Building Peace In Haiti by Promoting Biofuels

  • Posted on: 16 March 2008
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

A colleague sent me a transcript of Congressional testimony by Dr. Johanna Mendelson Forman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington DC.  The testimony gives an overview of how a biofuel economy could reduce poverty, promote energy independence, and ultimately contribute to stability in Haiti.  A transcript is attached to the blog.


Dr. Forman advocates the creation of small scale jatropha farms in Haiti that can be incorporated into existing agricultural networks and then be scaled up.  Admittedly, trying a new crop is a risk.  This why many farmers stick to standard crops like beans instead of switching over to coffee - sure the returns would be higher with coffee, but one knows there will always be a market for the beans.   But Jatropha doesn't have to compete with other crops as it is not edible - in fact, it tastes horrible and could be a sort of natural fence against animals.   It could be suited for Haiti's agricultural context well - it grows in arid regions and could be produced in small pracels of land where rural farmers pool their resources and share profits.



In a country where 70% or more of the population lives in rural areas, any developmental progress will depend on making life in the countryside viable.  If not, the population of urban centers will continue to swell.   Haiti is making progress, but will always be unstable to a certain extent unless people have access to jobs and are able to feed themselves.  In India and Africa, jatropha is being used to power generators, small motors, sewing machines, etc.  Something I was unaware of is that a byproduct of the process is glycerin - a substance which can be used for making soap.  



Earlier, USAID commissioned a large study on preserving watersheds in Haiti.  I noticed that USAID has put a significant ammount of resources into this area having announced a $18.2 million investment over three years to establish hardwood and fruit tree nurseries with which to reforest hillsides.  Rarely will fruit trees be cut down making them an effective option.  Jatropha could also be an option as it prevents erosion and animals will not eat it.  Preventing erosion is critical both for keeping agricuture viable and for preventing mudslides, floods, and other natural disasters.    You can read more about USAID programs here.



She also raises the idea of creating a shared biodisel zone along the Dominican/Haitian Border.  The Dominican side could host the larger processing plants while Haiti could much of the jatropha.  The report notes that Haiti and the DR recently signed an accord on technical and educational cooperation, perhaps these programs could be incorporated into that framework.  Both countries need more energy than they are individually or collectively able to produce. 



Dr. Forman notes that the private sector is the main driver of economic development in Haiti.  Without their involvement, biofuels will likely go nowhere.  However, the government could help create an environment supportive of these investments by donating land for pilot projects.  Brazil continues to provide technical assistance although equipment for processing jatropha will likely have to come from a bilateral or multilateral donor.



I still have some questions.  Is the kind of jatropha that grows like a weed in Haiti already the ideal variety for biofuels?  If not, the best seeds will have to be imported, and if the government and private sector can work together, piloted in different parts of the country.  If jatropha can grow in regions as arid as the northeast, it would be a blessing. The transcript is a quick and interesting read.   Welcome your thoughts on it.



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