Project Jatropha

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Earth Island Journal 

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Member Stories June 2009

Seeds of Change

By Adarsha Shivakumar

    I am the executive director and co-founder of Project Jatropha, an environmentally friendly and economically viable project that aims to simultaneously save the environment and boost the rural Indian economy.

    Our vision is to promote the plant Jatropha curcas as an ecologically friendly and economically sustainable source of biofuel in rural India. There, poor farmers cultivate tobacco as a cash crop. This has forced them to buy firewood illegally harvested from nearby forests.

    Project Jatropha combats both poverty and environmental degradation using Jatropha curcas, a small perennial shrub with oil-rich seeds. It can grow on marginal lands with fewer agronomic inputs, without diverting valuable land from food grain production.

    Jatropha biofuel has a ready, large global market, due to negligible emissions and a small carbon footprint. Our project starts as a grassroots level international collaboration between Parivarthana, an NGO that helps farmers, and Labland Biotechs, a plant biotechnology company. The beneficiaries are farmers.

Participants in the program in the Thipalapura village in southern India.

    With the help of Parivarthana and Labland Biotechs, we have distributed 13,000 quality Jatropha seedlings to more than 50 self-help group leaders from two villages. We have demonstrated the extraction of biofuel from jatropha seeds, distributed the oil among farmers and successfully run their irrigation pumps with it. Several self-help group leaders have been trained in the agronomics of jatropha at Labland Biotechs facility. We have successfully collaborated with the rural high schools to spread the word.

    Furthermore, we have made a commitment to buy back the seeds from the participating farmers and produce biofuel in Labland Biotechs. We plan to sell the fuel to the local Road Transport Corporation and use the profits to promote our project and spread the message. Carbon dioxide emissions are local, but their effects are global. Though this project is located in India, it is hoped that it will spearhead a movement that will eventually mitigate global warming from CO2 emission and decrease the dependence on fossil fuels.

The College Preparatory Scool

Prep Times
Spring 2009

Project Jatropha
Addressing poverty and the environment in rural India

Apoorva Rangan '12, Callie Roberts '11, and Adarsha Shivakumar '11

In rural south India, farmers endure extreme poverty, locked into a destructive system, of tobacco cultivation, which is currently the sole revenue-generating crop. Tobacco cultivation is highly detrimental to the landscape—the raw tobacco leaves are processed in barns using firewood, forcing villagers to cut down trees within the Nagarahole National Park, which is a wild animal sanctuary. Not only does this result in the destruction of regional biodiversity, but human-animal conflicts have also become a serious problem.

This environmental destruction motivated us to create Project Jatropha, an ecologically-based and economically viable project that aims to combat environmental destruction and poverty through the use of the Jatropha Curcas plant, a sustainable source of bio-fuel and an ecologically-friendly replacement to tobacco growing. We are working to enable rural farmers to grow Jatropha either as a hedge plant or as intercrop on a scale that would be economically feasible. The project we have undertaken starts at the grassroots level. Project Jatropha has two collaborators: Parivarthana, a non-governmental organization that assists farmers, and Labland Biotech, a plant biotechnology company that grows various species, including Jatropha Curcas. The beneficiaries are rural farmers and women's self help group.

But what exactly is Jatropha Curcas? It is a short, deciduous shrub that grows 10-15 feet high and is primarily known for its seeds, which can be easily converted into biofuel. Thirty percent of the seed's weight is oil, which is a very high ratio for a biofuel. The plant is also famous for its ability to rejuvenate wasteland and prevent erosion. This variety of plant originates from Central America, and consequently grows best in tropical climates. Jatropha Curcas is, however, very hardy and can grow in carious environments with little water or nutrients.

During Phase I in early 2007, our team met with local farmers to motivate them to participate in our project. We bought a thousand high-quality seedlings from Labland Biotechs and distributed them to five self-help group leaders. We took several interested farmers from three villages to Labland Biotechs and demonstrated the process of biofuel extraction using the dried Jatropha seedlings. We th en distributed the 35 liters of biofuel produced to the participating farmers. We arranged meetings between the scientists of Labland Biotechs to answer the questions of concerned farmers and also collaborated with local rural high school students to help us coordinate our efforts to educate the farmers about the benefits of Jatropha cultivation.

The second phase of the project began at the start of 2009. We are involving over 40 self=help group leaders from two villages. Consequently, we are distributing 12,000 Jatropha seedlings to these villagers to plant in a total area of 12 acres. We are providing training for the leaders so that they can help the participating farmers with the agronomics. We have made a commitment to buy back the seeds if the farmers wish to sell them to us. We will produce biofuel with the assistance of either Labland biotech or Parivarthana, and plan to then sell and use the profit to buy more plants that would bet has already distributed to more villagers in different areas as well. Our project has already become popular among farmers, and the hope is that as more and more of them begin taking an interest, Jatropha cultivation will increase rapidly.

Our future goal is to buy a one ton/day Jatropha processing unit for Parivarthana, so that the villagers can produce biofuel independently. If this were to be established, the farmers would truly be able to sustain the project on their own. In addition, farmers can use the remains of the Jatropha seeds to make seed cakes, which provide an additional source of biogas and make very good organic fertilizers. As the farmers have little income, our project gives them more financial stability, and enables them to establish some savings. The hope is that this will help strengthen the local economy from the bottom-up.

Why does our project matter here in America? Carbon dioxide emissions are local but the effects are global. If we can help curb carbon dioxide emissions in India, our effect, however small, will be felt across the world. Even though this nascent project has started on a small scale, our vision is that this will be the beginning of a mass movement in which small farmers collaborate with environmentally enthusiastic youth like us, who together will inherit the world.

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