Weighing Options for Haiti’s Energy Future: Is Jatropha a Realistic Alternative?

As discussed in a previous blog, Haiti remains largely dependent on charcoal and fuelwood for its energy services. This reliance has contributed to Haiti’s remarkable level of deforestation – only three percent of its original forest cover remains – and has led the government to begin considering energy alternatives. Previously, I described the costs and benefits of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and other energy alternatives like efficient cookstoves and waste paper briquettes. Below is an examination of another energy source that has gained some footing in Haiti recently: the jatropha tree.

Jatropha seedlings at a pilot project in Haiti (Source: Chibas).

The jatropha tree can grow in arid climates with poor soil quality, making it very suitable for a country like Haiti that has largely deforested and degraded lands. One study estimates that 1.114 million hectares of jatropha production could meet Haiti’s entire energy demand, and since 500,000 hectares of degraded hillside are available for jatropha production in Haiti, it could realistically replace much of the country’s current charcoal consumption without displacing food crops.

Jatropha could prove to be a useful crop, especially in the Haitian context, because of its diverse services. In terms of the electricity and transportation sectors, with some processing, jatropha oil can be blended into biodiesel and used for power generation or fueling cars. Unprocessed jatropha vegetable oil could also be used to fuel kerosene lamps and could even power households or small community electricity generators with little to no alterations.

Vegetable oil straight from the jatropha tree can also be used to replace charcoal or fuelwood, though this would require many Haitians to switch from traditional wood cookstoves to vegetable oil-fueled cookstoves, which was unpopular in a jatropha pilot project in Tanzania. Not to be forgotten, the fruit shells and hulls from the jatropha tree could be made into briquettes and used as a replacement for charcoal. The major benefit to briquettes is that they would require little to no alteration to Haiti’s traditional cookstoves.

Besides providing energy services, parts of the jatropha tree can be used to produce fertilizer, honey, and soap. Another exciting development being pursued by researchers in Haiti is the use of jatropha as feed for livestock. Although many strands of jatropha are toxic, livestock in Mexico already feed on varieties of the plant.

One lesson learned from a jatropha pilot project in Mali was that the value additions of jatropha production, such as using it for soap or fertilizer, are important to the project’s ultimate success. For Haiti, which lacks significant levels of domestic industry, these value additions could be very important to economic development, and should not be ignored if Haiti pursues jatropha for its cooking, electricity generation, and transportation services.

There are many challenges to developing jatropha, however. Food security is a major issue in Haiti, and as with any biofuel development, there is a risk of jatropha supplanting necessary food crops. This can be avoided, though, if Haiti manages jatropha development carefully and plants the trees in areas that are not suitable for food crops. This is realistic considering that jatropha can survive in arid and nutrient-poor regions. Also, when jatropha leaves fall to the ground, they add much-needed macro-nutrients (such as nitrogen) and micro-nutrients (such as iron and manganese) to the soil. Therefore, if jatropha is planted in nutrient-poor areas, it can actually improve the soil’s fertility and arguably increase Haiti’s food security.

Another challenge is that jatropha trees take five to seven years to mature, with estimates suggesting that it will take three years for Haitian farmers to break even on costs. Since most farmers lack access to capital and because there is a dearth of Haitian institutions to provide credible loans, high upfront costs and delayed revenue streams could present a significant challenge to jatropha development.

The non-existence of bio-energy legislation in Haiti also presents an obstacle. Potential investors worry about this lack of legislation, which creates uncertainty and reduced security for investments. With bio-energy legislation, businesses and non-governmental organizations involved in jatropha production would be given a uniform framework through which to operate, easing the worries of potential investors.

Experiences in India also highlight concerns about land ownership in relation to jatropha. When wastelands (such as deforested lands) are reclaimed and converted into profitable pieces of land through government sponsored programs, land tenure rights and ownership can become uncertain. Haiti’s government will need to pass legislation on finance, land rights, and other issues to build the governance structure necessary to achieve many of its development goals, including clean energy access.

Despite these challenges, jatropha development could provide Haiti with many benefits. Environmentally speaking, planting jatropha trees in deforested hillsides would help to reforest the nation and combat erosion. Decreasing erosion would improve water quality and mitigate flooding risks. Because jatropha trees can also improve soil quality, food crops can be grown around them, increasing Haiti’s food security. Moreover, if toxic varieties of jatropha are grown near valuable food crops, they too can increase food security by keeping livestock like goats away.

It is estimated that one job is created for every two hectares of jatropha planted. Most of these jobs are in agriculture, which is important since Haiti has such a large rural population. Furthermore, if the jatropha industry were to partially replace the charcoal industry, it would need to generate jobs for these communities to offset the lost charcoal jobs. In addition to generating new jobs, jatropha production could enable rural farmers to enter new markets. Currently, Haiti needs to import much of its livestock feed, which is too expensive for many rural farmers and acts as a barrier to their entering the market.  Locally-produced jatropha could reduce feed costs and allow more Haitians to raise livestock.

Experiences in Mali highlight four major qualities that can drive jatropha development within a country: 1) high transportation costs due to poor road infrastructure and remoteness, 2) large amounts of wastelands unfit for food crops, 3) an abundance of available labor, and 4) a high dependency on expensive fossil fuels. Today, all four of these qualities are prevalent throughout Haiti, demonstrating why Haiti should consider jatropha when formulating its future energy policy.

In this series of blogs, Worldwatch aims to provide a discussion of the current options available to Haiti and to guide policymaking through informed, independent analysis. Please stay tuned!

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