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Oil, toil and trouble bubbling - India's jatropha tussle

India's 'wastelands' are not necessarily barren, unproductive widernesses (FES)
India's 'wastelands' are not necessarily barren, unproductive widernesses

The 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.

'Wastelands' are a vital source of fodder for poor rural livestock keepers (WRENmedia)
'Wastelands' are a vital source of fodder for poor rural livestock keepers

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."

Jatropha production on common land has already begun in Andhra Pradesh state (WRENmedia)
Jatropha production on common land has already begun in Andhra Pradesh state

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 underway.

Date published: November 2008


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