Oil, toil and trouble bubbling - India's jatropha tussle
Indian government has welcomed biofuels with open arms. Faced with a
rapidly growing economy, the world's second-largest population and an
eye-watering fuel import bill, finding a renewable domestic power
source has become a top priority.
The country's recently-revised national biofuel policy, announced in
September 2008, sets out the government's intentions in black-and-
white: to produce 20 per cent of the country's diesel from crops by
2017, primarily from plantations of jatropha (Jatropha curcas). This
means that the oilseed-bearing shrub, already introduced in some
states, needs to be planted on an additional 14 million hectares of
the country's so-called 'wasteland'. This has ignited fierce debate:
supporters see the move as the solution to the fuel-versus-food
conundrum, while critics are fearful that millions of peasants, who
rely on these lands, will lose out.
Wasteland - a misnomer
A far cry from the post-industrial 'brown field' sites familiar to
planners in the developed world, India's wastelands have historical
resonance. Classified in colonial times as areas that could not be
cultivated and which were, therefore, unable to produce revenue,
everything from forests to semi-jungle to wetlands fell into the
category of 'wasteland'. But, quite unlike the idea of a barren
wilderness, these vast areas - comprising about 25 percent of India's
landmass - are more appropriately described as marginal lands, and
have supported millions of the country's poorest people for centuries.
Traditionally, local communities have looked after these lands as
common resources, coming to depend on them for food, fodder, fuel
wood and medicine. In terms of their day-to-day importance, the
figures speak for themselves: around 20 percent of poor households'
income and over 60 percent of their fuel wood come from common
property resources. In the mixed farming systems of the country's
semi-arid regions, some three-quarters of people depend on the
commons for grazing. Nationwide, the India-based NGO Foundation for
Ecological Security (FES) estimates that the commons contribute up to
US$5 billion to poor rural households. And, with investment and
proper management, the organisation believes the commons could supply
a quarter of the country's fodder needs. These commons also perform
important ecological functions, providing habitats for wildlife,
harbouring rainwater and absorbing greenhouse gases.
For whose benefit?
India's common lands have been under threat for at least the past
half-century, with between 25-50 per cent already lost due to
population pressure and increasing degradation. Little wonder the
proposed jatropha plantations are contentious. "By pursuing the
energy security of the few - the middle classes and the rich - we are
compromising the livelihood security of the poor," laments Subrata
Singh of FES.
The government has tried to find a win-win solution. In an attempt to
help the poor share the rewards of the country's anticipated biofuel
boom, the expansion of jatropha production is taking place through
the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). Under
proposed plans, local communities will be paid to plant, tend and
harvest the crop on common land. But critics argue that once jatropha
is in the ground, livelihoods will become irrevocably tied to the
productivity of the crop and the stability of its market price.
While jatropha supporters point to the crop's near-magical ability to
tolerate harsh, drought-like conditions, others have suggested that
official estimates of its productivity on suboptimal land have been
exaggerated. If the crop fails to live up to expectations the poor
will have traded access to precious land in return for neither food,
fodder, fuel, medicine - nor a source of income. "Eventually,
planting these areas with biofuels might force people from the land,"
continues Singh. "We are concerned they might become ecological
refugees and migrate to urban areas for their livelihoods."
Redefining the commons
FES has been working with state governments to help communities
achieve legal recognition for the wasteland commons. It has already
assisted communities in six states to establish long-term leases over
the areas they depend on and is promoting investment in land
restoration through the NREGS. The organisation is also working with
the South Asia Pro-Poor Livestock Programme to document the value of
the commons to poor livestock keepers, to protect the land and to
help other communities diversify into animal husbandry.
Despite progress in these areas, India is simply too large for FES to
protect all the affected communities and jatropha plantations have
already swallowed-up pockets of common land. Significantly, in the
same month that the government unveiled its new biofuels target,
state-run refinery Bharat Petroleum announced plans to invest US$480
million in jatropha production. The race for 'wasteland' is well
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