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Wednesday, Apr 23rd

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Biodiesel in Burma: A friendly alternative?

On the road to the local airport, our taxi sputters to a halt - a problem with the fuel line the driver explains nonchalantly and waves down a passing pick-up. It's crammed full with villagers going to the market in nearby Taungyi, the state capital. Without the slightest fuss being made, they take us out of their way, all the while joking about the sudden turn of events  ''going to Yangon", the raggedy girl beside me shrieks as everyone clings to their shopping baskets in hysterical laughter.
The green seed of Jatropha Curcans, commonly known as the 'Physic nut' or more recently the 'biodiesel tree' is the shape of a large olive and about twice the size. Between 30 and 50 percent of this seed is oil that can be used as an ingredient in the making of biodiesel. Native to Central and South America, it is now being grown across Africa, India and Southeast Asia, not only as a breakthrough source of clean energy but also as a means to regenerate land, degraded by years of deforestation and desertification.
The farmer who hands me the seed stands in the middle of a one year old plantation of Jatropha trees on a hillside overlooking Inle lake in Upper Burma, one of the country's prime tourist destinations. Dressed in nothing other than a ragged Longyi, he tells me how he was ordered to plant the trees by the army. Asked if he thinks they are a good thing, he replies that they are, asked why and he shakes his head, unsure of an answer, then turns his arms, mimicking a steering wheel. I survey the patchwork of plantation crops; no mechanized device is in evidence. Indeed, only the nearby meditation cave, where several monks live, and the surrounding huts possess electric light and this is supplied by two small hydroelectric generators.

Wherever you look, Jatropha is provoking widespread interest. With the help of automobile and petroleum giants DaimlerChrysler and BP, the Indian government is pushing ahead with a scheme to broaden its introduction costing millions of US dollars. At the same time, many grassroots NGOs are hailing it as a revolutionary new tool in the struggle against rural poverty. As well as being drought resistant and toxic to predators, the press cake that remains after processing can be used as a high-grade organic fertilizer, helping to improve soil fertility.

Jatropha can grow on otherwise unusable land, often home to the most marginalized and impoverished members of society and in South Asia local initiatives have dedicated themselves to ensuring that farmers who propagate Jatropha on these lands continue to benefit economically by training them in all aspects of its cultivation. In many parts of Africa, Jatropha has traditionally been used as a hedge to prevent wind erosion and to protect crops against animals. The nuts have been harvested for their medicinal properties and used in the production of soap. These days, NGOs are helping to install energy platforms that use biodiesel as a fuel.  

All of these seemingly good tidings stand in sharp contrast to the situation in Burma.  In the swirling mists near Kalaw in southern Shan state, I encounter a softly spoken Pa O hill tribesman. The monsoon is relentless at this altitude and my daps have accumulated so much brown sticky mud they resemble clogs. He smiles from inside the leaf like piece of plastic in which he is wrapped as I slide down the tiny path behind him. These formerly pine covered hills are now dotted with thousands of small Jatropha plants. He seems slightly embarrassed by my interest in the plantation and crouches down against the rain. Even up here the trees have ears, suspicion and paranoia dominate people's minds. In lowered tones, he tells me that many people here are angry and bewildered at being compelled to grow the crop. Every family, including children, were forced to plant 300 seedlings, risking imprisonment if they refused. They were even made to pay Kyat 500 to 1000 (50c - $1) to buy the plants in the first place. Neither did the farmers I spoke to hold out hope of making any money from them.

On the road to the local airport, our taxi sputters to a halt - a problem with the fuel line the driver explains nonchalantly and waves down a passing pick-up. It's crammed full with villagers going to the market in nearby Taungyi, the state capital. Without the slightest fuss being made, they take us out of their way, all the while joking about the sudden turn of events  ''going to Yangon", the raggedy girl beside me shrieks as everyone clings to their shopping baskets in hysterical laughter.

Out of a slit in the bouncing truck, I spy an unbroken line of Jatropha seedlings along the roadside - some of them already dead from being so hastily planted. The junta's soviet style three-year plan is to convert 7,000,000 acres (2,834,006 hectares) of land across the country to Jatropha cultivation by 2009. Just as on 20th October 2005, when the population awoke to find that fuel prices had soared nine times overnight, the decision was summarily put into force without any prior announcement. Since then, there has been a steady flow of propaganda in the state controlled press and TV media extolling the virtues of Jatropha and Senior-General Than Shwe "has given guidance that physic nut plants are to be grown as a national duty" (New Light of Myanmar; June 2006). The language used is often insidious, "Jatropha Curcas plantations are to be placed on 500,000 acres (1,417,003 hectares) of land…"  no mention of the massive mobilization of forced labour that this involves. Official figures maintain that one acre (2.4 hectares) will eventually produce 100 gallons of biodiesel  a deceptively simple piece of arithmetic which if true could significantly decrease the country's dependence on foreign oil imports. These figures, however, take no account of growing conditions - on marginal soils, Jatropha can produce only marginal yields.

The giggling doesn't die down until we reach the airport, where my offer of money is roundly refused. Poor as the majority of Burma's people are and are becoming, I end up, as usual, in their debt.

What rhetoric do the junta use to justify their claims concerning the planting of biodiesel? One argument runs that wasteland cultivation of Jatropha will release rural people from their dependence on fuel wood and thus prevent deforestation. Yet, on Burma's secretive Southwest coast, I observe Jatropha being grown on the remains of recently clear-cut rainforest - the latest in a line of profit making experiments carried out jointly in the region by the military authorities and tycoon businessman Tay Zar, now Than Shwe's son in law. As well as biodiesel, local farmers are made to grow Cashew nuts destined for foreign export. Nor is a cheap and reliable stove yet available that would enable people to use the oil for cooking purposes and thus they remain reliant on charcoal. Stepping gingerly in the footprints of wild elephants, I traverse deeper into what few fragments of forest remain. Local settlers stare incredulously as I pass, warning me of the danger. As their territory dwindles, the herd inevitably comes into contact with humans. The area is home to hundreds of charcoal making kilns. I stop at one smoking entrance, resembling the doorway to a tomb.This is the main cause of deforestation in Burma  a practice made illegal by the junta in 1997 yet which continues to flourish via a system of bribes and kickbacks. According to scientists, it is unlikely that Jatropha's soft, fast burning wood could ever be used as a viable substitute.

The authorities claim that Burma has about 60 million acres (25 million hectares) of wasteland on which to plant Jatropha - oddly enough the same figure as that published for India. Indeed, India 's headlong rush into biodiesel seems to have ignited the generals own grandiose imaginings. In a recent address to the Myanmar chamber of commerce, the Indian president was vocal in his support for the initiative. Yet neither country appears to have undertaken the kind of pilot study usual in experiments of this kind. Jatropha is an introduced species, classified as a weed in many countries. It is potentially invasive and is thought to have toxic effects on the soil. Research into its role as a carcinogen is ongoing and as a precautionary measure the government of Western Australia has already banned its introduction. If the experiment fails, as most Burmese believe it will, millions of acres of cultivable land could be lost and this in a country where over 40 percent of children under three suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition.  

Economic sanctions mean that Burma, unlike India , lacks the financial and technical support of foreign companies like BP so necessary to the success of a venture of this magnitude. In order to be used as a replacement fuel for diesel engines the oil has to be extracted, processed and impurities removed. Without such a method, up to 40 percent is lost and the remainder only usable, as it is at present, in small-scale engines. This is in itself a massive undertaking, involving the construction of hundreds of esterification plants and workers trained in the use of volatile chemicals such as methanol. At the local headquarters of the Ministry of Agriculture in Inle, I find myself staring at the small hydraulic press barely a metre high, imagining it in a few years time, when the trees reach maturity, engulfed by a tidal wave of seeds. Meanwhile, blissfully ignorant of such petty annoyances, the generals continue their rounds of 'model farming villages' ceremoniously planting biodiesel trees wherever they go and ''assisting agricultural technology to the Jatropha curcas growers" (New light of Myanmar; 2006). Of course, the state media is full of pictures of happy farmers, tended by dutiful smiling wives, driving new modern tractors powered by biodiesel. In reality, all you ever see in the fields are people and buffalos. Wherever the intended market for Burmese biodiesel is it is unlikely to be here at home.

None of this is new of course. Even before independence, the British were able to acquire land whenever it was judged expedient. Since then, successive regimes in Burma, together with a small group of powerful entrepreneurs, have controlled all aspects of land use, denying individual farmers the right to own land. Farmers have rights only to cultivation and land is regularly seized if they do not grow those crops specified by the state or the land is deemed useful for other projects - witness the mass eviction of thousands of people to make way for the new capital 'Napyidaw'. The junta's record during its years of power has been abysmal. In the last 40 years, yields of most crops have either dropped or stayed the same - rice exports have more than halved. At present, the most profitable sector is the sale of beans and pulses, ironically the only area to have escaped wholesale regulation.

Back in Rangoon, the pavements are being lined with biodiesel trees. They seem especially in evidence opposite the small, maroon painted office of the NLD. When I talk to ordinary people about this, I discover another far eerier explanation for the generals' obsession. The word for Jatropha in Burmese is Kyet Su Pin  Pin meaning tree Kyet Su if reversed becomes Suu Kyi - Burma's imprisoned leader in exile. It's not difficult to imagine that the Burmese authorities, with their historical love of astrology and numerology, could believe they were counteracting the influence of their celebrated nemesis in this manner. In an even stranger twist, sales of traditional gold painted papier-mâché owls have reportedly been rising in recent months. The word for owl in Burmese is Zee Gwat. In Burmese each letter is associated with a day of the week. In this case, the days for Zee Gwat and Kyet Su are reversed thereby counteracting any previous magic.

Whatever supernatural reasons the junta may have for the mass planting of biodiesel, the effects in real terms are likely to be disastrous for both people and the land on which they depend. We can be sure that no voices of dissent from within the country will be voiced however. In Chin state, the death penalty is already in place for anyone daring to criticize the policy on Jatropha.