Impacts of tropical land use conversion to jatropha and oil palm on rural livelihoods and ecosystem services in India and Mexico

Lead Research Organisation: CAB International
Department Name: International Development (UK)


Bioenergy crops have gained international prominence as fossil fuel prices increase and concerns about climate change grow. Increasing demand for bioenergy crops on international markets might lead to conflict with smallholder food production in the tropics and/or act as a driver of deforestation if large scale forest land conversions are initiated. Alternatively, smallholders might not jeopardise their own food security, and would grow bioenergy crops alongside food crops, incorporating their production into their current land use systems, increasing cash flow and thus permitting them to purchase inputs to intensify food production. The profitability, energy balance, social and ecological impacts will depend on the bioenergy crop used, how it is grown, with which inputs, on what type of land, what, if any, are the alternative uses of that land, and who reaps the benefit. So whether biofuel production is a threat or an opportunity will depend on the specific context. Jatropha curcas is a shrub, native to central America but is cultivated across the tropics. It is being promoted as a bioenergy crop as its seeds contain 20-30% oil, which can be easily extracted and converted to biodiesel. In Mexico, jatropha is traditionally used as a hedge. Large scale plantings were initiated in early 2006. By 2008, 20,000 ha were planted in Chiapas state and it is expected that 150,000 ha will be planted Veracruz state in the next two years. In India, large-scale land conversions to jatropha have been initiated, for example, more than 400,000 hectares of land in Uttar Pradesh state and the Indian government has proposed that biofuels account for 20% of its transportation fuel consumption by 2017, from the present 5%. Yet, despite these ambitious projects, little is known about its yield, pest and disease problems and environmental impact and so in which context it would be advisable to grow jatropha, rather than another bioenergy crop, such as Elaeis guineensis (oil palm). To some extent, ecological ranges of jatropha and oil palm overlap. In India, state governments of Orissa and Tamil Nadu are encouraging farmers to plant oil palm, given that India consumes an estimated 4.2 megatonnes per year. Similarly in Mexico, there are some large scale oil palm initiatives. This project aims to assess profitability, economic, social and environmental impacts of the production of two bioenergy crops, jatropha and oil palm. With data obtained it aims to identify the most suitable areas and conditions for sustainable and profitable yields and the extent of economic, social and environmental production risks. It aims to identify current shortfalls in land tenure systems or law and develop legislation to ensure social sustainability and equity of bioenergy projects.

Technical Summary

Main activities The project comprises: 1. A categorisation of existing bioenergy systems; 2. An assessment of their environmental impacts; and, 3. A socio-economic impact assessment and dissemination of results. 1. Categorisation of existing bioenergy systems A participatory rural appraisal will be conducted with stakeholders from different rural communities (pastoralists, farmers) across different ecoregions. Existing systems will be classified using agronomic, social and other important economic variables through field observations and via interviews with key informants. 2. Assessment of environmental impacts Soil carbon assessments and estimates of carbon and energy balance per unit of oil produced will be conducted. Any hectare-based reduction of food production area and substitution for fossil fuels, carbon debt of conversion and pay back time of carbon debt will be estimated. Surveys, identifications, and impacts of jatropha pests and diseases will be done and best-bet IPM strategies will be developed. The impact of bioenergy systems on ecosystem structure and functioning will be estimated by comparing them with the previous land use systems. Spontaneous seedlings will be mapped and germination studies, seed rain assessment and seed dispersal experiments will be conducted to estimate the risk of invasiveness. 3. Socio-economic impact assessment and dissemination A stakeholder perception survey will be conducted to identify: problems related to biofuel production and commercialization; conflicts of interests; any positive relations between stakeholders which may enable coalitions to be built; which type of participation is most appropriate for different stakeholders, and the role(s) each might play in developing and implementing a sustainable biofuels strategy.

Planned Impact

Local village meetings will be organised to inform stakeholders of how to optimise profitability, informing them of crop densities, provenances, pests and disease constraints and their management. National and international project outputs will be disseminated through participating partner web sites, and through the ERA-ARD website and via CABI's Biofuel Information Exchange at


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Description Jatropha curcas (jatropha) was first promoted by Governments and Investors across the developing world from round 2007. This project investigated the impacts on farmer livelihoods and the environment of growing jatropha on land that has previously been used for other purposes. The overall conclusion is that jatropha has potential to contribute to sustainable rural development, but, at present, it is not sufficiently productive and profitable to play that role. At the time, current crude oil (fossil fuel) prices are well above the theoretical threshold that has predicted economic viability of jatropha oil production. However, no economically viable jatropha systems are known. To minimize risks for farmers, at present, jatropha should be only be grown as a supplement to current farming systems, preferably as living fences or wide intercropping systems. Reliable agricultural practices must be developed and plant breeding undertaken to provide farmers with germplasm that gives consistent and higher yields. In addition, the price for the harvested seed needs to be more competitive, which is likely to become a reality with increasing global demand for fossil fuels. The main project findings are summarised below.

Jatropha productivity
Like all crops, jatropha responds positively to good soil and suitable weather conditions, although seed yields are still highly variable. Under marginal conditions, jatropha will grow but will not produce decent yields. Growth and yield can also be severely limited by poor management, inferior genetic stock, and significantly impacted by infestations of pests and diseases.
Pest and diseases
The resistance of jatropha to pests, purportedly due to its toxicity, has been disproved by our research. In all investigated regions, pests and diseases were found that seriously affected growth and productivity and discouraged farmers from jatropha cultivation. Significant progress was made on identifying the key pests and diseases, and on the understanding of their biology and ecology and management. For some pests and diseases, preliminary management plans were developed, but more research and validation is required.
Climate change mitigation
Life cycle analyses showed that there is climate change mitigation potential, in the substitution of fossil fuels by jatropha cultivation; with more than 40% greenhouse gas savings compared to the fossil benchmark. Yet such savings can be realised only if carbon debts, by direct and indirect land use change are avoided, and if by-products such as prunings, hulls and seedcake are either returned to the field or used as an energy feedstock. Jatropha plantations were found to offer limited ecosystem carbon sequestration opportunities and in some cases, carbon pay-back time was in the order of decades.
Socio-economics and impacts on food security
Extensive farmer interviews identified the socio-economic and cultural factors that really drive jatropha adoption. In Africa, NGOs and private companies promoting the crop, and membership of farmer's associations are important. In addition, only food secure households with sufficient financial, personal, social and natural assets, and under-utilized crop land, engaged in jatropha farming. This explains why jatropha cultivation has had only a small impact on food security to date. The lengthy harvesting period partly coinciding with the harvest of the main staple food and cash crops is a factor in adoption failure.
On-site ecological effects of jatropha cultivation
We evaluated the land use impact of jatropha on soil fertility, soil structure, vegetation structure, on-site water balance and biodiversity. Our analyses indicate that jatropha plantations have an overall negative ecological impact, which is however, smaller compared to the impact of other cropping systems, in particular annual crops.
We also performed the first substantial piece of experimental work on the potential invasiveness of Jatropha curcas, which showed that, in the investigated habitats in Burkina Faso and Zambia, it was unable to establish and spread significantly from deliberate plantings.
Exploitation Route The cultivation of jatropha as a biofuel crop for the production of transport fuel (biodiesel) was heralded as a new technology that could be profitability grown on waste ground, and provide a source oil for easy transformation into biodiesel. This project aimed to look at the reality of this claim by investigating the lifecycle of the crop and the impact of its cultivation on farmers and the environment. The results emphasised the importance of research and feasibility studies prior to the role out of new ideas to farmers in the developing world. It highlighted the dangers of jumping on the bandwagon of unproven technologies that appear to have potential but which are still in their infancy, this is the most valuable finding that can be put to use by others.

Practically, the need for plant breeding to develop new jatropha varieties with much higher oil yields is required, although other oil producing crops may prove to be a better option.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink