Mystery shrub Jatropha: Joy for Farmers or Ploy to Grab Land?

By Wanjohi Kabukuru, East Africa Diplomat, June 2012 – Jatropha is not what they say it is. Everywhere it has been planted in Africa, it has increased levels of poverty, caused massive soil degradation and harmed fragile ecosystems.”


“We are saying no to jatropha plantations in Kenya and anywhere else in Africa.” says Paul Matiku, the Executive Director of Nature Kenya, the country’s oldest environmental conservation lobby.For the last three years, Matiku has attracted the wrath of politicians, police and investors largely due to his opposition to a mega Jatropha project earmarked for Kenya’s Coast Province. But by the same token, Nature Kenya has managed to galvanise international support by roping in the powerful UK-based ornithology conservation lobby, Birdlife International, to oppose the large scale Jatropha plantations in Kenya which has in the last decade been promoted as the answer to clean renewable energy.

“Jatropha is not what they are saying it is. Everywhere it has been planted in Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania; it has increased levels of poverty, caused massive soil degradation and harmed fragile ecosystems,” says Matiku. “We must face the reality. At the moment we don’t have a global market construct to sustain the bio diesel market, which makes it an economic liability and a threat to food security.  I don’t think Jatropha proponents are genuine.”At the centre of this Jatropha row are environmentalists, politicians, an impoverished community, the Kenya government and foreign investors. On several occasions journalists and Nature Kenya staffers delving into the issue have been attacked and threatened. The Kenyan government, through the provincial administration and local politicians, has sided with Italian investor Luciano Orlandi on the matter.

“The investors should be left alone so that the project can kick off as soon as possible,” Ernest Munyi, Coast Provincial Commissioner, says.Matiku and other environmentalists allege that the provincial administration and local Malindi politicians led by a cabinet minister have been compromised as they have all openly supported the project ignoring its dire ramifications.


“How else do you explain an attack on our staffers and journalists seeking to educate the public on what is at stake in the Dakatcha area and no action is taken against the perpetrators? Why has the provincial administration taken sides in matter where they are expected to be neutral?The late Environment minister, John Michuki, visited the area in 2010 and asked the Italian investors to produce an Environmental Impact Assessment report before any action could be taken by the government.

The plan has already been given the green light, and some 50,000 hectares in the Dakatcha woodland in Malindi, in Kenya’s northern coastal region will be cleared to pave way for Jatropha cultivation. Orlandi’s corporation, Kenya Jatropha Energy Limited, a subsidiary of Nuove Iniziative Industriali Srl of Milan is seeking to produce some Sh150,000 tonnes of bio-diesel which will be sold in Europe. The company is said to have set aside some €120,000 as land lease fees. Lately, the European Union has come out strongly in favour of renewable energy to ward off over reliance on fossil fuels and their attendant climate change effects.

“We are facing displacement from our own ancestral lands. As a minority community we were not adequately consulted on Jatropha farming” says Jacob Kokani, a member of the local community.Jatropha, defined as a large shrub, (or a small tree) produces seeds with high oil content which can be processed into bio-diesel fuel through esterification. The plant flourishes in tropical climates. Bio-diesel which is a by-product of jatropha is hailed as environmentally safe, bio-degradable and non-polluting.

In the last 10 years the proponents of Jatropha have enjoyed a friendly press championing the crop as the panacea to mitigate carbon emissions. All this has changed now.A report on Jatropha faming in Kenya by German aid agency GIZ has poured cold water on the rosy image flaunted on the wonders of Jatropha farming: “We recommend that the government – through the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) and others – reevaluate its current bio-fuel policy promoting Jatropha. We also urge all public and private sector actors to cease promoting the crop among smallholder farmers for any plantation other than as a fence. We believe doing otherwise would be extremely irresponsible and could exacerbate existing food insecurity throughout the country.”

Supporting this viewpoint is Mr Tim Rice of Action Aid who, together with Nature Kenya, conducted a study on Jatropha and bio-fuels.“Bio-fuels are far from the miracle climate cure they were thought to be. Like most other bio-fuels, Jatropha could actually end up increasing carbon emissions,” says Rice.The Action Aid-Nature Kenya study dubbedLife Cycle Assessment of Refined Vegetable Oil and Biodiesel from Jatropha, conducted by UK based North Energy, noted that Jatropha would emit between two and a half and six times more greenhouse gases in comparison to fossil fuels. “This study shows that not only would destroying Dakatcha for bio-fuels be an ecological disaster, it would be a climate disaster too,” Dr Helen Byron of the Royal Society for Protection Birds (RSPB) says.According to Matiku, the indigenous Watta community stands to lose its ancestral lands in the name of clean energy production while the investors’ real intent is a nefarious ploy of land grabbing.


“The Dakatcha scrubland is home to a community of 20,000 people,” says Matiku. “It is a globally recognised Important Bird Area (IBA) and domicile to the endemic Clarke’s Weaver bird, which you won’t find anywhere else in the world. It is this ecosystem that is going to be destroyed if due diligence by the authorities is ignored. The investors have nothing to lose. Should the Jatropha fail, they still have their land leases intact, which shows that their interest is not really clean energy but access to cheap land which they call idle land. This is insulting to say the least.”But it is not just Dakatcha scrubland which is being eyed by foreign investors in the name of clean energy. If anything Dakatcha appears to be an experiment.


Bordering Malindi District to the north is the Tana Delta District, where some 133,151 hectares of land has already been identified for Jatropha farming. A Canadian firm Bedford Biofuels, through its local subsidiary, is seeking to lease this swathe of land from five Tana Delta ranches notably, Idassa Godana, Giritu, Haganda, Kitangale and Kon-Dertu.In 2009, Bedford Biofuels commissioned a Nairobi-based development consortium, the African Business Foundation (ABF) to undertake an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) on Jatropha farming in the Kenyan coastal region.  Interestingly, the ESIA report seen byDiplomat East Africa has made some key recommendations which, apparently, are the key contention points in Dakatcha.

“The proponent (Bedford Biofuels) should map out forests, wetlands and important bird areas for conservation and management; should work with local communities and conservation organisations and establish a community conservation committee that should ensure sustainable management of wildlife corridors, dry lands, wetlands and important bird areas,” the ESIA report recommends.Though Bedford Biofuels is yet to roll out its operations, Nature Kenya’s anti-Jatropha campaign is sure to ruffle the feathers of many investors who had banked heavily on a bio-diesel wind-fall.

The results of this anti-Jatropha campaign has seen the country’s principal environmental watch-dog, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) stepping in on the Dakatcha Jatropha farming and scaling down the proposed 50,000 hectares land size to 5,000 hectares as a pilot project. NEMA went on to state that the “project may not enhance sustainable development.” Finally NEMA rejected the Dakatcha project, but incidentally gave out an ESIA licence to Bedford on May 25, 2011 to plant Jatropha in Tana Delta. NEMA pleased conservationists on the Dakatcha but wiped off their smile on Tana Delta

Source: Diplomat East Africa, June 2012

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