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Jatropha: A Green Fuel Awash in Red Ink

Farmers and investors have both been burned by jatropha
Jatropha: A Green Fuel Awash in Red Ink
Photographs from left: Carlos Litulo/AFP/Getty Images; Ahmad Fuad Morad/Flickr

Money may not grow on trees, but for a time it appeared to grow on bushes—specifically, a tropical shrub called jatropha curcas. Over the past decade, jatropha was planted on millions of acres across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa after research showed that oil from its crushed seeds makes an excellent biofuel. Because jatropha can tolerate dry, rocky soil unsuited to agriculture, boosters said, subsistence farmers could grow it as a cash crop without denting food production. And with governments worldwide pushing renewable fuels, investors in jatropha-oil ventures looked set to win, too.

So far, the jatropha boom has produced more losers than winners. Many projects have foundered as seed production has failed to meet expectations, and India, China, and other countries have scaled back plans for additional planting. Farmers have discovered that while jatropha can indeed grow on barren land, it doesn’t flourish there, says Promode Kant, director of the Institute of Green Economy in New Delhi and co-author of a report titled The Extraordinary Collapse of Jatropha As a Global Biofuel. Says Kant: “Without moisture it does not seed, or it seeds extremely poorly.”