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May 18, 2011

Expert faults commercial jatropha investments

by Finnigan Wa Simbeye

Jatropha should not replace any crops in arable farms and instead should be cultivated by smallholder farmers as hedges for farms, an expert has warned.

Pamoja Inc Co-Director Jonathan Otto said in Dar es Salaam recently that jatropha as a source of energy for communities is receiving bad media publicity because of large scale commercial investors who are driving farmers off arable land to cultivate the biofuel plant.

Pamoja Inc which is an initiative by the United States Department of Agriculture to help smallholder farmers said a recent ActionAid Kenya report that denounced large scale commercial investments in jatropha is very true because such initiatives are a bad idea for Africa.

"The conclusions of the report you cited, and what we have long stated, is that Jatropha plantations are a bad idea for so many reasons.

This has been true and known for years, and really does not require one more studyto prove it, although we must struggle to prevent land grabs and the conversion of forest land to Jatropha or any plantation crop," Mr Otto noted.

Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives Minister, Professor Jumanne Maghembe supported the idea that large scale commercial jatropha plantations are not viable projects and allayed fears posed by biofuels to food security.

"All over the world, it is evident that you cannot make money from jatropha.., it's not a profitable business," Prof Maghembe argued. He denounced large scale commercial investments in jatropha cultivation going on in the countryside and warned that such project are likely to fail.

Maghembe said his ministry will ensure that no prime land or food crop is used for biofuel production because both local and international markets for food are offering better incentives.

"Food prices are skyrocketing and will continue doing so for the foreseeable future, our goal is to boost production and supply such markets," he pointed out.

Supporting the idea of denouncing Jatropha plantations as controversial investments, Otto argued that Europe has a stake in encouraging such practices because of the bloc's Energy Directive of 2008 which requires that 10 per cent of transport energy come from renewable sources.

The European Commission has however distanced itself from such criticism pointing out that a renewable energy source is not necessarily jatropha because its directive simply singles out renewable energy sources and not jatropha.

Mr Otto, however noted that there has been general confusion by critics of jatropha cultivation as a renewable energy source because they consider the biofuel as a crop.

"When people call Jatropha a crop, you can be sure they are going in the wrong direction. A crop is grown in fields. Jatropha is best grown in hedges around fields, as noted earlier, in a way that protests field crops rather than replacing them," he argued.

The Pamoja Inc co-Director expressed optimism that one day, large scale commercial jatropha plantations will go so in such a way that the bad media attention associated with such investments which are accused of land grabbing disappear as well.

"In a country where over 90 per cent of all fuel consumed is for domestic energy, the priority need is not for biodiesel but for safe, renewable cooking fuel.

Yet I calculate that if three million small farmers grew Jatropha as noted above, Tanzania would be self-sufficient in biodiesel as well -- with no large plantations required. It is not a choice of food versus fuel.

We need both food and fuel to survive and thrive," he argued. In a report titled, 'Renewable Wonder Fuel Could Cause Six Times More Carbon Emissions Than Fossil Fuels,' ActionAid, Nature Kenya and RSPB said jatropha investors evict communities from their land to grow the biofuel.

The report which is a result of a study analysis on whether biofuels made from jatropha grown at a proposed plantation in the Dakatcha Woodlands in Kenya would save emissions when compared to fossil fuels, pointed out that the argument is futile.

"Taking into account the emissions produced throughout the production and consumption process, the study found that jatropha would emit between 2.5 and 6 times more greenhouse gases, depending on how the land was used before the jatropha was planted," the report said.

It stated that Dakatcha is home to over 20,000 people and is the ancestral land of the indigenous minority Watha and Giriama tribes who face eviction for a jatropha plantation which will not only evict them from their land, but also destroy their livelihoods and sacred burial sites.

But Otto argued that such pollution is only limited to large scale investors who cut down natural forest plantations to replace them with jatropha plantations.

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