Jatropha – The Little Bio-Fuel Fruit that Could…Scare the Oil Gangs

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I met Rogelio Murillo, a Costa Rican businessman operating a wind farm in the Vulcan Arenal area, and Hans Haeberer, a German engineer and partner in Clean Fuel and Energy for Latin America (C-Fela), when I moved to San Jose, Costa Rica a year ago.  They told me of a model Jatropha plantation they were involved with…Murillo contributing his knowledge of renewable energy, and Haeberer funneling investment and applying his expertise as an engineer.  The plantation was the brainchild of Eduardo Acosta, a Cuban who grew up in California.  The three are pictured above – Murillo, Haeberer, and Acosta, left to right.  The plantation has been featured on television programs on bio-fuels, and Acosta regularly updates his advancements in the propagation, harvesting, and processing of the plant for clean, sustainable use as a bio-fuel on his website www.greenacrescostarica.com.

Research has showed that oil from the crushed seeds of Jatropha make an excellent bio-fuel.  The plant has an advantage over other plants being used for bio-fuel production in that it not only tolerates, but grows well on dry, rocky soil unsuited to agriculture…such as the over-farmed, then over-grazed lands readily available in Costa Rica and nearly every Central and South American nation.  And, since most of the land they are purchasing, or interested in purchasing, is nearly useless to farmers or ranchers, it’s inexpensive…millions of hectares have been, or are in the process of being purchased.

Costa Rica Arenol Hans Scott Char 184European companies, lined up by Haeberer, have small-scale production machinery based on a model developed by Acosta, one he put together from a bicycle and spare parts, as well as a cooking stove fashioned specifically for Jatropha oil.  Acosta, along with C-Fela, has been addressing the problems encountered by others who have attempted to utilize Jatropha in the past, difficulty in seeding, harvesting, and the toxicity of the wild plant.  Planting Jatropha in conjunction with Coyol Palms, Bamboo, and other bio-fuel producers have made for more bio-diverse plantation planning, and when possible, are arranged in what Haeberer calls “bio corridors” providing migration routes and living space for wildlife, some species on the endangered list.  The day I visited Green Acres Costa Rica we found Acosta photographing Scarlet Macaws, a once plentiful species, now threatened due to loss of habitat.

The media in the United States has generally lined up against Jatropha as a viable source of bio-fuel:

A 2007 article in the New York Times warned that cultivation of Jatropha on a scale broad enough to make bio-fuel production financially attractive would infringe on fertile land currently producing food crops.  A March 2009 article in Time Magazine focused on the Myanmar government‘s efforts to encourage Jatropha cultivation, and raised a warning that decreased food supplies were inevitable.  Another Time article, from October, 2009, claimed the Kenyan and Indian governments were being bamboozled by shady speculators pushing farmers into Jatropha farming with little reliable information that it could work, leading them to certain devastation.  A 2009 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found  that a natural breed of Jatropha used more water per gallon of biofuel than many other biofuel crops. This study was later contradicted in a letter from other scientists who claimed PNAS’s findings “too simplistic” in their calculations of estimated water consumption.

Then, there’s the plain greedy and larcenous.

A March 15, 2012 article in Bloomberg Businessweek gave several examples of the dangers of investing in Jatropha plantations.  In 2006, BioShape, a Dutch company approached the Tanzanian government with tales of jobs, economic aid and fortunes to be made if they would allow the company to create and operate Jatropha plantations among 11 rural villages.  Tanzania allowed…BioShape logged the land…2006 became 2010…BioShape’s telephone, disconnected…a spokesperson for Eneco, a Dutch backer of the project, declined to comment…attorneys from the Lawyer’s Environmental Action Team, advocating for Tanzanian workers who were left unemployed, and jungle-less, claimed, “The company was not interested in Jatropha, they were interested in timber.”  Jatropha took the blame for the failure.

The same article related accounts of Worldwide Bio Refineries – seven men connected to the company convicted in a British court for fraudulently claiming to be producing biodiesel from Jatropha, as well as Sun Biofuels, a British company, and Viridis, both who failed to hold investor confidence.  Viridias shifted its operations to mining, making it a safe investment.  Gem BioFuels and D1 Oils (in a joint venture with BP) also proved unprofitable, citing lack of investors.  Tales of theft and disappeared investments have their effects.

Where profits are involved, every organ serves a purpose…it seems media outlets, many owned by corporations which are also heavily invested in the oil industry, seem to be serving theirs.  So it goes.

But, there have been recent successes with Jatropha-based bio-fuel, the flashiest, an Aeromexico flight between Mexico City and Madrid, Spain,in August of 2012.  The airline industry is the one that will benefit the most, and the quickest, from the use of bio-fuels utilizing Jatropha.  Boeing is quietly involved, financing and supporting research and development of Jatropha oil.  Cuba recently used Jatropha-based bio-fuels in an experimental automobile, reporting the engine to be in better condition after using the bio-diesel than it was before.  So, it seems that the countries that have the most to lose – those whose economy is based on petro-chemical fuels, are lined up against Jatropha, while those not dependant on oil-based economies are busy refining the cultivation and utilization of other options.

The energy and environmental future of the world could be decided in Latin America on plantations that look like this…

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