How did the idea of using Jatropha for biofuel emerge in Indonesia?

By Suraya Afiff

Quote: Jatropha development for modern biofuel production in Indonesia started in 1994.” 

Publications about jatropha usually start with the hype and subsequently explain the downfall. They skip the history leading to the hype, and do not explain why policymakers selected jatropha oil production as the most promising solution to their problems, assuming that those policymakers identified climate change, fossil-fuel depletion and rural poverty as the core problems. The history of the introduction of jatropha in Indonesia does not confirm these assumptions, but rather draws attention to a process that has been going on for more than a century, in which distinct types of actors, each with their own objectives and narratives about jatropha, dominated the activities concerning the plant in successive phases.

When and how was jatropha introduced in Indonesia? I searched for an answer in various  sources such as newspaper archives, academic articles, reports, seminar presentations and websites. This search led me to the conclusion that the national history of Jatropha curcas in Indonesia can be divided into three periods, each with its own key actors who introduced or re-introduced the crop for a specific purpose.

The first period was more than a century ago. Jatropha curcas, which is called jarak pagar in Indonesia, is not a native plant of this country. Portuguese traders helped to spread this plant from its native homeland in Central America to Africa, then later on to Asia – including Indonesia – around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (1). Jatropha curcas has now spread across Indonesia as a wild plant, and is particularly prevalent in the coastal areas of the islands in the eastern region. However, Jatropha curcas has often been confused with castor, which is also called jarak in Indonesia (2, 3). There is no specific record indicating that there has been extensive trade of Jatropha curcas seeds in or from Indonesia. In this first period jatropha was sometimes used as a home medicine for its laxative and antiseptic properties (4).

The second period, which is prominent in the collective memory in Indonesia, is the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945 (3, 5, p. 5; 6, 7). Many Indonesians still remember how the Japanese rulers forced the native people to grow and collect jarak seeds, which was actually a combination of both castor and jatropha seeds (3, 7). Jatropha trees were planted on people’s land as fences. Schoolchildren and their teachers had to collect seeds and hand them over to the Japanese authorities, who exported them to their home country as raw material for making lubricants for military equipment (8). This activity was discontinued immediately after the Japanese lost the war and Indonesia declared its independence. After independence, whenever fuel for lamps was scarce, people in rural areas like Sumba and Flores used jatropha oil pressed from the seeds and mixed with cotton to make torches. The use of jatropha seed as a lubricant or lamp oil during the Japanese era helped to convince people later on about the potential of this crop as feedstock for alternative fuel.

The third period is the era of jatropha development for modern biofuel production. There are differences in opinion about when this period commenced. Some sources focus on the first known academic research project aimed at developing biofuel from jatropha, mentioning 1994 as a landmark year, when Robert Manurung started his work at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) (9,10). Other sources (11,12) choose 2001 as the landmark year, when Professor Tatang of ITB made the first presentation about jatropha for biofuel at a national seminar. In that presentation, he mentioned a jatropha project in Nicaragua that became a source of inspiration leading him to propose a pilot jatropha project in Indonesia. However, most publications about jatropha in Indonesia refer to 2005 as the first landmark year (13) when the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono included jatropha in new policies for producing biofuel as a global commodity. During the following period in the history of jatropha in Indonesia, the engineers from ITB were no longer the only key actors influencing the dissemination of the idea of commercializing Jatropha curcas for fuel, but were joined by government officials, NGOs and project developers.

In summary, the idea of using jatropha for producing biofuel was not new in Indonesia in the early years of the twenty-first century. The modern global narratives about fossil-fuel depletion and energy crises arguments for growing jatropha were supported by the popularity and familiarity in rural areas of jatropha as a wild plant providing oil for traditional lamps, and by a collective memory of jatropha as an energy crop for industrial processing during the Japanese occupation.


  1. A. M. Achten, R. N. Lene, A. Raf, G. L. Ard, D. K. Erik, T. Antonio, T.; Jon, K. H., Wouter, H. M., Lars, G., Festus, K. A., Bart, Toward domestication of jatropha curcas. Biofuel 1(1), 91-107 (2010).
  2. T. H. Soerawidjaja, personal communication, April 5, 2012.
  3. B. Susilo, “Say goodbye to exploding lpg canisters,” Jakarta Post, August 24, 2010; retrieved from
  4. J. Kloppenburg-Versteegh, Wenken en Raadgevingen Betreffende het Gebruik van Indische Planten, Vruchten etc. (Service Katwijk, Katwijk aan Zee, 1978 [1907]).
  5. Y. A. Fatimah, S. Yuliar, Opening the indonesian bio-fuel box: How scientists modulate the social. International Journal of Actor-Network Theory and Technological Innovation 1(2), 1-12 (2009).    
  6. “Marilah kita moelai menanam djarak: Tgl 10 sampai tgl 16/3 pekan penanaman djarak,” Soeara Asia, March 11, 1944.
  7. O. Soemarwoto, “Ubah krisis energi menjadi hikmah,” Kompas, October 17, 2005.
  8. “Berbakti dengan djarak: Toenggak djati mati – djarak meradjak,” Sinar Baroe,  March  28, 1944.
  9. Amir, S.; Nurlaila, I.; Yuliar, S., Cultivating Energy, Reducing Poverty: Biofuel Development in an Indonesian Village. Perspectives on Global Development and Technology, 7, 113-132 (2008).
  10. Gunawan, T. S., Robert Manurung: Inventor of Renewable Green Fuel. Jakarta Post August 8, 2006.
  11. Fatimah, Y. A. Modulasi aktor-aktor bioenergi di perguruan tinggi: Sebuah tinjauan teori jaringan aktor. Magister master, Institut Teknologi Bandung, 2008.
  12. T. H. Soerawidjaja, personal communication, April 5, 2012.
  13. Tim Nasional Pengembangan BBN. Bbn – Bahan Bakar Nabati: Bahan Bakar Alternatif dari Tumbuhan sebagai Pengganti Minyak Bumi dan Gas (Penebar Swadaya, Jakarta, 2007).


Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Mini Articles