How have policymakers used the concept of “marginal land” to legitimize target areas suitable for Jatropha and what effect did this have?

By Loes van Rooijen

Quote: “In turn, process technology researchers used these extrapolations to create a narrative that made jatropha appear to be an attractive and environmentally friendly bioenergy crop for agro-ecological zones where the production of oil palm would not be possible or profitable. ”

The rapid expansion of biofuel cultivation caused concerns about food and water security. Governments worldwide recognized this critique of biofuel policies and started to promote the expansion of biofuel plantations on “marginal lands” (1, p.672) and formulate sustainability criteria (2, p 216-217). There is a wide variety of interpretations of what constitutes marginal land, including idle land, “waste land,” underutilized land, and so on. These classifications, however, are often not recognized by the people inhabiting these lands (3). In Indonesia, a similar concept of marginal land or “degraded land” (lahan kritis, an official government classification of severely degraded land) and the associated maps were instrumental in generating support for the jatropha policy. The government argued that large amounts of land were available in Indonesia, especially in East Nusa Tenggara  and West Nusa
Tenggara  provinces. This argument was supported by data from the Ministry of Forestry concerning land degradation in Indonesia. The Ministry of Forestry constructs maps of degraded land or lahan kritis (4).

Map of degraded land in Sikka district. Source: Regional Planning Board (Bappeda) Sikka, 2012.

Map of degraded land in Sikka district. The darkest parts are the most degraded lands. Based on data from the Regional Planning Board (BAPPEDA) NTT, 2012.

Jatropha was integrated into the National Movement for Poverty Alleviation and Energy Crisis through the reforestation and rehabilitation of 10 million ha of degraded land with biofuel crops (5). The concept of degraded land was intentionally used to promote jatropha. By claiming that jatropha can grow on this type of marginal land, protagonists of jatropha indirectly claimed that there was a large area of land available for biofuel production without threatening food production. The concept of marginal land, however, is a political construct. These state classifications obscure actual land use practices by communities and render them insignificant (1,  p.674, 6, p.409, 7).

Map of land suitable for jatropha cultivation in Sikka district. Based on data from the Regional Planning Board BAPPEDA NTT 2011.

Map of land suitable for jatropha cultivation in Sikka district. The yellow and green parts (S2 and S3) are most suitable.Based on data from the Regional Planning Board BAPPEDA NTT 2011.

In Indonesia there are various official categorizations for land that is considered to be “marginal” or “unproductive.” These include degraded land (lahan kritis), underutilized land (lahan tidur) and abandoned land (lahan terlantar). Degraded land is land that is not suitable for agricultural use, because of a loss of physical, chemical and biological function. Criteria for degraded land in Indonesia include soil erosion, loss of soil layers, little to no vegetation, low fertility and a slope degree of more than 30% (See picture 1). Underutilized land is land that can still be used for agriculture, but at present is not being used for agricultural purposes. Neglected land is land that is not used in accordance with its designation as mentioned in permits. Neglected land can be confiscated by the state. These terms are often confused and used interchangeably to indicate “marginal land,” or land that is readily available for anyone to develop. Marginal land is usually associated with a low potential for investment. This categorization is made by looking at criteria related to the economic value of land from an investment perspective. People living in the location might have a completely different understanding of the value of that particular plot of land. Land considered marginal for agribusiness, for instance, might still have important functions in society by providing wood and fodder, or it may function as an important watershed area or provide ecosystem services, such as habitats for specific species. Land might also have a central role in cultural practices.

Degraded land in Sikka: steep slopes are very prone to erosion when used for agriculture. Terracing is used to reduce erosion of the top soil. Photo: Loes van Rooijen, Sikka, 2011.

Degraded land in Sikka: steep slopes are very prone to erosion when used for agriculture. Terracing is used to reduce erosion of the top soil. Photo: Loes van Rooijen, Sikka, 2011.

The Ministry of Agriculture made a map of the land’s suitability for jatropha cultivation, combining data from the Land Resource Map, Agricultural Spatial Planning Map and Climate Resource Map (8). See for example map 1. The map was mainly based on data about annual precipitation and altitude, and not on data from field visits about actual land use (9, 10, p. 18). The area suitable for jatropha cultivation, according to this map, was much wider than the area indicated as degraded land, and also included agricultural land. The largest-scale map of the area suitable for jatropha was drawn up at the district level, but this map still lacks a lot of detail. No maps were made for sub-district or village/hamlet level.

The function of the map, therefore, appears to be to justify the use of land for biofuel cultivation by conveying to investors that there are vast tracts of underutilized land waiting for commercial exploitation. As a planning instrument, however, the map had very little effect. In the end, the map did not play a role of importance in spatial planning and the actual choice of where to plant jatropha in Sikka; this depended on the willingness of the farmers to allocate land for other purposes. Some used land that had previously been used for dry-land agriculture (the cultivation of corn, peanuts and cassava), while others used hills that were hardly accessible. When other crops were perceived as more profitable, the farmers preferred to plant something else.

The construction of the narrative concerning the suitability of marginal land for jatropha cultivation and the maps created as supporting evidence can be considered as intended to make the allocation of land a technical exercise (11). The classification of land according to technical requirements, such as soil conditions, rainfall and altitude, might seem like a straightforward scientific approach, but actually the construction of these classifications are part of a highly politicized process. What makes the act of mapping or zoning a political act is the “transformative power of maps” (12, pp. 87-88). Maps, as a bureaucratic artifact, give power to those who utilize the map. Hull points out that in certain conditions there can even emerge a political economy around these bureaucratic artifacts (including deeds, investment proposals, permits and concessions) (13).

In the past, NTT had not been an interesting region for investment in agriculture. Most investment was directed towards tourism development and pearl cultivation. However, between 2008-2009 a sudden hike in investments can be seen in the registers of the Provincial Investment Coordination Board (Badan Koordinasi Penanaman Modal), and this was focused exclusively on the production and processing of jatropha seeds for biofuel (14). The consequence of the narrative on the availability and suitability of marginal lands for jatropha cultivation was the creation of a new resource frontier. The claim that jatropha could actually flourish and be productive in dry and barren land (15, pp. 17-18), or that the cultivation of biofuel crops could even improve soil conditions in marginal lands (16, p.3), transformed the marginal land of NTT into a potential object for investment.



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  2. Levidow 2013 EU criteria for sustainable biofuels: accounting for carbon, depoliticising plunder. Geoforum, 44(1) 211–223
  3. The Gaia Foundation, “Agrofuels and the myth of marginal lands: A briefing by the Gaia Foundation, Biofuelwatch, The African Biodiversity Network, Salva la Selva, Watch Indonesia and Eco Nexus” (2008);  (last accessed 17 february 2014.
  4. For a map of marginal areas in Indonesia, see
  5. Menkokesra 2005 Deklarasi Gerakan Nasional Penanggulan Kemiskinan dan Krisis BBM melalui penanaman jarak pagar (Jatropha corchas L.) (last accessed on 17 february 2014)
  6. J. Baka, “The political construction of wasteland: governmentality, land acquisition and social inequality in South-India”. Development and Change 44(2), 409-428 (2013).
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  8. A. Mulyani et al., Potensi sumber daya lahan untuk pengembangan jarak pagar (Jatropha curcas L.) di Indonesia. Jurnal Litbang Pertanian 25(4), 130-139 (2006).
  9. GFA Envest, “Feasibility study development of jatropha curcas oil for bio-energy in rural areas, Indonesia, Jakarta” (2008).
  10. Vel and Nugrohowardhani 2012, “Plants for power, the potential for cultivating crops as feedstock for energy production in Sumba”.  The Hague: Hivos.
  11. T. M. Li, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development and the Practices of Politics (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2007).
  12. J.C. Scott,  Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Failed (Yale University Press, London 1998).
  13. M.S. Hull, A Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2012).
  14. BPPM NTT, “Peningkatan investasi perusahaan PMDN/PMA di provinsi NTT. Report published by the procinvial Investment Coordination Board,  Kupang. (2009).
  15. C. Jull et al., Recent trends in the law and policy of bioenergy production, promotion and use. FAO Legal Papers Online 86 (2007).
  16. Wirawan et al., “The current status and prospect of biodiesel development in Indonesia: A review,” paper presented on the Third Asia Biomass Workshop, Tsukuba, Japan, November 16, 2006, pp1-15. (last accessed on 17 february 2014)

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How have policymakers used the concept of “marginal land” to legitimize target areas suitable for Jatropha and what effect did this have? by JARAK the short history of Jatropha projects in Indonesia, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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