United We Stand: for Environmental Protection, Sustainability, Preventive Health Care and Alleviation of Poverty
Jatropha Biofuel Project
Current State of Affairs Near Our Project Site in Rural South India.
A significant number of small farmers in the villages of Hunsur Taluk in Mysore, India make a living by growing tobacco that they export. To most subsistence farmers, this is the only crop that brings in some money. The raw tobacco leaves are processed in barns using firewood, which is scarce. As a result, the villagers are forced to cut down trees to fuel the curing of tobacco. The destruction of forest is harming regional biodiversity. For example, the agents who supply firewood for villagers are infringing on the boundaries of the Nagarahole (Rajiv Gandhi) National Park, a local wild animal sanctuary. Consequently, human-animal conflicts have started to become much more common. The Indian government is trying to wean the farmers away from growing tobacco by offering compensation packages. However, this solution is not sufficient if no alternative commercial crops are available.
Why did we Choose Jatropha?
Jatropha curcas is a small, perennial shrub that grows three to five meters in height. It was originally native to Central America, and grows well in the tropics. It has many uses, ranging from agricultural to pharmaceutical. The plant produces fruit containing seeds that are 35-37% inedible vegetable oil by mass; this oil can be used to create biofuel and cosmetics.
In his book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas L. Friedman gives four criterion that potential biofuel must meet: they must 1) have a large positive energy input, 2) not destroy biodiversity-rich land, 3) not release large amounts of carbon dioxide when grown, and 4) not solve one problem only to create another. Jatropha can meet all of these criterion and then some. The plant is a non-invasive and non-edible species that is fairly long-lived, drought resistant, and capable of surviving in a variety of soils, including nutrient-poor ones. In addition, Jatropha does not require substantial fertilizer for optimal growth, lowering the carbon input needed. Due to its resilient nature, Jatropha does not displace existing food crops or necessitate the destruction of biodiversity-rich land for space to grow: it can be grown via intercropping or on plots of land that are nutrient deficient to sustain other crops. Jatropha’s relatively high yield of seeds and oil also mean that small farmers are still able to reap benefits without having to invest in intensive large-scale cultivation. The byproducts of biofuel production from Jatropha seeds include glycerin, which is profitable in itself, and waste plant mass that can be used as a fertilizer. All in all, Jatropha’s qualities uniquely position it as a potentially viable commercial biofuel.
Plan and Execution
Project Jatropha initially had two collaborators: Parivarthana and Labland Biotechs. Parivarthana is a non-governmental organization (NGO) which is involved in rural poverty alleviation, environmental protection, and sustainable rural development. It is located at Hunsur Taluk, Mysore District, Karnataka State. Labland Biotechs is a plant biotechnology company located in Mysore. It has a biotechnology lab and a modern greenhouse for mass multiplication of Jatropha curcas. This was a cooperative mission between these collaborators. We were the facilitators, the catalysts, who brought the different groups together. The beneficiaries were farmers and women’s self-help groups (SHGs).
The project’s main goal was to enable the small farmers to grow Jatropha on an economically viable scale. The plan was to supply high quality Jatropha seedlings purchased from Labland Biotechs to the farmers through Parivarthana. The Labland Biotech staff would train the farmer leaders in Jatropha agronomics. The farmers would grow Jatropha as either a hedge crop or an intercrop. We would buy the Jatropha seeds from the farmers at a better rate than the market price and sell them to Labland Biotechs. Then, we would produce Jatropha biofuel at Labland Biotechs and distribute it back to the farmers for them to use it in their irrigation pumps and farm equipments in place of diesel. We hoped that after a few successful cycles of Jatropha cultivation and biofuel production, farmers would be more open to shifting from tobacco to Jatropha.
Phase I (2007-2008)
The actual project planning began in summer of 2007. We established a collaboration by convincing Parivarthana and Labland Biotechs to be integral parts of our Jatropha Biofuel Project. Under the leadership of Mr. Rajegowda, the secretary of Parivarthana, we visited several villages near Hunsur to meet with individual farmers and women’s’ self-help groups. We explained our mission in several town hall meetings, and convinced five self-help group leaders to participate in the Phase I of Jatropha Biofuel Project. We purchased 1000 high quality Jatropha seedlings from Labland Biotechs at a discounted price of 6 rupees ($0.12) per seedling and distributed them to the five leaders, who cultivated the seedlings as either hedge crops or via intercropping. Next, we organized the field workers of Parivarthana and farmer leaders to be trained in agronomic practices of Jatropha cultivation at Labland Biotechs.
In the summer of 2008, we organized a tour of Labland Biotechs facility for farmers and self-help group members from three different villages: Kirijagi, Thipalapura, and Katte Malavadi Koppalu. After the tour, we conducted a Q&A session between the botanists, plant pathologists of Labland Biotechs, biodiesel consultants, and the villagers. Encouraged by the positive feedback received, we expanded our efforts and held several town hall meetings and met with hundreds of farmers and self-help group members. Next, we visited the Central Tobacco Research Institute located in Hunsur and presented our project to the principal scientist and head of plant pathology Dr. M. M. Shenoi, who gave us key feedback and approved the project plan of Phase II.
In December 2008, we demonstrated the extraction of biofuel from 100 kg of Jatropha seeds under the guidance of Mr. S. Gopalakrishnan, an All India Biodiesel Consultant at Labland Biotechs. We distributed the biofuel to self help group leaders, who used it to run their irrigation pumps. The farmers reported that the amount of smoke generated by the Jatropha biofuel was substantially less than that generated by diesel, and the smoke produced smelled pleasant. The irrigation pumps ran smoothly and efficiently, with no complications. All in all, we got strong positive feedback from the farmers. This marked the completion of Phase I of Project Jatropha.
Phase II (2009-2010)
We chose sixty self-help group members from Kirijaji and Thippalapura to participate in Phase II of our Jatropha biofuel project. We purchased 15,000 high quality Jatropha seedlings from Labland Biotechs. The farmers successfully planted the seedlings in the summer of 2009, a process we had the privilege of participating in at selected farmers’ fields. Most of the farmers opted to intercrop Jatropha with tobacco in order to avoid disruption of their regular tobacco cultivation. We also took the training course in the agronomics of Jatropha cultivation offered by Labland Biotechs, along with the field workers of Parivarthana and farmer leaders. The training involved:
- Nursery Raisings: Seed treatment and polythene bag filling and sowing in bags. Stump cutting, bed formation and raising of nursery plants in raised mud beds.
- Jatropha Cultivation: Seedlings planting in fields, making special seedling pits, field plowing, planting of seedlings in proper distance, manure application and plant protection.
- End Use: Collection of ripened Jatropha fruits and seed processing; biofuel production using Jatropha seeds and using the biofuel for running farm vehicles, pump sets and other machinery in place of diesel.
We collaborated with local rural schools by giving presentations about the significance of Jatropha cultivation and biofuel production. We motivated the students to join us in convincing their farming families to participate in Jatropha cultivation. Student leaders from several schools agreed to join our efforts in transporting the seeds to Labland Biotech, and became members of a “Jatropha Information Dissemination Centers Program,” where participating schools becomes eligible to receive small monetary benefits.
Back home in California, we held meetings with the officials of a local biofuel company, Sirona Fuels, and their sister nonprofit organization Sirona Cares Foundation. We successfully established a partnership with them and our organization attained a nonprofit status through their generous sponsorship.
Phase III (2010-2011)
4000 Jatropha seedlings were raised in Parivarthana for the purpose of gap filling of any Phase II seedlings that had died, and these seedlings were subsequently planted in the summer of 2010. In 2011, we bought 150-200 lb of Jatropha seeds collected from several participating farmers from each village at the rate of Rs.10/lb. We transported these seeds to Labland Biotechs for biofuel production. We conducted several town hall meetings in two neighboring villages, Dallal Koppalu and Mahadevapura, and convinced several farmers to cultivate Jatropha either through intercropping with tobacco or in their unused wastelands. We distributed the biofuel produced at Labland Biotechs from the Jatropha seeds of the Phase II farmers to the farmer leaders of Dallal Koppalu and Mahadevapura to test run their irrigation pumps. The test runs were successful.
Phase IV (2012-2013)
We launched Phase IV of Jatropha Biofuel Project in collaboration with Vallalar Educational Trust (VETNGO) in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. VETNGO is an organization dedicated to the socioeconomic and educational development of backward communities and villages, with a specific focus on the holistic and sustainable empowerment of women and children. Through Project Jatropha, the director of VETNGO, Mr. Balamurali, underwent extensive Jatropha agronomic training in Labland Biotechs in the summer of 2012. Next, we donated high-quality Jatropha seeds from Labland Biotechs and started the pilot project through establishing a nursery by involving international volunteers from England. Unfortunately, an unknown fungal infection resulted in only half of the Jatropha seedlings in the nursery living past the first six months. The surviving Jatropha seedlings were successfully planted in a VETNGO fruit orchard via intercropping. Currently, the Jatropha shrubs are well-maintained in the fruit orchard and are used in renewable energy education for rural youth.
After six years of field work experience, in the summer of 2013, during the townhall meetings with the participating farmers, we realized that Jatropha cultivation in place of tobacco was not sustainable in farmers’ perception at that time. The farmers’ concerns were valid: tobacco yielded quick returns as opposed to Jatropha which took almost three years to give the maximum yield. The farmers informed us that manual collection of seeds was very time consuming. Project Jatropha’s greatest accomplishment is that we exposed the rural tobacco farmers to the larger issues of climate change and the need for its mitigation; and that it is not too late and everyone can contribute towards the goal. We also empowered them, in a limited way, that they are not helpless bystanders but the prime movers.
Even if Jatropha cultivation and biofuel production is not an immediate option, this was a great education for those of us in the team; learning how community participation oriented projects work. The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control signed by Indian government, aims to cut down tobacco cultivation by half by the year 2020. We are hopeful that demonstration effect of our Jatropha biofuel project might encourage the farmers to revisit Jatropha in the future as a viable option.
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