Biofuels and the Problem of Tropical Islands, part I of II

April 29, 2013 |

Haiti-jatropha-2Peril and Promise from Haiti to Hawaii: a two-part series

Few places are as long on beauty yet short on energy as a tropical island.

Geology denies them fossil fuels for cheap fuel, powerful export incomes, or fertilizers. Heavy rainfall brings them thin soils better suited to growing wood than staple crops. Deforestation is often rampant. Energy dependency leads to trade imbalances and weak currencies that make importing foreign technology prohibitive. The onset of climate change – threatening coasts with freakish weather and rising tides, isn’t helping any.

Though there are exceptions among the archipelagoes with access to offshore oil assets — Indonesia comes to mind— but these are, in the main, exceptions to what might be described as the general problem of tropical islands.

There, lush plant life disguises what is generally poorer soil, where nutrients are leached out by incessant rain – yet the societies are highly dependent on biomass for food and fuel. SironaCares’ Michelle Lacrouciere noted, “Haitians cook with charcoal.  It is a way of life, but the charcoal trade is destroying the fragile island.  Deforestation is arguably Haiti’s largest issue. We can stabilize these hillsides and replenish the soil, the indigenous trees will return in time.”

Varying challenges

The challenges are different for each tropical locale — from subsistence economies in the Caribbean to low-lying Asian island highly exposed to climate shift, to sophisticated economies such as Hawaii’s. In Haiti, the country fights to avoid becoming a failed state. In Hawaii, the challenge is to reduce dependency on imported energy and its high, and highly volatile, costs that stress the local economy and tourism.

In today’s Digest, we look at the arrival of new crops, new processing technologies and new investments that can alter the energy outlook in the tropics, where abundant rainfall and year-round growing seasons offer biomass opportunities. In part one today, we look at Haiti; in our concluding part tomorrow, at Hawaii.

The problem of Haiti

HAITI: Now it is nightfall and the dark is gathering all along the north Haitian coast east of Port-de-Paix, and with each passing hour we fall deeper into the darkness of the 19th century, back into a time out of mind before the power lines and the street lights came.

Other coastlines have the dots and dashes of individual lamps and banks of urban glare — but not here, not where a countrywide electric grid never arrived, and rural microgrids fell out of use when oil prices soared and generators fell into disrepair.

The trails are dark, the roads are quiet excepting the occasional motorcycle or truck rolling by — their rollicking headlamps, as they barrel through the ruts, bouncing lightbeams around the sides of sharply uplifted hills like the kleig lights of a Hollywood premiere.

The vehicles are typically overloaded with people — hanging off the sides, or doubling up on the seats. Everyone is going somewhere, here just as anywhere — but here they march to their destinies and destinations, in so far as they require journey at night, in a dark as deep as a voyage to the bottom of the sea.

“Tour bagay anfom?” says one to another, speaking in the local creole — “Is everything OK?”

We hear the Creole in Miami, especially in Little Haiti and on the street corners along North 79th Street between the freeway and the bay. But here, the Creole is everywhere, and everything is most definitely not OK. And help often has come in the form of failed promises.

Sustainability, instead of charity


MIchelle Lacourciere writes: “We see so many abandoned projects in Haiti, so many good intentions, and good plans that were never completed. Often what was to be a development project turns into an attempt to meet the needs of the people instead, so the long-term improvement is sacrificed to meet immediate need. Our goal is to link resources to our communities where we can without sacrificing our long-term goals.

“Our jatropha farming and our electricity projects are focused upon sustainable development. By putting the power to produce and sell fuel in the hands of the world’s poorest people we empower them, creating a real basis for economic stability.But two projects are working to change the equation in Haiti.”

Sirona Fuels, Blue Sky Biodiesel and Sirona Cares

Back in 2010, we first reported in the Digest on the work of Sirona Fuels and the Sirona Cares Foundation to develop jatropha plantations in Haiti.

If you connect Sirona with Oakland’s Blue Sky Biodiesel — give yourself a gold star. They’re connected by their founders and driving spirits, Paul and Michelle Lacrouciere.

Sirona Fuels owns Blue Sky and has been providing low-cost biodiesel for several years now in the Bay Area (Need $4.05 biodiesel? Try them – you can even arrange home fuel delivery for the Bay Area. Get 55 gallons delivered to your door.). In the case of Sirona Cares, Sirona commenced jatropha planting operations in Haiti in April 2009 in a joint venture with 3C Missions, an organization that has established a relief fund for over 1,100 orphaned children in Haiti.

Sirona’s nursery operations included planting multiple strains of seeds and seedlings that will be intercropped with Moringa trees. Moringa leaves are high in protein and nutrients and can be simply processed into a micronutrient powder to fight malnutrition.

Sirona provides the equipment, seeds, seedlings and technical advice, while the the Sirona Cares foundation is distributing medical supplies and other aid.

The project where “250,000 trees will change lives.”

According to Sirona, “the Jatropha farming project is running well, over 250,000 trees have been planted that will each bear enough seed to produce a gallon of clean fuel a year.  The residue will be used as nitrate rich fertilizer or compressed into briquettes to replace charcoal. Farmers are eager for the first oil pressing and charcoal production that will occur in Port au Prince.  The press was damaged during shipping and has now been repaired.  We are ready to start making Jatropha oil for sale (to displace diesel fuel), and a form of alternative charcoal that burns cleaner than traditional charcoal.

“Whenever you can reduce the amount of smoke children are exposed to you are having positive health impact in a country.  This program will not change all of Haiti, but for our farming communities it will generate badly needed revenue.”

Jatropha Pepinyé

We first profiled this project way back in 2008 — and Jatropha Pepinye goes on, as a key project for “Partner for People and Place.”

Their goal: to give farming families control over their livelihood.

Partner for People and Place writes that “sustainable solutions come from joining the entrepreneurship of local people with the ecology of the place where they live. Our current project is JATROPHA PEPINYÈ. Jatropha Pepinyè is a nonprofit cooperative of smallholder farmers in northeast Haiti that fosters sustainable agriculture – farming that is tied to the ecological capabilities of the land and the capacities and aspirations of local families.  Sustainable farming is structured on multiple crops in order to produce stable farm income throughout the year.”

Latest on the project: ” The transformation of this land with Jatropha in just 3 years is nothing short of amazing – but what’s even more amazing is the income it can generate for poor farming families. June brought a good harvest on trees that were planted just two and a half years ago and are not yet fully grown. All month scooters loaded with sacks of seeds traveled rutted dirt roads to bring
their harvest to Jatrofa Pepinyè to sell. With cash in hand the rides home were easier – carrying the satisfaction that a good sale brings.

“While the farmers’ efforts were rewarded in June with a good harvest, we know we can improve. There is no cookbook on the subject so we rely on plant ecology. It is our Julia Child and she says, adapt farming to local conditions. We are – with well-timed pruning, plowing, fertilization, mulching and more. Bigger harvests are coming.”

You can make a difference.

Lacrouciere writes, “Consider this: the impact of a $100 donation to this program will allow us to plant 1,000 seedlings, each will produce a gallon of fuel per year as well as charcoal.  If the value of that is $5 per year, and the trees live for 25 years (typically between 25-45 years) your $100 donation creates $125,000 for the farmers in Haiti.  JDT’s $5,000 donation will generate $6,250,000 over the life of these trees.”

You can learn more about Sirona Cares here  — and People and Place here.

In tomorrow’s Digest

Part II, Hawaii — in “Biofuels and the Problem of Tropical Islands: Peril and Promise from Haiti to Hawaii”.

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