A few days ago on my way to Bobo Dioulasso, I stopped in Boni, a small village between Pa and Houndé. I went to say hello to the village Sunday school teacher. To my surprise I found his courtyard turned into a tree-nursery of Barbados nut plants, (Jatropha Curcas) also called Physic nut.

Perhaps these names have no meaning for you. In the mooré language the plants is called wãb-n-bang-ma and in jula bagani. Still no light? It does not matter. In a few years time you will be sure to have heard of it. It is bound to spread across Burkina Faso, for better or for worse for the country’s farmers. It all depends on whether they manage to control its development or if, on the contrary, they allow their land to be taken over by the most powerful groups.

The Jatropha is a shrub, 3-4 m high, originating from Brazil. It was introduced in Africa in the 15th century. Its seeds contain a nut from which vegetable oil is extracted. It is dangerous because of its violently purging properties. It has been the cause of intoxication in infants (as reported on October 6th 2005 in LE PAYS, a Burkinian daily paper, by Makido Ouédraogo).

From my inquiries I learnt that a project for cultivation of the nut on an industrial scale is about to start in Boni. The project has the support of the mayor and a village representative on the local council. No wonder that farmers have welcomed it.

The Barbados/Physic nut has many advantages at the village level. It can be used in a variety of applications:

  • Vegetable oil and its by-products
  • Fuel
  • Soap
  • Insecticide
  • Organic fertiliser
  • Hedges
  • Protection of fields against cattle
  • Prevention of soil erosion and desertification
  • Use of land that is not suitable for other crops

(See also http://www.ptfm.net/spip.php?article117 )

My fears concern the way in which the project is being promoted in Boni. The farmers are not given much of a say and project managers have not taken the time to explain the benefits as well as the limitations of cultivating this plant. Villagers have already offered to hand over 60 to 70 hectares of forest land to the developers, without anything in return for the population. Instead, they have already planned to fell all trees on the land. Where will the women, who used to fetch wood for their stoves in this area, now turn? Will the wood, “the energy source of the poor” now be sacrificed for producing fuel oil to feed the 4x4 land-cruisers of the richest?

The project management offers free Jatropha seeds to farmers who accept to set aside a couple of hectares for the new crop. Thus, those who are willing to cultivate the Barbados nut on 2,3 to 5 hectares will be given free seeds. Then it is up to them to make a success of their tree-nursery and planted field. Peasants in Boni have already proposed to make 2000 hectares available for the new cultivation in 2008. I wanted to find out which type of land would be used for the plant. I put the question to several peasants, but did not manage to obtain a clear answer. This could well mean that land at present used for maize, alternating with cotton, might be earmarked for the Barbados nut and this for a 50 year period (the time span during which the plant yields). All this while cotton seed oil can be used for cooking and is a fuel source as good as the nut oil. At a time when maize is becoming scarce at world level.

None of the farmers I talked to was able to tell me what quantities of seeds they were hoping to harvest per hectare, nor how much they would be paid. They had not even thought of negotiating a deal for presses, which they themselves could use to extract part of the oil, in order not to be entirely dependant on the price offered by the developers promoting the project.

As I left Boni I thought it would be high time for the farmers of Burkina (for example at the level of their national union Confédération Paysanne du Faso) to start discussing the benefits and the risks involved in growing the Barbados nut and to produce a guide for village associations planning to take up production of the plant.

At this stage already I believe it would be fair to say that as long as the cultivation is limited to a number of specific objectives (use of land not suited for other crops, planting hedges to enclose fields and protect them from grazing animals or stabilising soil to prevent erosion …) it will be a winning deal for the farmers. As long as they use the harvested seeds for their own needs (fuel for their mills or tractors, manufacturing of soap or insecticide) they will benefit. But this will require the purchase of presses, so that they themselves can extract the oil.

As far as the profits from large scale nut oil production are concerned, there is no certainty for investors, let alone for peasant farmers, who run the risk of quickly finding themselves dependant and reduced to farm labourers on their own land.

Koudougou, 29/10/2007
Maurice Oudet

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