The Greening of the Gold Rush

It began innocently enough, like any other workshop—a large university auditorium; speakers from the United Nations, foreign business consortia, and local government; and an obscure member of the Thai royal family ringing an auspicious gong.

However, the hundreds of delegates seated in the auditorium were not savvy investors or scientists but raw-boned, palm-blistered Thai rice farmers, paid and plied with a lavish two-day luncheon and meditation sessions to hear that, if they chose to grow Jatropha, they could see profits within 12 months.

They were even offered free bean-sized seeds to start their own plantations and “grow a golden egg that could be passed from father to son to grandson.”  However, unlike the fabled Jack who traded his mother’s cow for a handful of magic beans, these impoverished Thai farmers would be giving up a lot more than they bargained.

Much has been written about Jatropha, the so-called miracle plant that the New York Times recently called the darling of the second-generation biofuels and Goldman Sachs, the world’s largest investment bank, has identified as a promising source of biofuel in the future.

This explains why farmers in China, India, Indonesia, and Africa are being swept up in the rush to grow the Jatropha curcas in what can only be compared to the mass hysteria to grow tulips in the Netherlands in the late 17th century—before...

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