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February 14, 2011

Norwegian biofuel project in Ghana has potential, but may also cultivate trouble

by Reynard Loki

Three years ago, Patrick Barta in the Wall Street Journal called the jatropha "an ugly wild green shrub" and a "lowly forest plant." But he wasn't reporting on its lack of beauty or prestige within the world of botany. He was reporting on its potential as a future biodiesel star.

"This plant will save humanity, I tell you," said horticulturist for India's Ministry of Railways O.P. Singh, according to the article. Someday, "every house will have jatropha!"

The lowly jatropha -- a genus of some 175 succulent plants, shrubs and trees -- has been the focus of a Norwegian cultivation project on a massive tract of land in Ghana

"The ambitious plan is to eventually produce 20,000 barrels of oil per day, which would make [Scanfuel] Norway's second-largest oil producer, behind Statoil. Other international companies have permits to grow jatropha at a number of sites around Africa."

"Unlike other biodiesel crops, jatropha can be grown almost anywhere -- including deserts, trash dumps, and rock piles," says Barta. "It doesn't need much water or fertilizer, and it isn't edible. That means environmentalists and policy makers don't have to worry about whether jatropha diverts resources away from crops that could be used to feed people."

"In Ghana, where increasing amounts of jatropha are grown to produce biofuel for the European market, the foreign investors' lack of familiarity with local customs and systems of land rights have stoked tensions with the indigenous population," writes Rudolf ten Hoedt of the European Energy Review. "Some Western producers have fallen into the trap of making deals with irresponsible chiefs. Others try to do things right, but are taken advantage of by corrupt authorities or NGOs...Investors in agricultural land in Ghana are increasingly coming under fire. They're accused of exploitation and of driving local farmers out and are viewed by some as a risk to food security."

The name jatropha comes from the Greek words iatros (meaning "physician") and trophe(meaning "nutrition"). That makes sense, considering that this humble plant could one day help heal the Earth's environment from the damage caused by centuries of anthropogenic carbon emissions -- while feeding mankind's energy needs.

Scanfuel should consider the jatropha's "physician" roots and follow the Hippocratic oath's primary rule: "First, do no harm."

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