Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Jatrophetic

It sounds great.
"Cultivation is uncomplicated....The plant can grow in wastelands and grows on almost any terrain, even on gravelly, sandy and saline soils. It can thrive in poor and stony soils, although new research suggests that the plant's ability to adapt to these poor soils is not as extensive as had been previously stated."

And as for its utility?
"When jatropha seeds are crushed, the resulting jatropha oil can be processed to produce a high-quality biodiesel that can be used in a standard diesel car, while the residue (press cake) can also be processed and used as biomass feedstock to power electricity plants or used as fertilizer (it contains nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium)."

So there is a plant that can grow nearly anywhere, and its seeds can be crushed to make biodiesel, and make it a lot easier than any other biofuel can be made.

My first reaction when I heard about jatropha was that it would be great for Afghanistan. With the economy where it is, something as high-margin as jatropha oil and derivatives would be a tremendous boon. The Afghan Embassy in Canada agrees (c. 2006, at least), and there's plenty of related programs, though in Mozambique and Mali. India is really heading research on jatropha as a way to turn the Thar Desert into something at least economically viable. The project over at Tree Oil India gets the Oil Drum folks excited, and they're always cynical.

So what's the catch? This (click for bigger):

Basically, the plant is thirsty as all get-out. And sure, it can grow on arid wasteland, and that's what folks say in press releases, but if one wants to scale up to any sort of industrial level, there'll be a huge need for water. A 20,000:1 water:biodiesel ratio probably isn't doable without creating monstrous, Soviet-esque, damming and irrigation projects. As such, China may be going big.

So it's an interesting option, planting biodiesel trees that can create a self-sufficient energy infrastructure. In Afghanistan, it sounds somewhat similar to the Micro-Hydro Plant theory. This is what once I said about MHP:
If anything, real, tangible, urban areas could potentially be the result of free (or subsidized) electricity. The past 8 years of war have showed that urban areas are a lot easier for ISAF to handle than the rural areas.

Do I think the same thing could happen because of Jatropha? Well, probably to a different extent, but sure. It could happen. I used to think corruption was the major roadblock for any sort of organic infrastructure and urban growth strategy. And it's not like corruption disappeared, but I think there's a bigger roadblock now.

The Ink-Spot strategy has lots of proponents, and far be it from me to Know Afghanistan Better than Steve Coll (because I unequivocally do not, and he's a really nice guy besides) but my biggest criticism of ink-spots is that it puts the agricultural heart of the Afghan economy in the hands of the not-ISAF. It makes the urban areas that are relying on aid even more reliant on aid because they're cut off from their hinterlands. The ink-spot strategy leaves any sort of possibility of real growth and state-building off the table in favor of a solely military solution. A solution that will become more and more difficult as the ISAF's opposition (call 'em Taliban, call 'em Haqqani, call 'em whatever) can build up a legitimate state structure in lieu of Karzai's government.

So I present this Jatropha exploration as a damning of the ink-spot strategy more than as a legitimate opportunity for growth. It's dead on arrival, along with any other attempt to build agricultural growth, or even just a non-poppy economy.

But suppose it wasn't. Suppose jatropha caught on, and swept the nation, from Herat to Afghanistan. This is a plant that leeches nutrients from the already-barren soil its planted on, and chugs water like an ironman. Large-scale industrial planting would probably destroy the land within a generation, if not less.

Say you could guarantee 20 years of economic growth, a self-sufficient Afghan government, a rise of industrial capacity, and general economic stability and urbanization of Afghanistan. Would you take that if it would mean that after those 2 decades, you would have to create a whole new economy from scratch? If it would mean that you would sacrifice the next generation's stability to guarantee this one's? It's basically a question of whether you think Taliban-esque terrorism is a blip or here to stay, and what the future of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan may be, to say nothing of Iran and Pakistan. But it's something to chew on, I suppose. Even if every problem was solved besides the military solution and the social solutions, are those accomplishable or intractable in the context of Central Asia?

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