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‘Coherent policies for the development of biofuels needed’

In the early 2000s, Jatropha Curcas was worldwide promoted as a promising solution to global concerns on climate change, fossil fuel depletion and rural poverty. The seeds of this plant were supposed to produce valuable oil which could be used as biofuel. Henky Widjaja, PhD candidate at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology and the Vollenhoven Institute, studied past experiences of Jatropha projects in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. His research findings provide valuable insights for the future improvement of biofuel development. PhD defense 27 November.

Jatropha hype: a new biodiesel innovation

According to Widjaja, the overall motivation for the emergence of these projects in South Sulawesi was driven by the high expectations of jatropha. In addition, investors, companies and high-government officials were keen to fund these projects by providing large amounts of funding. However, the incomplete value chain for jatropha with very little processing of jatropha oil and no clear market for end products had caused a strong pursuance of non-oil objectives in these projects.

Non-oil objectives

Widjaja’s research results show that these non-oil drivers had attracted actors, such as government officials, university researchers, the private sector, and NGOs, which perceived ‘funding’ as end goals of their interests in jatropha instead of the production of biofuel itself. Those actors spotted relevant opportunities for them to benefit and shaped the enabling environment for their own interests. Widjaja explained: “This condition generated opportunistic behavior, as they designed their activities to match the conditions of the funding with further implications on the unsustainability of the projects after the available funding expired.”

‘Easy money’

Actors involved in jatropha business defined and perceived ‘the projects’ in the way Indonesians, in general, define proyek, as a way to earn ‘easy money’. In the implementation of jatropha projects, Widjaja states, there was a common understanding of participating in a pilot project, emphasizing its short-term and trial nature. Based on his research findings, Widjaja elaborates: “The word ‘project’ had been understood as a type of business model for testing jatropha on the ground, and was instrumental for companies or research institutes to test jatropha in field settings in a way that transferred the costs and risks to others, especially to the farmers.”

No fundamental change in agrarian structures

This resulted in the fact that project partners seemed to easily accept and agree on the sudden termination of the projects for a variety of reasons, including the absence of a market, the end of subsidies and the lack of additional funding. The short-term and trial nature of the observed projects also explains why there was no fundamental change in agrarian structures. Despite the existence of land allocation for jatropha, crop conversion was only temporary, relatively small-scale and there was no long-term land transfer.

Future improvement of biofuel development

Widjaja’s research on past experiences of jatropha projects contributes to the future improvement of biofuel development. In his final remarks, he states: “Successful domestication and commercialization of new crops require a long-term process and demand a long-term commitment by all key actors. Sufficient resources should be devoted to research trials, both for the plant and biofuel as well as the development of technologies for additional products. A clear link with the market should be established. Actors operating in the real market should be encouraged to be involved in the whole process from research and development to the end-uses of jatropha oil. More importantly, a coherent and consistent policy for the development of biofuels should be in place.”

Henky Widjaja is currently working for UNICEF Indonesia.

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