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Seeds of change: jatropha in India

Villagers from Velchal check the jatropha crop (WRENmedia)
Villagers from Velchal check the jatropha crop

On the breezy hills above Velchal village, Ranga Reddy District, Andhra Pradesh, landless farmers sing as they tend their new wonder crop. Three years ago the area was considered wasteland: thin, sun-baked soils and low rainfall meant traditional food and fodder crops - even grass - were virtually impossible to grow.

Since then the 140 hectare (ha) site above Velchal has been transformed by the introduction of jatropha (Jatropha curcas). The hardy oilseed-bearing tree is capable of withstanding inhospitable environments, making it a popular choice as feedstock for the production of biodiesel. At Velchal, it is the centrepiece of a pioneering initiative to raise incomes and improve food security for the village's landless farmers, while rehabilitating barren land.

Access to wasteland
The government of Andhra Pradesh identified wasteland near Velchal for jatropha production at the request of the International Center for Research into the Arid and Semi-Arid tropics (ICRISAT). The government awarded the villagers usufruct rights to use the "common land", provided they do not have a negative impact on it. ICRISAT was then able to implement the jatropha project, with sponsorship from the National Oil Seeds and Vegetable Oil Development Board (NOVOD) of India's Ministry of Agriculture, which provides villagers' wages while the plantations are being established.

New lease of life

The villagers work in groups of eight or nine people, with each group responsible for looking after the plantation one day each week, at the rate of 60 rupees (US$1.50) per person, per day. Men and women are paid the same.

Every day one of the groups climbs the hill from Velchal to the plantation, cutting back weeds and tending the crops. The scheme provides villagers with employment for almost half the year, with the rest of their time spent at their own smallholdings in the village. Each group member pools one day's wage each week so the group can offer microcredit to others or use it as collateral to obtain credit themselves.

Lateral thinking

Once mature, the jatropha seeds will be used in the production of biofuel (WRENmedia)
Once mature, the jatropha seeds will be used in the production of biofuel

The jatropha plantation is entirely rainfed and water conservation is encouraged. By contour trenching - digging basins around the plants and planting to minimise runoff - groundwater levels are being recharged more effectively than before. As a result, the villagers have been able to plant pongamia (Pongamia pinnata), a nitrogen-fixing legume and oilseed tree native to India. As well as its use in biodiesel preparation, pongamia helps improve soil fertility. With the soil able to support a wider variety of plant life, the jatropha alleys have been intercropped with millet, pigeonpea and greengram (mung bean), which the villagers use for home consumption.

Currently standing a metre-and-a-half tall, the jatropha trees are already bearing seeds, but it will be another year before the seeds are ready to be picked and taken 150km to Nalgonda district to be processed into fuel. At this point the running of the plantation will be handed over to the villagers of Velchal. ICRISAT estimates that each member will earn around US$315 per year from harvesting the seeds and the organisation has proposed that the village has its own decentralised oil extraction unit so that the oil can be used to fuel water pumps and flour mills. The de-oiled "cakes" of jatropha residue are a good source of plant nutrients and could be recycled and used as fertiliser.

The experience of Velchal is echoed in other districts of Andhra Pradesh, where ICRISAT has trained over 500 farmers in biodiesel crop husbandry and restored nearly 400ha of wasteland. The Indian government has identified over 13 million ha of wasteland for jatropha production and the scheme is expected to be rolled out across the country.

Fuelling the debate

While growing jatropha on wasteland has drawn some criticism, ICRISAT's Dr Suhas Wani, one of the scheme's masterminds, is convinced of the benefits.

Villagers record their work at the plantation, detailing the days spent tending the jatropha crop (WRENmedia)
Villagers record their work at the plantation, detailing the days spent tending the jatropha crop

"It's a win-win for all the stakeholders," says Wani, principal scientist and regional theme coordinator. "The initiative is not only used to produce green fuel," he continues, "but also to rehabilitate degraded lands, enhance greenery, conserve rainwater, and provide a sustainable income source for the landless and marginal farmers."

The real test of the success of the scheme will come after the handover to the villagers. The challenges of long-term production and resistance of jatropha to pests and diseases is still unclear. For the time being the people of Velchal are grateful for small mercies - they have increased incomes and a new source of food, fodder and finance. Even in the short term, they believe this is something worth singing about.

Date published: November 2007


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