Businessman Song Heyi brushes the leaves of a plant on this vast expanse in Hainan and smells big oil on the horizon.
Not the crude stuff now worsening global warming, but biodiesel - what many see as the next-best alternative to fossil fuels.
In three years, the chief executive of Hainan Zhonghai New Energy Exploitation Co Ltd expects this wasteland in Lingao county, about an hour's drive from Haikou, the capital of Hainan Province, to become a biodiesel boomtown.
Biodiesel is a clean-burning diesel made from natural, renewable sources. Song grows jatropha trees, a main ingredient of the alternative fuel.
The oil from its seeds is considered an excellent substitute for diesel under the Convention on Biological Diversity issued by the United Nations in 1998.
Song's entrepreneurial eye spotted an opportunity while talking with Professor Chen Fang, an authority on jatropha who teaches at Sichuan University.
The groundwork on planting jatropha has been laid, which means large savings from research and marketing, Song said.
"The university provides the technology while government policies encouraging alternative fuels guarantee a market," he said. "I have seen a car run on the diesel generated from the seeds."
Two years ago, Song rented 100 hectares of farmland from farmers on a 30-year lease and expects to expand that area by 300 times in the next few years.
His land of "green" oil is now one of the pilot sites of a joint project between the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the government, to use green technologies to reduce poverty and improve fragile ecosystems in the west.
The four-year project focuses on communities of ethnic minorities living in ecologically fragile and remote regions, starting last year with the Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan areas, as well as Hainan.
The country passed its renewable energy law in 2005, which introduced incentives for alternative energy firms.
By 2010, it plans to plant an area the size of England (13 million hectares), with trees from which biofuel can be extracted as a source of clean energy.
Jatropha has been grown on a large scale since 2005 and there are now plantations covering close to 50,000 hectares.
"These bioenergy efforts are remarkable because the country's thirst for fuel is tremendous," Alessandra Tisot, UNDP deputy country director for China, said at a recent international conference held in Haikou.
Jointly organized by the China International Center for Economic and Technical Exchanges, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the UNDP, the conference brought together experts and practitioners from more than 20 countries to share knowledge and expertise on biodiesel and discuss effective means to mitigate the potential risks of commercializing the fuel.
"China's target is ambitious," Tisot said, referring to aims to have annual consumption of biodiesel reach 2 million tons by 2020.
She emphasized the importance of finding land unsuitable for food crops to grow jatropha, to avoid unnecessary tension.
Song said he is not in a rush to make money.
"I told my board: If you want to make a quick buck, don't follow me. But if you're patient, the money will follow."
(China Daily November 22, 2007)