Indonesia Needs Jatropha Subsidies To Boost Market, Say Researchers

Land cleared for oil palms photo

Land cleared for an oil palm plantation in Indonesia. While ultimately this land will be planted again, the carbon sequestration potential of the resultant agricultural land is radically reduced in comparison to the forest that was once there. Photo by Mica Monkey.

Though it's only occasionally on the public biofuel radar in the United States, what with corn ethanol and Brazilian sugar cane hogging the headlines, in the subtropical and tropical regions where the plant thrives, Jatropha has received much more attention. Most recently Hindustan Petroleum expanded its production of the long-lived biofuel plant. Now, through Carbon Positive comes an update on the debate in Indonesia surrounding Jatropha.Indonesia Biofuels Targets to Expand Jatropha Cultivation
Indonesia is better known, or perhaps infamous, for its large scale cultivation of oil palms—often in ways that threaten wildlife habitat and spread deforestation—but it also wants to incorporate Jatropha into its biofuels plan. Indonesia currently has a production target of 3% of total fuel consumption from biofuels but 2010. To help this, the government aims to have 1.5 million hectares of Jatropha under cultivation by that time. Though at the moment, the nation has only about 120,000 hectares planted.

Subsidies Called for by Researchers
At a recent Jatropha conference, Indonesian researchers said that a lack of stable market is hampering expansion of Indonesia's Jatropha industry, and have called for government to set a market price for the product.

Bachtiar Parmus, of PT Rajawali Nusantara Indonesia : "The government should issue regulations to help develop jatropha biofuel. Today, most farmers are reluctant to cultivate the plants because they don't know who to sell the seeds to. And they can't process them into oil because they either don't know how or else lack the equipment to do so."

The Indonesian government has so far ruled out subsidies for Jatropha oil, which currently sells for US$0.5 per liter of raw oil.

Past Records, Future Problems?
I'm not someone who believes that government subsidies for nascent industries are always a bad thing. Thought given the Indonesian government's thorough inability to stop deforestation and the destruction that unsustainable methods of palm oil cultivation have had on the island of Borneo, I question the environmental wisdom of expanding Jatropha cultivation there through subsidies. At least until sustainability criteria are sorted out.

While it is often claimed and is essentially true that Jatropha can grow in places where food crops cannot, an increasing body of research shows that to get predictably high crop yields, Jatropha requires adequate soil nutrition and adequate water. Furthermore, while on the small scale it has undeniable benefits in preventing soil erosion in degraded areas, without strong sustainability criteria, there is absolutely nothing to prevent Jatropha cultivation from having the same damaging effects in Indonesia that oil palms have had.

via :: Carbon Positive
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