By ROBERT P. WALZER – The New York Times
A worker in Mozambique holding jatropha seeds. Efforts to make jatropha-based biofuel have met with mixed success.
A Brazilian start-up is testing the possibility of implementing a large-scale biofuels project using jatropha, a family of hardy, succulent plants.
The company, BioVentures Brasil, is getting $1 million from the InterAmerican Development Bank for a pilot project on about seven hectares (17 acres) in Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, where it hopes to eventually develop a plantation on 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) of mostly abandoned cattle-grazing land. The pilot will determine whether the species can adapt to the area’s soil and climate, as well as other factors like how best to work with local communities.
Efforts to make jatropha-based biofuel have met with mixed success elsewhere. A project in Ghana, for example, appears to be moving forward. But in Tanzania, where hopes were also high for a large jatropha-based biofuel project, the government reportedly suspended all biofuel investments recently after concerns arose over food shortages.
Ivan Nuñez, a banker with the I.D.B. who helps vet biofuels investments, said that multilateral lenders like the I.D.B. and the World Bank had turned more cautious on biofuels after their effects on the price and availability of food became apparent. He also noted that commercial long-term financing for such projects had also diminished as oil prices declined from their heights in the summer of 2008.
Still, the I.D.B. sees promise in biofuels, according to Mr. Nuñez, and it is backing seven such projects — two involving waste, three involving sugarcane and two involving jatropha, including the one in Bahia. The bank, however, is treading carefully. It recently created a stricter “Biofuels Sustainability Scorecard’’ to help project developers gauge issues of concern like food security, water management, biodiversity, carbon emissions and indigenous rights.
“We’re very interested in biofuels as long as they don’t compete with food,’’ said Sergio Rivera-Zeballos, the I.D.B. investment officer working on the BioVentures project. “We’re interested in jatropha because it can grow on degraded lands that are not in use for food production and because if it’s successful it could lead the way for a sustainable crop in other locations.’’
BioVentures is backed by EuroVentures, a London- and Sao Paulo-based investment firm active in Brazilian energy projects, and Grupo Vigna Brasil, a Brazilian agribusiness consultancy.
BioVentures hopes to eventually raise about $150 million from investment firms that specialize in agribusiness, and from strategic investors in power production or fuel distribution and refining “who see the benefits of potential carbon credit and sustainability aspects of such a project,’’ Guillaume Sagez and Adrian Calvert, two EuroVentures partners, said in an e-mail. The company aims to sell the fuel to Brazilian and European firms, which would use the jatropha oil to generate electric power.
This month, the company is planting jatropha curcas seeds, a species cited by Goldman Sachs as having among the best potential for biodiesel production. They were supplied by Brazil’s secretary of agriculture, the partners said.