Biofuel Gone Bad: Burma's Atrophying Jatropha

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Ethnic minorities in traditional dress and Burmese civil servants plant jatropha crops at an official planting ceremony in Burma's Shan State on Jan. 15, 2006

My friend in Rangoon is a busy man. He manages a couple of companies in Burma's commercial capital, helps raise his children and regularly makes merit at a Buddhist temple. He also spends time tending to a plant that he knows is only grown to die. In Dec. 2005, Burma's economically inept junta — one of its leaders once decided to denominate the national currency by multiples of nine because he liked the number — decided that the country's future lay in a shrub called jatropha.

Although Burma sits on some of the region's richest oil and natural-gas reserves, much of the country lacks electricity. That's because most of its potential fuel is exported to neighboring countries through lucrative contracts that benefit the ruling generals instead of being used at home. The Burmese regime's stated solution to the longrunning national blackout? Jatropha. Also known as "physic nut," the plant produces a green nut that is pressed and processed into a biofuel catching on in entrepreneurial green pockets of the world from Florida to Brazil to India, which has already earmarked 100 million acres for the plant and expects the oil to account for one-fifth its diesel consumption by 2011. (Watch TIME's video about biofuel tree farmers in action.)

Each of Burma's states and divisions was ordered to dedicate around 500,000 acres (202,000 hectares) to physic-nut cultivation, pressuring many ordinary citizens into a massive forced-planting campaign, according to human-rights groups. While my friend has enough money to pay for the mandatory seeds, many other Burmese aren't so lucky. Those who refuse to farm physic nut face possible jail time. By the end of 2008, the nation's top brass aimed to have 8 million acres (3.24 million ha) of jatropha scattered across Burma, some in vast plantations run by foreign companies, others wedged into home gardens or between shacks. (See pictures of Burma after Cyclone Nargis.)

Puzzlingly, however, the junta's planting directive has not been matched by adequate infrastructure to turn those acres into energy, like collection mechanisms, processing plants, distribution systems. My friend dutifully tends his jatropha trees and then watches the seeds fall on the ground and die. In his case, the spindly physic-nut shrubs in his garden are supplanting a fragrant frangipani tree or colorful hibiscus bush. But elsewhere in Burma — a nation where UNICEF estimates malnutrition afflicts one-third of children — farmers have had to put aside valuable crop land for a wasted plant.

In a country where general information is so severely circumscribed, innuendoes, puns and astrological signs often play a big role in reading national trends like jatropha. Ever looking for a hidden meaning to the seemingly incomprehensible actions of their leaders, some speculate that the Burmese word for "jatropha" sounds like an inversion of the name of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy may be the junta's most potent opposition. By inverting Suu Kyi's name, perhaps the superstitious junta believes that the kyet-suu plant will cause her democracy movement to wither away. (Read about Burma's ethnic minorities.)

In Rangoon, I watched on television as generals in oversized camouflage hats were pictured shoveling earth to plant jatropha seedlings. Burmese state television shows an inordinate number of ribbon-cutting ceremonies and ground-breaking rituals, in which military men inaugurate the latest project and broadcasters congratulate their efforts. Eventually, as so often happens in Rangoon, the power failed and the T.V. screen went black. Biodiesel may already be contributing to a green solution in some parts of the world, but it hasn't saved Burma yet.

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