At Barrick Gold’s Bulyanhulu mine in Tanzania, what began as a desire to rehabilitate mine land is about to become a pioneering agri-business for 300 farmers eager to tap into the burgeoning market for greener energy. This story begins with the hardy jatropha curcas, a weedy bush once known for its medicinal qualities which some are now heralding as the ideal biofuel crop.
Jatropha grows in tropical and subtropical climates and, unlike other sources of biofuel, such as palm oil or corn for ethanol, the crop is highly resilient and doesn’t require quality soil necessary for other agricultural crops to thrive. In fact, jatropha is drought resistant, capable of surviving in a veritable wasteland, and excellent at preventing soil erosion.
In Tanzania, interest in jatropha farming has been steadily growing. In India, major investments have been made in large-scale plantations.
Jatropha seeds produce up to 30 per cent oil content when crushed. This raw oil can be used for lighting and cooking or processed to produce high-quality biodiesel that can power a standard diesel car. It is estimated that the plant yields more than four times as much fuel per hectare as soybean, and more than 10 times that of corn. A one hectare crop of jatropha is capable of producing approximately 2,000 litres. Plant by-products include wax and glycerin, which can be used to support home-grown candle and soap-making industries.
Historically, the land surrounding the Bulyanhulu mine had been used by farmers for a mix of crops and livestock grazing. More recently, chronic overgrazing and subsistence farming techniques had made the land unproductive.
Enter Ulrich Sibilski, Barrick Gold’s Africa environmental manager. When Sibilski first initiated the jatropha project in early 2007, he needed a crop that could be used not only to rehabilitate mine property but also to help local farmers and residents move beyond subsistence farming. It was clear that the jatropha plant would do the job in rehabilitating the land but to make the leap to a commercially successful agri-business venture, he decided to bring in some expert help. A partnership was established with the Export Trading Company, a Tanzanian firm that specializes in bio fuel plantation development.
Last October, the company established a nursery on mine property and grew 150,000 seedlings. In December, 11 hectares of mine property were planted with the seedlings, followed in successive months by weeding and pruning. The first group of local farmers invited to participate have received agricultural training and are now growing seedlings, which are then harvested every two years.
Barrick Gold has also established a mini bio fuel plant on mine property which is capable of processing 800 litres of bio fuel per day. Meanwhile, another 150,000 nursery seedlings are ready for planting in the fields this year. Sibilski and his team plan to expand the planting to 300 hectares within the mining lease and have charged the Export Trading Company with increasing that number by a further 1,500 hectares by engaging more local farmers in the project.
A public awareness campaign is underway to identify farmers interested in converting a portion of their lands to grow jatropha. Seeds will be provided free of charge and crops will be purchased back at a rate above the price that would be paid for crops such as corn.
To secure an immediate market for the end product, Barrick Gold has pledged that 10 per cent of its diesel consumption will be replaced by bio fuel processed at its plant once it becomes available.
Throughout this process, Sibilski and his team of experts have been mindful that in some developing countries, the lucrative nature of the biofuel plant had forced out local food crops, increasing the risk of famine. The mine project was developed to strike a delicate balance between local food supply to the community and commercial development. Interested local farmers who were invited to add jatropha to their existing portfolio of crops were also aware of the conditional requirements.
“We made it clear that this isn’t a get rich quick scheme,” said Sibilski. “Our commercial contract with growers stipulated that the goal is to create a sustainable agribusiness. This jatropha farming project is being developed to build on the existing base of local farming in a way that serves the community’s needs and interests.”
Total cost for the project to date is US$245,000, including the nursery, processing plant farming equipment and external expertise.
“This unique project is enabling us to cover off several bases at once,” said Ubilski. “We are certainly doing our part in terms of land rehabilitation. But more than this, we are supporting sustainable community development and alternative energy in one stroke.”