Why did Jatropha cultivation appeal to farmers in West Kalimantan?

By Pujo Semedi

Quote: “In Indonesia, promoted by government officials, the promotion of jatropha reached farmers across the vast archipelago. Subsequently, some farmers immediately began cultivating it [….]”

The spread of jatropha in West Kalimantan around 2006 was well-received by farmers. Their adoption of the crop was very different from the protests that characterized the introduction of oil palm in the area. The claims that jatropha could be cultivated on marginal lands, or in a mixed-cropping mode, and that it did not require forest conversion and would not lead to land grabbing, would be logical explanations of such enthusiasm (1). Instead, I would like to argue that the cultural reason why farmers welcomed jatropha was because it fitted their ideas of a fictitious market which have been lingering in the area for quite sometime. Without external funding, farmers in several districts transformed hectares of their farmlands into jatropha fields in the hope of gaining a share of the biodiesel crop windfall. The government, the private sector, NGOs and farmers were united in a dream of lush, green, environmentally friendly, economically productive jatropha fields. All were carried away by the belief that there was an insatiable market demand for biodiesel, while supply was still very limited, creating huge opportunities for cultivators of the biofuel feedstock.

Safe’i is harvesting the fruits from his two hectare oil palm garden. In West Kalimantan jatropha cannot compete with the economically attractive oil pam cultivation. Photo: Pujo Semedi, 2011.

Safe’i is harvesting the fruits from his two hectare oil palm garden. In West Kalimantan jatropha cannot easily compete with the economically attractive oil pam cultivation. Photo: Pujo Semedi, 2011.

Anna Tsing’s analysis of the Bre-X scandal  of fictitious gold deposit (2, p. 56), that it “exemplifies popular thinking about the pleasures and dangers of international finance and dreams of globalization,” succinctly affirms that economics does not merely revolve around things that are worth doing, but also around things that are pleasant to dream about. People take action because it seems like a good idea, and if necessary they attempt to make their actions more pleasant to contemplate, and more realistic.

Mobilized by this drive, people conjure something which in reality does not exist, or does not exist yet, be it a gold deposit, natural fish stock or even a market. For a while they live in a dream state where everything looks glorious and promising, until they come face to face with reality. Data for this article was collected through a series of fieldwork projects among palm oil farmers who happened to have experience with the cultivation of jatropha in Sanggau, West Kalimantan, in the summers of 2010, 2011 and 2013.

Long before the introduction of jatropha, several forms of fictitious market had already arisen in rural West Kalimantan. There had been markets for rare ancient things with mythical power, Ponzi scheme trading of ‘magical pearls’ that keep the owner young and healthy, and trading of bogus foreign currencies. Some people, so the market says, are willing to pay billions of rupiah for precious ancient things: powerful Japanese swords  (samurai), capable of melting a needle touched to the blade’s surface; china bowls capable of preserving food for weeks; and the magical gem merah delima, that turns water red when placed in it. Many people believed the rumors, so were eager to invest time, energy and money pursuing the almost mythical goods. They all ended up disappointed, of course, or even bankrupt, as the investment failed to produce any return. After spending years of time and millions of rupiah, investors found their social lives in ruins; what’s worse, the rarity was either nowhere to be found, or there was nobody actually willing to buy it. As trading pyramids approached their bases, and Ponzi schemes ran out of potential participants, those who got involved ended up in trouble. Not only had they lost considerable amounts of money, they were also hounded by friends and family who demanded to have their “investment” returned. The form of trade may differ, but the message is the same: that there is untapped, abundant wealth hidden somewhere out there waiting to be taken.

In 2003 the Indonesian government created the dream of the hidden abundant wealth of jatropha by grandiosely issuing renewable biofuel policies to deal with the fossil-fuel crisis. Environmental activists inflated the discourse by promoting jatropha as a magic bullet that would bring wealth to farmers and simultaneously rehabilitate the damaged environment, since the crop is capable of making infertile, marginal land productive. At a lower level, in West Kalimantan farmers were told that jatropha cultivation was a business without a loss (tidak ada matinya). “The crop is easy to cultivate,” it was said, “just plant it” (tinggal tanam), so experts boasted. Farmers can still benefit from jatropha in terms of subsistence, by using it for cooking. The strongest boost in the creation of jatropha wealth was the exorbitant price of seedlings in 2006, when a kilogram was easily sold at Rp. 25,000, around 30 times higher than the price of palm oil fruit, which was only Rp. 800/kilogram.

The market for biofuel itself is not fictitious. There is indeed great demand for fuel – fossil or bio, made of jatropha seeds or otherwise. However, the pleasant dream of the fictitious market has made farmers overlook the wide gap between the reality of cultivating jatropha and the desire to earn biofuel money. That gap, which is supposed to be bridged by trading networks, know-how, processing activities, fuel marketing and distribution, and fuel price regulation, simply doesn’t exist in the dream, which pretends that once the crop has been cultivated, everything else will fall into place. The distant memory of jatropha cultivation during the Pacific War was revived by NGO activists claiming the utility of the crop, and people tended to forget that it is only after a long and painful process of trial and error that the cultivation of industrial crops can be established (3, p. 153; 4, p. 208). An economic endeavor is a blend of dream and empirical checks in proportional composition, but in the case of jatropha there seems to have been too much dreaming and too few empirical checks. Farmers in West Kalimantan were attracted to jatropha, because it fitted their dream of an easy, fictitious market. As they found the market was not real, so the crop was abandoned. When in 2010 we visited a jatropha farmer in the sub-district Bodok of West Kalimantan, all he could show were a few jatropha shrubs. Two years before the field had been re-converted for cassava, corn and cashew nuts.

A jatropha seedling is left to grow in the yard, waiting for the moment when changing market conditions may turn it into a viable cash crop. Photo: Pujo Semedi, West Kalimantan, 2011.

A jatropha seedling is left to grow in the yard, waiting for the moment when changing market conditions may turn it into a viable cash crop. Photo: Pujo Semedi, West Kalimantan, 2011.


  1. John F. McCarthy, “Oil palm: Boom or ruin
 for RI farmers?,” Jakarta Post, November  19, 2010. Available at http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2010/11/19/oil-palm-boom-or-ruin-ri-farmers.html.
  2. George F. Deasy, Localization of Sumatra’s oil palm industry. Economic Geography 18(2), 153-158 (April 1942).
  3. Cecil Yampolsky, Some aspects of the oil palm in Indonesia. Economic Botany 11(3), 208-224 (July-September 1957).
  4. Anna Tsing, Friction. An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005).
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