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Local eco-teens lead biofuel pilot project

Nov 12, 2009

Two teenagers in southern India learnt about sustainable agriculture from a group working with the rural poor. They then convinced a plant biotechnology company to collaborate with them on their project to cultivate jatropha to help the farmers augment their income and protect the environment.

Adarsha Shivakumar and Apoorva Rangan couldn't stand idle while the land they loved in southern India was threatened with environmental disaster.

"We'd visited our family there many times, but it was in 2006 or 2007 when we became interested in their environmental crisis," Adarsha, 15, said. "We feel obligated to our planet to do our part to save it."

In Hunsur taluk in Karnataka, most villagers grow tobacco and cure the leaves by burning large quantities of wood to fire kilns. With little firewood available, farmers were forced to turn to individuals who were illegally cutting trees from the Nagarhole National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary.

The pristine sanctuary, home to a variety of wildlife, including the Asian tiger and elephant, was at risk. If the forest remained a source for firewood, its biodiversity would disappear. But farmers had no choice but to continue to grow tobacco.

The two teens learned about Parivarthana, a group working with the rural poor to teach them sustainable agriculture. They then discovered a plant biotechnology company in the area – Labland Biotech – that cultivated a drought-resistant plant that can grow in an arid environment and produces seeds that can be processed to create a high-grade fuel.

So, the brother and sister convinced Parivarthana and Labland Biotech to collaborate on their pilot Project Jatropha to help farmers convert to biofuel crops. They now have farmers in two villages growing jatropha curcas and selling the seeds to Labland to be made into biofuel.

Adarsha and Apoorva won an Action For Nature's 2009 International Young Eco-Hero Award.

Then, they teamed with friend Callie Roberts to earn a Wildlife Conservation Society's education initiative, Teens for Planet Earth 2009 Service Award. The WCS recognizes teens around the world for service-learning projects that demonstrate their commitment to the environment.

Additionally, Adarsha will be honored later this month with the 2009 Brower Youth Award, one of only six presented in North America, to young environmental leaders.

"Though 54 farmer leaders from two villages are participating in the project, none of them have replaced all their tobacco with jatropha yet," Apoorva said. "The transition is expected to be gradual. Project Jatropha is in the pilot stage and the farmers are growing jatropha with their regular crops to test the economic viability."

Adarsha acknowledged that farmers in India were hesitant to even consider moving away from tobacco as their cash crop.

"We definitely had to do some convincing," he said. "We had to explain to them how the project would help them.

"They've been exploited many times by agriculture students who burned them with projects that didn't help them at all but only served to help the students," he said. "Farmers were disillusioned. They were actually wary of us."

The students, who attend College Prep in Oakland, had more than a passing interest in the environment from the beginning.

"We learned about jatropha as a biofuel in 2007, when the ethanol craze in America was starting to die down and alternatives were being looked into," Apoorva said. "Although no alternatives were really pursued very seriously, jatropha curcas came up as one of the most viable biofuels. The potential it had struck us as immense. It's commonly used as a hedge crop in India."

Just communicating with the farmers was a difficult task at times.

"Our mom and dad helped us with the different dialects that we didn't know," Adarsha said. "We spent several weeks there talking to the farmers."

And they raised funds to start the project.

"We used $500 of our own money to jump-start the project," Apoorva said. "Then, we raised money from family and friends and our own pocket money. We don't have any sponsorships from any environmental programmes."

The children of Kasturiah and Srinivasa Shivakumar know that time will tell about their program's worth. In the last month, the pilot project included 50 farmers on 12 acres in two villages.

"We have to wait and see how it works," Adarsha said. "We assume it will be a success."

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