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June 13, 2010

Benefits of jatropha cultivation increasingly questioned in Kenya

by Gatonye Gathura

Large-scale farming of the biodiesel jatropha tree should be stopped since it creates a food shortage.

It will harm the environment and is of little commercial value, according to a Kenyan research institution. This comes as the country gears up for what could be the biggest jatropha biodiesel project in the region.

An Italian company, Nouve Iniziative Industriali sri, is clearing 55,000 hectares leased from the Malindi County Council for jatropha plantations. The biodiesel would be for local use as well as for export to Italy. It also promises to contribute electricity to the national grid and generate gas for domestic use.

But now the first scientific audit of the ‘miracle tree’ by the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) and the World Agroforestry Centre and sponsored by the German government, says the crop is not economically viable when grown as a monoculture or in plantations.

In the Jatropha Reality Check February 2010 study, the researchers want the government to stop any promotion of the tree as a plantation crop.

“We believe doing otherwise would be extremely irresponsible and could exacerbate existing food insecurity throughout the country,” says the study.

The study hints that thousands of poor farmers in arid parts of the country may have been duped into buying the “miracle” seeds and seedlings at inflated prices.

Now the study wants the government through the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute to re-evaluate its current biofuels policy of promoting jatropha.

“We also urge all public and private sector actors to cease promoting the crop among small-scale farmers for any plantation apart from as a hedge,” says the study, which is yet to be made public.

Having surveyed all jatropha farming in all parts of the country, the study concludes that the tree does not do well, as previously promoted, in arid areas as it requires huge amounts of water and nutrients in form of fertilisers.

But even before the Reality Check recommendations, the investing company had taken off on the wrong foot, when it started clearing the land without obtaining the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment licence from the government.

This is now under way, following the direct intervention of the Ministry of the Environment and Mineral Resources, and the first public hearing was held recently at the project site in Magarini District. The hearing pitted the investors and Malindi councillors on the one hand, government agencies and civic groups on the other, and the poor of Magarini, desperate for any type of employment, in the middle.

According to the Italians’ representative, Mr Ivan Del Prete, the company will turn near wasteland into a productive entity yielding biodiesel for export and local use, while creating about 1,500 jobs within five years.

The company has leased the 55,000 hectares of the trust land for 33 years at the rate of about Sh200 per hectare per year.

Justifying the project, Mr Ivan Del Prete says they are confident that one hectare has the potential to host up to 2,500 trees and produce up to six tonnes of seeds after three years of planting.“The six tonnes can produce two tonnes of oil and almost 4 tonnes of pressing residues which will be used in biogas production for a bio fertilizer.”

The coordinator said the company plans to plant the crop from seeds which he says gives it a longer life of 50 years compared to 35 years when generated from cuttings. “We are sure the tree will do well here because it does not require much water and has little other competing commercial interests.”

“This is an enormous grant of land and must only be made on the basis of a rigorous evaluation proposal which we feel has been lacking,” Malindi district forest officer Bernard Orinda told the hearing chaired by Magarini and Malindi district commissioners.

A memorandum presented to Nema, at the hearing, by Mr Orinda and signed by Kefri, KWS, National Museums of Kenya and other agencies, said the matter had not come before several relevant district level committees which they were members of. “This is a serious omission and hints at lack of transparency in the process.”

The meeting almost turned chaotic, with civic leaders branding those calling for a cautionary approach as being opposed to development and as enemies of the local people.

Nature Kenya, which has a strong presence in the area and had blown the whistle when the company started operations before carrying out an environmental impact assessment came under strong criticism from the politicians.

Nature Kenya argues that the project will have a serious impact on a section called Dakatcha Woodland, which is listed globally as an Important Bird Area (IBA).

The Magarini project is based on previously held assumptions that jatropha is the best source of biofuel among the various plant-based fuel resources spread across the globe.

A significant study on jatropha in Kenya was carried out by the African Centre for Technological Studies, Feasibility Study of Jatropha Curcas as a Biofuel Feedstock in Kenya—2008

The study, from which the Magarini project borrows significantly from, says in part: “Although it can grow on marginal land, there is little knowledge yet about the level of water and nutrients it will need to generate commercially-viable yields. The Magarini investors in their proposal indicated that they may require both to irrigate and fertilise the crop.

It proposes to dig 130 boreholes for the purpose, but has yet to carry out a study to assess what kind of impact this could have on the water table in the area.

According to Mr Simon Nzuki, who carried out the environmental study, the company may be required to do a hydrological assessment to determine viability.

The assessors recommend that since the project will be based in a highly fragile environment, with many unknowns including the viability of jatropha, as the principal crop, they may consider starting on only about 1,000 hectares on trial basis.

More evidence gathered from an ongoing large-scale jatropha project in Kiambere in Mbeere District of Eastern Province has indicated the crop does not produce viable quantities of oil in arid areas unless irrigated and provided with fertilisers.

The 150-acre plantation has been established by the Kefri, World Agroforestry Centre, the University of Ghent in Belgium and a private company, Better Globe Forestry Ltd.

Jan Vandenabeele, the executive director, Better Globe Forestry Ltd., says shrub needs a weekly dose of up to five litres of water in the dry season of the first year.

“During dry seasons, even when watered, jatropha is prone to stress and sensitive to attack by a large number of pests and diseases,” Vandenabeele said in an interview.

The Nation

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