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January 27, 2009

Swazi environmentalists question cost versus benefits of jatropha

By Fanyana Mabuza

The capture on camera of the Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Swaziland Environmental Authority SEA, Irma Allen, has ruffled a few environmental feathers and has spurred the question from many, of whether government or the SEA rather, was in full support of the growing of Jatropha in the country.

This hardy tree, whose seeds are said to possess bio-fuel qualities, has pitted environmentalist groups and D1 Oils, a company which is intent on planting these trees to later harvest the seeds to manufacture bio-fuels in the country. A number of players in the country’s environmental field had begun to wonder whether Allen’s planting of the Jatropha tree was the SEA’s endorsement of the Jatropha project.

The bone of contention here is that if the country goes full steam into Jatropha cultivation and production, it shall eat away on the land for food production, thus worsening the food crisis in the country. Jatropha detractors also contend that the true potential of the tree producing bio-fuels had not been proved as yet, while the D1 Oils Company had begun planting Jatropha pilot fields in the country.

Allen, when called for comment, stated that her planting of the tree during a D1 Oils end of year party last year was by no means SEA’s endorsement of the Jatropha project. She mentioned that she was invited as guest to that function, and she took the opportunity with both hands so she could familiarise herself more about the project. “As chair of the SEA board, I have a responsibility to familiarise myself with such issues, and there is no better way than going out there and hearing it from the horse’s mouth, so as to make informed decisions. They have a small ceremonial garden where they ask their guests and visitors to plant a tree, and when I was asked to do that, I understood the spirit and agreed. But it must be stressed that my planting of the tree was by no means an endorsement by SEA of the Jatropha project in the country,” she said.

Allen continued that as an organisation, SEA was concerned about sustainable development and had a duty to monitor companies and ensure that they abide by the rules and regulations formulated by the country in a bid to attain that kind of development.“We cannot block development but can only ensure that it occurs in the right way, and not be detrimental to the environment.”

She said as far as SEA was concerned, they were still waiting for a project assessment report from D1 Oils, and it was from that report that they can make a final decision over the issue. She observed that indeed the issue was very controversial in that the plants would compete with land for food, but added that the areas targeted by D1 Oils were not utilised, hence the project would not compete with land for food.balance“Again, we should also strive to maintain a good balance between crops for food and crops for cash. For example, we have other alien plants like pine and cotton which are not food crops but cash. “The balance has been working well so far, and if Jatropha is researched well and cultivated in a responsible manner, there can be no way it would compete with the land for food.”

Allen insisted that her planting of that tree at D1Oils was not in anyway a SEA endorsement and it was done in her personal capacity, though she may have been invited on her capacity as Chair of the SEA board, adding that if the picture may have caused some confusion and consternation, she was sorry about it.

Swazi Observer

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