atmosphere. “It also produces half the hydrocarbon emissions and one-third of the particulate emissions of a typical diesel fuel,” says engineer Suraj Rai, a renewable energy researcher.

Threat of monoculture and deforestation

Jatropha grows in all climates including arid, semi-arid, and tropical. “Jatropha grows well in wastelands and requires very little water,” says Tej Narayan Shah, an engineer turned importer of machineries and equipment.

Its ability to grow in all conditions has given it another name, ‘saruwa’, meaning ‘able to grow and take roots’. The word has spread among the community forest users and they are willing to plant jatropha saplings and branches (the cuttings take roots easily) in the community forests.

The community forests which are the living examples of community conserving forests and reaping benefits have been the alternative source of income for the users. Now if the users start planting jatropha everywhere in these forests, the chances of creating a monoculture are high.

In Malaysia, palm oil and rubber plantations have replaced the forests. This might happen in Nepal too if the greedy businessmen set their eyes in the forests. It will wipe out the existing biodiversity in name of jatropha cultivation and biofuel production.

Even the farmers will be lured to cultivate the better paying and much easily grown jatropha which is not eaten by even cattle and goats. And can you imagine huge landscapes bearing just jatropha? The obnoxious smell will waft around instead of sweet aroma of rice and wheat. All insects and birds that form the ecosystem will face a jolt with the seismic shift in cultivation. By the time the scientists come up with biofuels extracted from grass, straw or wood, the damage will have been done.     

The controversy and the future

Around the globe biofuels have created a stir. The prices of maize and wheat have increased at an alarming rate as they are being used to extract ethanol, the alcohol used for motor fuel. The cars are guzzling away the food that we eat, making us more vulnerable to hunger. The richer are able to purchase the ethanol but the poor are facing the high rise in their prices.

Jatropha cultivation has provided a solution to this war for food between cars and people. Seeing the overall benefits of jatropha, the two major emerging economies India and China have resorted to jatropha cultivation to meet the demands of the hungry economies. By 2010, China plans to plant an area the size of England, or 13 million hectares, with trees from which biofuel can be extracted as a source of clean energy, jatropha being considered as the main ingredient in the production of biodiesel. DaimlerChrysler has joined with experts from Germany and India in a five-year project to explore whether the jatropha plant is suitable for cultivation and if its oils could be used as a resource for biodiesel production.

“As a child, I used to pluck the baghandi leafstalk and blow bubbles out of it,” says Chandra Kishore Kalyan, a social activist. “Now I preach the benefits of baghandi and biofuel.”

The newly planted branch cuttings of jatropha have taken roots in Siyaram Nursery at Thimi and the proud owner says, “Promoting biofuel will be my main concern in the coming days.” He says he is ready to shift to biofuel production from his business of machinery imports.

As he wakes up early in the morning, Tej Narayan Yadav is quite happy to see his jatropha saplings growing every day. He goes round the nursery inspecting each plant with eagerness. At his office in Gopal Charity Trust, he has displayed a line of mineral water bottles filled with yellow liquid and black cakes packed in plastic packets. He proudly explains the varying colour of jatropha oil in the bottles – the refined ones are paler than the ones directly milled in the local mills. The glycerine in small bottles and the black cakes are the by-products. The black cakes can be used as a fertilizer or insecticide. Tej Narayan is optimistic in his mission and he is ready to support any newcomer who wants to cultivate jatropha.

            

Kalyan advises the farmers to plant jatropha in the wastelands and the field ridges.

The jittery journey of jatropha has just begun…  

3 thoughts on “Jittery journey of jatropha

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