Growing across much of Asia, it’s known by many names: including Indian Beech, pongamia, Karum tree, kranji, and malapari.
Pongamia pinnata is a member of the pea family that is being considered by Indonesian forestry experts for potential landscape restoration and the future of bioenergy.
A number of big challenges are bearing down on the Indonesian archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, and the government has to find ways in which it can restore 14 million hectares of degraded land to keep its promise to the UN, while also developing a green energy sector worth 23% of total grid contributions in just 5 years.
The country’s natural gas and oil reserves are projected to dry up by 2030, even while energy demand—currently served by fossil fuels—is increasing.
Enter the pongamia tree: growing well on degraded or marginal land in both wet and dry climates, it can be found from India to the west, right the way across to Fiji in the Pacific. For centuries, its orange/brown seeds have been pressed into oil for leather tanning, soap making, wound healing, and more.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry and Environment’s Research is looking into pongamia for mass tree planting as they believe this special oil can be used to power a biomass energy revolution, as well as offering a new crop for local communities to thrive off of economically, and even use as food.
The trick with trying to plant all these trees in rural areas is they have to provide multiple benefits, for multiple parties, across multiple periods of time. Trees that grow fast may not live long enough to affect long term change within the soil, while trees that grow long and strong may be chopped down by citizens because they don’t produce anything.
Trees that produce forest products may not support a functioning ecosystem among them, or may not restore the land at all, but that is vital if 14 million hectares are to be renewed by the time of the Paris Climate Accord targets.
One more Tree of Life
The coconut and the baobab both have the honor of being referred to as the ‘tree of life’ by certain Indigenous groups, and the pongamia could certainly be accorded that honor as well.
One of the fastest growing trees in the Indonesian Archipelago, it can thrive in arid and wet land, from sea level to 1,200 meters above it. Degraded soil, like the kind which can be found on the boundaries of agricultural land, suit the pongamia just fine, and it improves the quality of the soil as it’s a nitrogen fixer.
Modern extraction methods confirmed the oil’s potential as a biofuel crop, with one study finding 44% more oil per seed extracted than traditional methods. When combined with 5% gasoline, it can power diesel engines in vehicles without compromising performance. This is key as many of the more remote Indonesian islands are powered by diesel generators.
The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) is accompanying the Indonesian Forestry Ministry on their research into pongamia, and one of their scientists, Budi Leksono, recounts that the trees can even be used for food, as when the seeds are pre-treated and dried they can be turned into a nutritious flour.
“I haven’t tried it myself yet,” Leksono told Forest News. “but in the trials, everyone said it was delicious!”
CIFOR is working to see if pongamia plantations are suitable for abandoned mining land and degraded peatlands, the latter being one of the most carbon-rich soils on the planet, and ideal for capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. Recently this was done in Central Kalimantan Province on Borneo.
“We planted the trees a year ago, and so far they are growing faster than other similar species,” said Leksono. “This suggests they may be particularly tolerant to harsh conditions, and would then be especially promising for restoration and rehabilitation of degraded land.”
Lastly, another partner organization, the South Korean Forest Service, is seeing if Pongamia can be grown alongside other agri-forestry staples like coffee. The first step is seeing how the roots grow and where, to see if others can co-exist peacefully.
It’s a case study that sometimes a nation has to look to their past to solve the problems of the future.