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July 05, 2010

Debate on costs, benefits of jatropha cultivation rages on in Kenya

by Ben Ochieng.

It all started in 2000, when the Kenyan government started preaching the word about a plant called jatropha curcas.

The government told farmers that jatropha seeds can be pressed to make biofuel. All you needed to do was stick it on the ground and watch it grow. A little tending, they were told, was all one needed later.

After years of ignoring it as a weed, many farmers turned over acres of their small farms to jatropha, convinced they could reap large profits from the plant.

Joshua Kahindi, Chairman of Forestry Association in Dakatcha Woodland, in the rolling hills northwest of Malindi town of Kenya’ s Coast Province is one of the farmers who experimented with the new crop. He planted jatropha in 2006.

But he is now one of the farmers who are against the proposal to set apart 50,000 hectares of trust land for jatropha cultivation in Bangale area in Malindi.

The proponent of the undertaking – Nouve Iniziative Industrial Sri and the Malindi County Council, has initiated the process of setting aside the land. Initially the Italian company was to lease the land from the council.

"I planted the crop on one acre of my farm and it performed dismally. All the plants dried up and lost their seeds and leaves. The people who did the promotion for jatropha had not done their research," Kahindi says.

Paul Matiku, the Executive Director of Nature Kenya said that the economics of oil production from jatropha are not well understood both nationally and globally and that the crop is said to have caused poverty in many parts of the world.

"We have learnt that while the crop could produce oil, it can become invasive and its residues are very poisonous to humans, livestock and wildlife. Besides that, if the crop fails it cannot be used for anything else."

Matiku says that it has not been proved that the plant will produce sufficient seeds on the fragile sandy soils of Dakatcha Woodland, adding that the local communities have objected to the establishment of large-scale plantations of jatropha in the woodland.

"The crop actually requires more water per litre of bio-fuel produced than most other bio-fuel plants. They even claimed that one plant can yield 4-6kgs of oil per year yet recent studies by Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) have shown it can only give away 0.6 kg," he claims.

Matiku says the environmental cost of destroying 50,000 hectares is not worth the income to be generated from the plant and one has to question how false expectations reduce poverty.

The East African Wild Life Society Deputy Director Michael Gachanja introduces a new angle to the controversy arguing it is land and not jatropha that is driving the Italians to Dakatcha Woodlands.

"The motivation is to get the land and once the first crop fails, they can continue to use the land for other purposes for as long as the lease stipulates," alleges Gachanja.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report for this project states that no part of the cultivation area under jatropha shall include or be in close proximity to Dakatcha Woodlands.

However, even before the EIA process is completed, the proponent has moved to the ground and started cutting woodlands," Gachanja asserts. "Replacement of the woodlands with a crop that does not have the capacity to store large quantities of carbon will lead to the release of large amounts of carbon."

David Newman, who runs the Nairobi-based biofuels consultancy Endelevu Energy, says there have been isolated examples of success growing jatropha.

"Occasionally a tree has survived in a marginal area and produces quite a bit of seed with no agricultural inputs whatsoever. But there’s a difference between that one tree and replicating it thousands of times in the field," he says.

Kenya has joined a long list of countries planning to produce diesel fuel from the poisonous-but-oil-rich seeds of the plant indigenous to South America. The tree is at the heart of a five-year strategy to develop a bio-fuel industry in Kenya, which is expected to reduce the country’s dependence on imported fossil fuels without threatening food security.

The jatropha plant can grow more than three meters high and produce golf ball-sized fruit.

However, Isaac Kalua, Chairman, Green Africa Foundation, a government-licensed and farmer-driven environmental conservation organisation that provides technical support for the project, dismisses all the concerns as ‘politics.’

"What we are doing is in line with the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which aims at eradicating hunger and combating poverty.

Jatropha Curcas production system will increase soil fertility by use of press cake as fertilizer and eradicate extreme poverty and hunger while providing jobs and thereby lessening the need for rural – urban migration for employment opportunities," says Kalua.

"With the cost of energy escalating beyond the reach of many poor Kenyans, we are going to redouble our efforts to ensure that attractive, clean fuel can be manufactured right on peoples’ homesteads."

Coast Week

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