When Adarsha Shivakumar won
the 2006 California Spelling Bee at age 13, he didn't spend his $600
prize on video games or the latest electronic gadget. He used it to buy
Adarsha, now a junior at College Preparatory School in
Oakland, was only 12 when he began researching crops that poor Indian
farmers might be able to grow instead of tobacco, which has led to
illegal harvesting of timber from India's national wildlife refuge. He
saw that devastation firsthand during a family visit to India.
home in Walnut Creek, Adarsha learned that seeds from the Jatropha
curcas plant could be converted into biofuel, and that the shrub grew
well in the tropics. "I thought, 'There could be no harm in buying a
couple hundred seeds,' " he said.
With his spelling bee money and
some baby-sitting pocket change, Adarsha founded Project Jatropha with
his younger sister, Apoorva Rangan.
Three years later, more
than 54 farmers in two villages have begun to grow the
drought-resistant shrub. This year, he said, they planted a total of
12,300 Jatropha seedlings. He said Labland Biotechs, a biotechnology
company that plans to convert the seeds into biofuel, has agreed to pay
the farmers 10 rupees (about 25 cents) per kilogram for the crop.
said community leaders in India were skeptical of the project at first
— in large part, because of the improbably young age of its founders —
but that they gradually bought into
the idea. It helped that the project was backed by Parivarthana, an
organization that works with Indian farmers, and Adarsha's parents, who
were born in the area and are fluent in Kannada, the local language.
and his sister have won a number of awards for their work. This week,
Adarsha was one of six people in North America to win the Brower Youth
Award for his environmental leadership. Adarsha says he is putting all
of the prize money, $3,000, back into the project.
"He's really a
remarkable student," said his adviser, environmental science teacher
Adrianna Smyth. "He's got this innate brilliance, but he's also a
really hard worker and he has an amazing level of curiosity."
says not every teenager has the energy or the drive to execute an idea
of this magnitude. Still, she said, she makes sure to let her students
know about Project Jatropha; she thinks it will inspire local
Adarsha, whose mind races so fast he
sometimes trips over his words, said he was inspired to take action by
"An Inconvenient Truth," former Vice President Al Gore's 2006 film
about climate change. He says he thinks today's teenagers have no
choice but to delve into the world's environmental and social problems.
"Resource depletion, the fresh water crisis, poverty,
overpopulation — any one of these problems can wipe out humanity," he
said. "My generation has to take action now. I like being alive."
"There's no shortage of ideas," he added. "There seems to be a conspicuous shortage of action."
Have an idea? Adarsha asked. "Just go and do it."
Learn more about Project Jatropha and how you can help at projectjatropha.com.