Saturday, June 14, 2008

Native Plants for Bio-ethanol and Bio-diesel Program

by Charles Roring
We can use sap of coconut and saguer palm trees, sugarcane, cassava and etc. to make bio-ethanol. To make this kind of industry profitable, we need massive plantation. But the development of this industry should not damage the local environment. In practice, we often see how bio-ethanol corporations grow plants in certain areas that are not native to the surrounding environment. These plants can be considered foreign plants and might cause environmental problems. This also happens in bio-diesel industry. In Indonesia, plantation companies grow sawit palm trees to produce palm oil. This kind of practice brings damage to the surrounding environment. The reason is that sawit palm trees are more profitable than other plants such as coconut and corn for bio-fuel production.
Cassava, jatropha, and sugarcane, coconut and saguer palm are native plants in Indonesia. Research and development for better varieties of these plants is needed to increase the productivity. Saguer palm trees produce significant amount of sap which can be used as raw material of alcohol destilation. Traditionally, people use the sap to make palm sugar and alcoholic drinks. The production of sap from saguer tree is higher than coconut. So, it is our potential bio-ethanol raw material which has not been developed seriously.
Native plants are more resistant to insects and bacteria. They can produce sap or oil continuously without much difficulties. Therefore I hope that more experts in this country can make saguer palm trees and other local plants as the base of developing bio-ethanol and bio-diesel industries in this country. They might not be better than foreign plants but with substantial R and D we can improve their productivity.
Indonesia has set a national program to increase the production of bio-fuel until 2010 by opening 5.25 million hectares of land for bio-fuel crops. This huge area will be divided into four main crops, i.e. sawit palm 1.5 million ha (28%), jatropha 1.5 million hectares (29%), sugarcane 0.75 million hectares (14%), and cassava 1.5 million hectares (29%). These plantations will be scattered throughout the archipelago. To support the national goal, all related departments and private sectors as well as local governments and communities have to cooperate together. The opening of these plantations must not jeopardise other food crop areas that have been productive in producing food for people. So, unproductive lands should be used for this purpose.
Unfortunately, this ambitious plan is not without risk. Private companies prefer to open their plantation in fertile land. This will mean that more forest will be cut and replaced by sawit palm and sugarcane plantations. In addition, more farmers are needed to run the plantations. In big islands where huge land area is available, usually the density of local population is very low. This will be used as an excuse by the plantation companies to recruit hundreds of thousands of farm workers from other densly populated islands. Such transmigrations program became major horizontal problems between 1999 -2002 as we could see in West Kalimantan and Maluku. Migrants and local communities were involved in communal clashes due to land disputes and economic imbalances as well as sectarian conflicts.
We must not encourage transmigration in order to fulfil this national goal. We can still achieve the above goal by empowering the local people so that more jobs will be available to them in these newly opened plantations.