Don’t ignore the Leucaena project

A perfect example of the shortage of vision affecting Caricom governments is their dropping of the ball on the Leucaena project in the early 1980s.

Ambassador Byron Blake, former Caricom assistant secretary general, reminded us of that last month during a sitting of the Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange.

For those who missed it, the Leucaena project was established in response to the energy crisis of the late 1970s. Essentially a group of scientists and energy experts from Jamaica, Barbados, Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago, and St Lucia started producing energy as well as animal feed from the Leucaena plant, which is referred to in some parts of the world as the ‘miracle tree’ and in Jamaica as the ‘wild tamarind’.

The initiative received support from colleague scientists in the region as well as from Caribbean governments and several international donor organisations.

At the height of the project, companies such as Enerplan Limited — formed by Jamaican scientists Drs Dennis Minott, Cynthia Lewis, Alwyn Hayles and Brian Silvera — were making much use of the plant. They had even got to the stage of fermenting the Leucaena to form a gas that can be used as a power source.

Ambassador Blake, who saw the benefits of the Leucaena project and gave it strong support, told us that in 1983 a Caribbean Energy Action Plan was agreed on and taken to the then Caribbean Group for Co-operation in Economic Development, which used to be co-ordinated by the World Bank.

“When we took the plan there they said ‘beautiful plan’, but they had no resources to support it because energy was no longer a priority; which really means it was no longer a priority for the United States,” Ambassador Blake said.

“All our countries, despite our appeal to them, bought into that international statement of the problem and we began to resile and, of course, once that happens it becomes more difficult for you to resume,” added Ambassador Blake as he lamented the decision by Caribbean governments to move away from the project because they believed that the price of oil would have remained low.

We have, in the past, commented on government inaction or indecision resulting in missed opportunities that could benefit the peoples of this region. This issue of alternative energy is one area in which Caricom governments have engaged in the usual knee-jerk reaction whenever the price of oil rises, only to retreat at the first sign of a decrease in costs.

At the moment, the price of oil is nowhere near the record highs to which it soared in 2008. However, oil prices tend to be erratic as they are influenced by international events. So, for instance, we saw where yesterday the priced jumped by more than US$1 to US$93.31 a barrel after US lawmakers passed legislation to avoid the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ that could have pushed that economy, regarded as the world’s biggest, into recession.

Outside of Trinidad & Tobago, which produces oil, Caribbean countries pay heavily for energy. Here in Jamaica, for instance, our oil bill amounts to just over US$2 billion annually.

There is an urgent need for us to diversify our sources of energy. We believe that the Leucaena project can contribute to that diversification.

Ambassador Blake, through the New Ideas Committee at Jampro, has put the project back on the table. It would suit private sector companies to engage that committee and for the Government to formulate policy to support and facilitate this project.