Today’s LA Times has an article about Air New Zealand planning to use biodiesel for their planes. Biological sources of fuel have gotten a bad reputation, with activists correctly pointing out that some (especially corn based ethanol) results in food shortage and increase in food prices.
But if you ask the farmers, the real reason for the food shortages are things like cold winters in parts of India, Pakistan, and Iran; floods in Bangladesh, and other local problems.

But the reason for the inflation in the price of rice and other foods has another reason: The increase in the price of fuel.

So those saying blithely imply biodiesel is resulting in hunger ignore that modern agricultural techniques require petroleum products, and even organic farmers like our family require diesel for the handplows, the thresher, and to transport the crops. Yes, some farmers here still use waterbuffalo, but preparing the fields with a water buffalo is a lot harder for farmers, and the buffalo has to eat, and be cared for.

Petroleum products allow the poor to wear plastic sandals (manufactured locally), allow cheap clothing from  China and used electronics from Korea to be imported easily, and allow kids (or mom) to take a tricycle (motorcycle with side car) to school (or to the Palenke) instead of walking a mile or two in heavy rain or hot sun.

Living “green” is fine for yuppies with lots of expensive alternative techology,  in the US or in middle Class Manila it is advisable. But for the poor, living green means hard work and hunger.

What is needed is clean and cheap alternative sources of energy, so that locals can find jobs here and not have to emigrate to find work to support their families.

So how does a country like the Philippines get cheap oil when they have no oil fields nearby?

Biodiesel could help farmers to make a decent living.

In the Philippines, the real interest is in two crops: Coco diesel and Jatropha.

The interesting crop is the Jatropha: because it was used during World War II as a fuel substitute, and because it has long been used in India to fuel trains.

Jatropha, unlike other forms of biodiesel, is a tree/bush that grows on marginal land, so it would be able to be grown in areas hard to irrigate for rice or other crops.

Another advantage is that it can be grown as part of small farms: mixed with vegetable crop, or used as hedges. This would allow small farmers to protect their crops from animals by plating hedges while getting an income at the same time.

One of the objections to biodiesel is if large landowners destroy the rain forest to plant plantations of one tree, destroying the environment and pressuring to buy land from nearby farmers.  By encouraging loans and seedlings to small farmers, it is hoped that these problems can be eliminated. There already is a lot of pressure in poor areas by outsiders who come in and illegally cut down trees without replacing them, leading to landslides. Jatropha has long been used for erosion control, and could allow these areas to be reclaimed while giving locals extra jobs.

Right now, the Philippine government is working with small indigent farmers in Mindanao to plant the jatropha as part of their crops, to increase their income.

Velasco said across Mindanao the firm is looking for 1.2 million hectares that will be planted with the crop. He said there is an urgent need to develop alternative sources of fuel in the wake of surging prices of imported oil products.

“We have many idle lands across the country that can be planted with jatropha, which would mean additional income for our farmers and help the government source out alternative fuels,” Velasco said.

“Jatropha does not need maintenance. Our farmers can really make use of idle, communal and marginal lands. With the studies that we have done for the past two years, one hectare of jatropha can sustain jobs for two. In 18 months, we can already harvest and it will last up to fifty years,” he added.

Our family lives in Luzon, in the plain which is ideal for rice, so we don’t see Jatropha in our future. But in much of the hilly Philippines, planting the Jatropha tree could be a valuable crop.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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