How Our Best Intentions Went Up in Smoke

Project Jatropha


photo of two smiling young people

Almost every year we travel to India to visit our grandparents who live on a farm in a village near Hunsur, in the south. Quite a few of the villagers in this region grow tobacco, as it is a cash crop. But as we learned during our regular visits, tobacco carries a heavy environmental burden. In order to process tobacco, the leaves of the plant must be cured in heated barns. This requires burning large amounts of firewood, which generates significant air pollution. Even worse, the tobacco-curing kilns’ demand for firewood is causing deforestation. Because the farmers have no wood on their own plots of land, they typically purchase firewood from agents who do illegal logging in the local wildlife sanctuary, the Rajiv Gandhi National Park (Nagarahole), which is home to the Asian elephant and tiger.

Whenever we go to India, we see the effects of deforestation on the borders of the park, and the resulting human-animal conflicts. We began to realize that if the local farmers continued to grow and cure tobacco, then eventually the whole forest and its incredible bio-
diversity would disappear. We wanted to find a way to help, and thought that a solution might lay in identifying another crop that could earn farmers an income while being more environmentally sound.

Jatropha curcas seemed like the answer. Jatropha is a perennial shrub that sprouts inedible but oil-rich seeds that can be turned into biofuel. We already had been experimenting with jatropha on our grandfather’s farm. But we had to prove to the local farmers that the crop could be economically viable substitute for tobacco.

In 2008, we planted 1,000 seedlings as a pilot crop. We held a demonstration of processing the seeds into biofuel and distributed it to local farmers to test it on their irrigation pumps. The results were clear: The biofuel burned much cleaner than the diesel that farmers were accustomed to using. If the farmers could sell the biofuel, they would have another cash crop.

Our efforts took off. Before we knew it, we had raised close to $15,000 to expand the work, attained official nonprofit status as Project Jatropha, and involved local Indian youth. Scores of farmers were hopping on board, and soon we had planted 13,000 jatropha seedlings. As Project Jatropha gained momentum, we began to visit India more frequently, often going there two to three times a year. We spent a lot of time with the farming families, working with them in the heavy rains and scorching sun. We played with the local kids, drank from the local wells, fell sick, and luckily got better.

As we spent more and more time at the project site, we started to realize that we weren’t just giving to the farmers – we were gaining valuable lessons ourselves. We thought that the solution to tobacco’s problems was so straightforward. But we were starting to see our easy assumptions go up in smoke.

We had researched tobacco, and we thought we knew everything: that it was the root of the problem, that it had to be eliminated since all it did was harm society, and that it was easily replaceable. But our opinions and reality differed. During a visit in the summer of 2009, we began to realize the plant’s complex position within the rural culture. Tobacco farmers need a license to construct a processing barn and sell processed tobacco. Not everyone gets this license, and recently the number of licenses has been restricted. So those who have licenses are considered well-off. In fact, economic status and tobacco are so deeply entwined in rural south India that the first thing a boy’s parents will ask if they are trying to arrange a marriage for their son is whether his intended’s parents have a tobacco license. Possession of a tobacco license, we found out, ensures that the girl’s parents can pay for the wedding and possibly give her a dowry. Having a tobacco license ensures a girl’s parents that they will be able to find a suitable groom for their daughter.

Prior to learning about tobacco’s place in the local culture, we had never looked upon the crop with respect. Now that we understand its role in the culture, we ask ourselves: If we replace tobacco with jatropha, how will this affect communities? Is the complete removal of tobacco a smart course? Can an environmental solution be truly sustainable if it tears apart the social fabric?

We don’t know. But we’re sure that the answers, just like our jatropha seedlings, will take time to fully mature.

Apoorva Rangan and Adarsha Shivakumar are co-founders of Project Jatropha. Shivakumar is a recipient of the 2009 Brower Youth Awards.

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