Will the biofuels craze level the playing field?

The Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP) has recently opened a P10-billion credit window to whoever is interested in planting fuel crops, in particular jatropha. The Manila Bulletin Online’s report on this at first implies that the window is available merely to farmer-cooperatives. But reading through it, I found that the loan is up for grabs by any person or group of persons: farmer groups, cooperatives, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), corporations, and “such other individuals/entities which have signified to undertake the production of jatropha.”

Apparently, the LBP took the cue from the Office of the President and was convinced by the Philippine National Oil Company-Alternative Fuels Corporation (PNOC-AFC) to invest in such kind of undertakings. But with LBP’s stringent requirements when it comes to loans, the question remains: Will the small farmers get enough?

The proliferation of biofuel plantations nationwide has been touted to create 250,000 new jobs nationwide. I just wonder if that means farmers have to give up their lands (or the lands they’ve been struggling to own) and instead provide labor services to entrepreneurs and corporations. Actually, this has already happened (through leaseback, joint venture, and other types of agreements with “former” landlords) even way before the biofuels craze took the centerstage.

If the jatropha and other types of renewable sources of fuel will be used to care for the environment (which is actually subject to debate) and help urban motorists save on fuel expense, but, at the same time, it will further marginalize the small farmers, then, that biofuels craze must be opposed by all means. For the small farmers cannot afford to sacrifice more in the name of supposed national development and environmental integrity.

I’m afraid that because of the official target or requirement to produce enough biofuels, more and more small farmers will lose their hold on their lands or their hopes to own the lands they’ve been tilling. Of course, one way to at least minimize this impact is through organizing. My organization and its partners will not stop working with our constituents in asserting their rights, which the State is obliged to fulfill, respect, and protect.

About Jatropha
Jatropha, commonly known as physic or purging nut, is a non-edible oil-yielding perennial shrub that has green leaves with a length and width of 6 centimeters (cm) to 15 cm, and can reach a height of up to 5 meters. It originated in tropical America and West Asia. Jatropha comes from the Greek words: jatros (doctor) and trophe (nutrition). It belongs to the family Euphorbiaceae. It is known locally as tuba-tuba. Others call it tubang bakod, tagumbao, tawa-tawa, kalunay, kasla and tangan-tangan.

According to studies, jatropha, which can grow almost anywhere (even on gravely or rocky soil), is a great alternative to petroleum fuel, which has unstable supply worldwide and contributes to the global warming. A jatropha nut contains 30% oil. Three kilos of Jatropha seeds can produce a liter of crude Jatropha oil. A Jatropha farmer can earn P200,000 per hectare year from the processing and sale of Jatropha nuts.

It is no less than Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who has led the campaign for jatropha. She has ordered the military (no direct connection to its peace-keeping or war efforts) to speed up the propagation of jatropha seedlings in the military camps for nationwide distribution. The campaign started from the passage of the Biofuels Act of 2006, which requires a one-percent blend of locally produced biodiesel in total volume of diesel fuel sold nationwide. (In 2009, the one-percent requirement will increase to two percent.) To meet this requirement, the country needs to produce 78 milion liters of biodiesel oil annually. Jatropha is just one of the crops that are identified to contribute to that target, the other being sugarcane, corn, sorghum, and the like.

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