When the Burmese government mandated that all Burmese citizens in rural areas cultivate the physic nut (Jatropha curcas), I thought the idea was absurd. Physic nut, commonly known as jatropha, is a poisonous plant that comes from Central America. The shrub produces seeds that can be converted into biodiesel (the nut oil is mixed with methanol to create fuel), which is believed to be cleaner than petroleum and does not emit carbon dioxide. According to the June 2007 issue of Scientific American, Brazilian jatropha seeds contain 40% oil, a remarkably high amount. Also, physic nut plants are easy to cultivate, mature in as little as two years and can grow with little water and poor soil.
Although Burma exports 90 million gallons of crude oil to neighboring countries like Thailand and China, there are constant shortages within the country (200 million gallons are imported annually). Gasoline is rationed at government fueling stations, and extra gasoline must be bought on the black market (there is a thriving black market of entrepreneurs who ‘steal’ gasoline from the gas tanks of cars). The idea is that widespread cultivation of physic nut–the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation has a goal of 7 million acres–will lessen Burma’s dependence on petroleum. Currently, 18 million acres are dedicated to rice.
The idea is not new, nor is it uncommon. India, Indonesia, and several South American and African countries like Suriname and Kenya. But, the government is not implementing its plans the way other countries are doing it. According to The Irrawaddy:
A government-backed militia in northern Shan State confiscated nearly 1,000 acres of farmland earlier this year from villagers in Muse Township and has begun clearing the land in preparation for the planting of physic nut trees, according to residents in the Burma-China border town.
Villagers who complained about the seizure of land were told that the militia had acted under orders from Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut, head of the Burmese army’s Northeast Command.
Much of the land owners have not been properly compensated. This just proves to show how a good idea can go awry. Although it’s no surprise that the government would resort to force in cultivating the physic nut, that same government hailed that the “national duty” of the agricultural sector was first and foremost to produce enough food for the Burmese people. The physic nut is neither edible nor useful without industrial processing. Ordinary farmers would not benefit–the middlemen, those who sell the physic nut to the biodiesel industry, the biodiesel industry, and government officials would benefit.
Of course, the sudden implementation of the idea (it began in 2006) may have astrological and superstitious roots. The Irrawaddy states that “Than Shwe believes that the act of planting kyet suu can neutralize Suu Kyi’s powers and prevent her seeds of dissent from taking root.” It’s hard to tell whether this is chimerical or not, but it’s easy to see that forced cultivation may make Burma cleaner but not happier.