Global Processing

Biofuel plant ruined Kenyan farmers

October 6, 2009

It all started in 2000, when the government started preaching the word about a plant called jatropha curcas. For villagers in Kibwezi, a village in southeastern Kenya parched by four years of drought, this announcement came as a surprise, because they already knew of Jatropha-but thought of it only as a weed, according to Time. The government told the farmers, however, that jatropha seeds can be pressed to make biofuel and that scientists believed the plant''s seeds contained more oil than other biofuel crops. Even better, the government said, jatropha needed little tending. All you had to do was stick it in the ground and watch it grow. Best of all for Kibwezi, a place that''s frequently stricken by drought, scientists believed that the plant thrived on arid land. Convinced they could reap large profits from the plant in the global craze for alternative energy sources, hundreds of farmers turned over acres of their small farms to jatropha. But it didn''t take them long to realize what scientists have come to realize in recent months: what was once touted as a miracle plant that needed almost no water has turned out to be anything but that. A study published in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a Washington-based scientific journal, found that jatropha actually requires more water per liter of biofuel produced than most other biofuel plants. That''s bad news in Kenya, a country in the middle of a full-blown food crisis due to the lengthy drought. The problem with jatropha, scientists say, is that there is no proven, widely disseminated method for growing it properly. In the absence of reliable information, the farmers in Kenya were fed mistruths about the plant and its biofuel potential by nongovernmental organizations and the government, which got much of their information from the Internet. The farmers said they were persuaded to buy so-called "certified" jatropha seeds, which were said to grow in tough conditions. They were also told they would be given advice on how to plant their fields and that once the plants began to produce seeds, agricultural officials would buy them at prices upwards of 1,000 shillings ($13) per kilogram. Farmers were also told that demand would increase steadily for the oil produced by the seeds.