What is JARAK?

By Jacqueline Vel

JARAK is the short version of the title of the research program “JARAK: The Commoditization of an Alternative Biofuel Crop in Indonesia.” JARAK is the acronym for the “Jatropha Research and Knowledge Network”, and is also the Indonesian word for Jatropha curcas, the plant that is central to this research program. The program is funded by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences (KNAW) and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), as part of the overall program “Agriculture beyond Food”.

The initial idea for this research surfaced in 2007, when researcher Jacqueline Vel read in a national Indonesian newspaper that a Swedish company was establishing a jatropha plantation on 20,000 hectares of land in Central Sumba (1). With such an activity this previously rather isolated area in eastern Indonesia would become fully part of a globalized economy, making local famers into the suppliers of feedstock for the production of biofuel. Lessons from previous long-term research into rural development and local politics raised many questions about these new developments.

After a year of establishing a network with researchers in various institutions in the Netherlands and Indonesia, we wrote the proposal for JARAK and applied for funding from the program “Agriculture beyond Food” in January 2009. The JARAK program proposal was summarized as follows:

“Jatropha promises much: clean non-fossil diesel fuel, and new income sources in the marginal areas that will grow the crop. These promises have already inspired millions of dollars of realized investment in jatropha plantations, and many plans for more have been announced in newspapers, at conferences and on the Internet. In only a few years an ordinary hedge plant, jarak pagar in Indonesian, has been turned into a valuable commodity for energy production: Jatropha curcas. What caused this rapid process of commoditization? What are the environmental requirements and consequences? How can local producers and laborers benefit from the prospective profits? Worldwide, proponents of jatropha as a source of biofuel claim a high level of social and ecological sustainability for this crop. Indonesian national policy began promoting jatropha in 2006. The research cluster JARAK aims to build a scientific knowledge base through which these claims may be objectively addressed. It will do this by tracing the rise of jatropha as a commercial crop in Indonesia, assessing the assumptions underlying its introduction, investigating its production potential in Indonesian circumstances, and identifying how legislation, governance and policy concerning jatropha can be supportive of local producers’ livelihoods. The scientific challenge of JARAK is to bridge the current gap between the claims about jatropha and existing knowledge that would justify them. The gap is far wider for jatropha than for any of the other biofuel crops in Indonesia, partly because jatropha is a new commercial crop, partly because the set of claims is so far-reaching. More abstractly, JARAK will study how innovations for “Agriculture beyond Food” induce commoditization, making local producers and laborers core actors in addressing worldwide problems, and in turn exposing them to both livelihood opportunities and threats.”

JARAK proposed to combine research in three domains: the legal environment and governance, the socio-economic aspects, and plant production. The research team comprises two post-doctoral researchers and four doctoral candidates.

JARAK researchers and supervisors and some guests at the first workshop in Leiden. Photo: Gunawan, March 2011.

JARAK researchers, supervisors and guests at the first workshop in Leiden. Photo: Gunawan, March 2011.

The six projects all have their own main focus and simultaneously contribute to answering the five core questions of the program:

1)     What is the explanation for the rise of Jatropha curcas as a commercial crop for energy production in “marginal” areas of Indonesia?

2)     To what extent are the claims underlying this introduction well-founded?

3)     How have these claims been transformed into laws and policies, how are they implemented, and to what extent does this process conform to the rule of law?

4)     What are the socio-economic and ecological consequences of the commoditization of jatropha and why do they occur?

5)     How can sustainable jatropha cultivation be achieved and how can the potentially negative impacts of its cultivation be mitigated?

By 2008 there were already some doubts as to whether developments in the jatropha biofuel sector would happen as they had been depicted (2). Anticipating potential problems, the proposal added:

“Even though the jatropha initiatives are currently mainly at the planning stage, they are already affecting the targeted production areas. Potential producers are starting to register land titles, politicians are exploring possible cooperation with agribusiness, and the most innovative local entrepreneurs are creating links with potential partners in government and in global markets. Where initial projects have already started, local producers have voiced their criticism, because selling prices are low and marketing channels as well as processing facilities have not yet been developed. Whether this just reflects initial problems in setting up a new sector, or a more structural problem, is not yet clear.”

After JARAK began its research, in 2010, it became clear that the sector faced a more structural problem. The main challenge for the researchers was that the reality of jatropha planting and regulation fell behind the vigorous official promotion of the crop. However, the researchers successfully adapted their research programs to incorporate this discovery into their research questions. This has, in fact, led us towards the program’s key findings, which are precisely to do with the gaps between expectation and reality.

Field research has been located in areas where jatropha plantations had been planned or were already operative: the relatively dry areas of eastern Indonesia (Sumba and Flores), operational sites in Central Java and South Sulawesi, and the logged-over forests in West Kalimantan. Agronomy research took place in Central Java and Sumbawa. Additionally, JARAK carried out four more thematic post-doctoral studies with a focus on historical and comparative research (externally funded by KITLV and IIAS).

In this E-publication the five original questions have been expanded into many more that place jatropha development in a context that shows that its commoditization is indicative of larger developments. These include the evolving processes surrounding increasing green energy production, agrarian change in “marginal areas,” and the fragmentation of policy implementation. JARAK also contributes to some theories about “commoditization,” and to a broader understanding of the social and legal techniques being developed to create a bio-based economy.


  1. J. Vel, Miracle solution or imminent disaster? Jatropha biofuel production in Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara. Inside Indonesia 91 (2008). http://www.insideindonesia.org/weekly-articles/miracle-solution-or-imminent-disaster
  2. R E.E.. Jongschaap, W.J. Corré, P.S. Bindraban and W.A. Brandenburg, Claims and facts on Jatropha curcas L. (Wageningen University and Research, Plant Research International, 2007). http://library.wur.nl/way/bestanden/clc/1858843.pdf

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What is JARAK? 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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