For generations, Vodou practitioners in rural Haiti have sworn by the mystic qualities of Jatropha, an indigenous plant believed to purge evil spirits and release the trapped souls of the dead.
But the shrub may soon be in bigger demand among the living. Jatropha shows tremendous promise as a source of biofuel in Latin America and the Caribbean, and especially Haiti, which suffers from chronic shortages of diesel fuel, electricity -- just about everything except Jatropha.
In June, Miami hosted a Jatropha World 2008 Conference that trumpeted the plant's properties. And later this week, alternative fuel sources such as Jatropha will likely share the spotlight again at an energy panel during the annual Americas Conference in Miami.
It has been known for decades that the oil-producing seeds of the Jatropha curcas,
once they are crushed and processed, can be a potent source of energy. But now the so-called ''miracle plant'' is sparking heightened interest as oil prices skyrocket and reports filter out of India and Nepal of power plants there being fueled by Jatropha.`A GREAT OPPORTUNITY'
The United States and Brazil -- the world's leading producer of ethanol -- signed an agreement last year to help Haiti, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and St. Kitts and Nevis explore the potential of Jatropha and other biofuel-producing plants. Scientists from both nations have toured Haiti to scout the potential for the plant's commercial cultivation.
''Jatropha offers a great opportunity for Haiti,'' said Mark Lambrides, chief of the energy and climate change division at the Organization of American States.
Jatropha, or Gwo Medsiyen,
is everywhere in Haiti. For centuries, it has been part of the medicinal arsenal of Vodou priests and priestesses. They use it in burial ceremonies to banish evil spirits, in ritual baths, as a remedy for constipation, and as an acne cure.
It can also be used, Vodou practitioners believe, to physically harm one's enemies, through incantations. The toxic seed is dropped into a kerosene lamp, and the longer the lamp burns, the longer the harm is supposed to endure.
Haitian farmers also use Jatropha as a ''living fence'' to ward off crop-devouring goats. The plant's bitter taste is a goat repellent. And because the plant is highly toxic, there is no conflict -- as with corn and sugar cane -- over whether to use Jatropha to feed the hungry or fuel a diesel engine.POWER PROBLEMS
Nowhere in the region is the need to find a renewable source of energy more glaring than in Haiti, where electricity is unreliable and often unavailable. Decades of cutting trees for charcoal to cook with have transformed Haiti's once lush landscape into an environmental disaster.
Last year, Haiti imported about $200 million in diesel fuel, with half going for transportation and the rest to run generators. Burning nearly 3.5 million gallons a month of diesel fuel and 219,976 gallons a month of other fuel oil, Haiti's electrical company eked out enough electricity to run the power grid for eight hours a day in Port-au-Prince, according to a study prepared for the U.S. government.
As a result, wealthier Haitians rely heavily on generators.
The situation is far worse outside the capital. A little more than one in 10 of the country's nearly nine million citizens have access to the limited government supply of electricity, according to state-owned Electricité d'Haiti.
But Jatropha, which grows up to 13 feet high, could do more than fulfill a portion of the nation's energy needs. It could also help reforest a country that has been denuded by rampant clear-cutting.
Where most crops don't grow, Jatropha will.GROWING JOBS
''There are about [1.5 million acres] of dry and arid land, which is suitable for Jatropha plantations and would create thousands of rural jobs,'' said Reginald Noel, a biofuel pioneer in Haiti, whose car runs on biodiesel. ``We can satisfy our energy needs in this country and divert money to our farmers.''
Johanna Mendelson-Forman agrees. She has been a leading advocate of Jatropha's potential as a fuel source, testifying before the U.S. Congress on its benefits here and in Central America, where the shrub is known as Piñon Blanco. Jatropha, she believes, can literally light up the island of Hispaniola, which is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
''Even if you were to harvest just what's being used as hedging, you could still get enough of the crop to produce oil for villages,'' she said.WARY OF COMPETITION
Not everyone is happy about Jatropha's rising caché.
Vodou priestess Immacula Jean grows the shrub next to her mud shack off a rural dirt road in Douret. For $50 to $75, she offers ritual baths using Jatropha to purge evil spirts or provide good luck.
Her services, she said, are in high demand at funerals in which family members believe that the death was the result of a curse. Before the body is laid to rest, a piece of the shrub is cut and placed under the head. As the coffin is lowered into the grave, it is beaten with the shrub to expel the zombie, or evil spirit, and free the loved one's soul.
Of the prospect of Jatropha becoming a major source of biodiesel fuel, Jean said: ``I don't like the competition.''
At least three dozen Jatropha projects have sprouted in Haiti in the past year, including nurseries in Terrier Rouge and Lhomond. In Lhomond, 10,000 seedlings have been distributed to local farmers by Entreprise Exploitation Jatropha, a Haitian-based biofuel venture. But getting investors to bet on Haiti, with its tangled bureaucracy and political paralysis, won't be easy.
''We need the right technology, the right variety,'' said Gael Pressoir, who holds a doctorate in plant breeding and genetics.MANY VARIETIES
In Haiti, just as elsewhere in Latin America, India and Africa, Jatropha comes in a dizzying number of varieties.
Pressoir, who was educated in France and worked in Mexico and at Cornell University in New York state before returning to his native Haiti, is raising funds to build a nonprofit institute that would help determine which varieties grow best in Haiti's climate, which has two rainy seasons a year.
At the same time, he is working alongside Noel to breed a nontoxic Jatropha that would yield between 150 and 200 gallons of biodiesel per acre and -- as an added benefit for farmers -- produce animal feed.
''With 500,000 acres, we could substitute all of Haiti's imported diesel fuel,'' he said.
But getting there means finding the right strain of Jatropha and making it economical to cultivate. And then, regions like Douret, where flicking on a light switch remains a luxury, could enjoy a better quality of life.
''There is a huge potential for that crop,'' Pressoir said. ``Now we need to transform that potential into something real.''