Overstory #110 - Bamboo for Development
Before the advent of industrialization and the cash economy, bamboo played a significant role in the self-sustaining economies in many nations that are now grouped together as developing countries (it still does in some remote parts of these countries yet untouched by modern economics). This is hardly surprising, considering that bamboo is the fastest growing and most useful plant in the world. Research has proven bamboo's engineering and mechanical qualities, and its aesthetics have never been in question. It is hoped that this article will induce those interested in development and technological issues to take a fresh and closer look at bamboo, particularly its usefulness as a tool socio-economic development.
Bamboo has enormous potential for alleviating many problems - both environmental and social - facing the world today. The increasing rate of tropical deforestation makes the search for alternative natural resources important. The characteristics of bamboo make it a promising solution for the environmental and social consequences of tropical deforestation. Its biological characteristics make it an effective tool for preventing soil erosion and reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Additionally, its qualities of strength, light weight and flexibility make it a viable alternative to tropical timbers that typically supply the furniture and building materials industries. Last, many bamboo species have rapid growth capabilities enabling harvests within a few years of establishment. Therefore, bamboo is an attractive economic investment that can be utilized in many different manners.
Research in Southeast Asia has recorded over a thousand ways in which bamboo has been put to use "serving the most mundane purposes and the most refined" (Austin et al 1970). For instance, bamboo has been a practical source of material in traditional Asian housing and construction. It is easy to work with, even with the most simple and basic tools. It is easy to put together, and easily repaired or replaced when damaged. It is strong yet supple, and can resist even earthquakes. According to some, it is more resilient than any other type of housing frame (United Nations 1972). There is even a specific traditional methodology practiced by villagers in building construction. Some common problems are also solved by use of bamboo in housing structures. For instance, in Thailand, it is common to find a bamboo house built on top of a bamboo raft. In this form, it offers a practical solution to seasonal flooding often occurring in areas of Thailand. Bamboo can be found used as pillars, walls, floors, rafters and roofing. Bamboo is still quite commonly used as scaffolding in modern day building construction because of its light weight and strength.
In addition to being part of the housing structure itself, bamboo can also be found in virtually every room of rural homes. As a kitchen utensil, it serves as a spoon, cup and skewer. It can also be woven into baskets and mats. According to the film "Bamboo, the Miracle Grass" produced by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the weaving technique for these items is considered an original bamboo technology that has continued to serve as the basis for the construction of many other bamboo items. Bamboo can be made into plates, trays (for drying produce in the sun or winnowing rice), containers for holding seeds and collecting harvest, and water-tight cooking vessels. It can also be worked into a piece of furniture, such as a table or chair. Inside kitchen cabinets made of bamboo, one can find containers of bamboo shoots an important part of diet of many Asian cultures. The sap from the bamboo stem is kept for its medicinal and curative effects on ailments such as asthma. Other extracts from bamboo are used for poultices and to treat gonorrhea or kidney trouble in Malaysia. In Cambodia, bamboo nodes are used to treat chest complaints and urogenital disorders (Piper 1992).
In a garden, bamboo has use as an ornamental plant or as part of the garden fencing. Inside a garden shed, there may be a bamboo ladder, tools with bamboo handles, bamboo fishing poles, hunting gear made of bamboo, or bamboo shavings and scraps for firewood. Bamboo can also be found built into small foot bridges, irrigation piping and water pumps.
Bamboo finds use in many other items such as paper, musical instruments, weaponry, handicrafts and boats. It has a central role in many folk tales and traditional practices. Grazing farm animals are sometimes fed bamboo fodder, known to be as nutritious as other common fodder grasses.
Bamboo is a woody plant belonging to the grass family. The bamboo plant has an extensive rhizome system, which stores a tremendous amount of nutrients required for the plant's rapid growth. The rhizome also actively takes part in vegetative propagation by branching out from this underground root system. This reproductive behavior gives bamboo its reputation as an "active spreading plant" which "unless inhibited, will extend growth over a large area" (Austin et al 1970). Bamboo can grow to a height of 36 m with a diameter of l-30 cm (United Nations 1972). A culm (stem) can reach its full height in a matter of two to three months. Considering the above characteristics, it is easy to believe that bamboo is a fast growing, high yielding renewable natural resource (Lessard and Chouinard 1980).
There are over 1,000 species of bamboo (Sharma 1980). Bamboos are native to both temperate and tropical climates, and therefore naturally distributed all over the world, with the exception of Europe and Antarctica (McClure 1966). However, they are most abundant in Asia, primarily China, India and Japan. Southeast Asia contains nearly half of the world's species (Piper 1992). Madagascar has an abundance of endemic genera and species in comparison to the rest of the African continent (McClure 1966). Australia also has a few native species. There are several species native to the New World; Guadua species, perhaps the most widespread, are found throughout Latin America, predominantly in Ecuador and Colombia.
Although bamboo grows on mountain ranges under forest canopies, and along riverbanks and other lowland water courses, it thrives most in monsoon forests (United Nations 1972). Factors affecting the growth pattern and distribution of bamboo are altitude, soil permeability, and most importantly, rainfall. Altitude plays a role in determining the distribution of the different species and growth forms of bamboo of which there are two - running (monopodial) and clumping (sympodial). Monopodial growth is typical of more temperate climates, while sympodial is predominant in tropical climates.
The most puzzling aspect of the bamboo life cycle is its flowering behavior. Bamboo is mostly monocarpic which means that following its flowering, the bamboo plant dies. It also flowers gregariouslyflowering of a particular species may occur all at once and spread to involve whole populations across groves, area, region or even the world. Flowering occurs at intervals ranging up to 120 years depending on the species. The mechanism that triggers bamboo to flower gregariously has not yet been fully understood.
Cultivation of select species
There are ecological, economic and cultural implications of bamboo deforestation. Most of the bamboo harvested comes from natural forests. As with any forest, bamboo appears to be plentiful to the naked eye. This perception has led to poor harvest management as people continue to clear-cut not only hardwood forests but also bamboo forests, with little attention to conservation and regeneration. An example is Colombia where Guadua bamboo use is widespread, threatening it to extinction (Farrelly 1984). The demand from growing populations, the consequent overexploitation of natural bamboo forests and the absence of regeneration practices are beginning to cause shortages of certain bamboo species.
Poor harvest management has had negative economic consequences. For example, heavy demand for bamboo outside of Southeast Asia has led to premature harvesting and hence, poor quality material. This has caused a decline in the export of bamboo products, for example, in Indonesia, adversely affecting both rural and urban economies. The cooperative sector and the handicrafts export industry may be hurt in the future if enhanced bamboo cultivation and better harvest management are not given consideration as means of maintaining raw material supply.
Threats to particular bamboo species also have cultural implications, for example, in Western Java. The supply of the high quality bamboo species bambu hitam (black bamboo), used to make traditional musical instruments, is being exhausted by the furniture and handicrafts industries. Large-scale industries, inherently more economically powerful than musical instrument makers operating as cottage industries, are threatening the survival of this craft through their monopoly of this bamboo species. Cultivation of bamboo could help relieve some of these problems. Proper selection and cutting of bamboo culms at the right age would also result in an increase in the quality and the yield of bamboo culms.
Selection of species for cultivation is also essential for animal conservation. For instance, the survival of the Pandas in China depends on the availability of certain species of bamboo, their staple food.
Potential applications of bamboo
Environmental Solutions - Soil Erosion
Because of the extensive rhizome system that lies primarily in the top foot of soil, bamboo works well to prevent soil erosion occurring in flood plains, along riverbanks and on steep hillsides. It can control landslides, keep flooded rivers along their natural course and slow the speed of the water flow.
Carbon Dioxide Buildup
According to the Environmental Bamboo Foundation (EBF), bamboo's growth habits allow it to produce more oxygen than equivalent stands of trees. This aspect holds significant implications for the reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide - the greenhouse gas and a major environmental issue today - as planting and replanting of bamboo in groves and plantations could help mitigate - this problem.
Tropical Timber Depletion
Harvesting of bamboo is frequent since it reaches maturity within a few years, and new shoots appear regularly and in great numbers. Replenishment and regrowth are quite fast and efficient in comparison to tropical timber trees, which have life cycles that can be two to ten times longer. Bamboo increases its biomass by l0-30% per year which far exceeds that of trees, which is 2-5% annually, according to EBF. Hence, bamboo could realistically replace or supplement tropical trees in many industries that are facing raw material shortages.
Until recently, there had not been much attention on bamboo and its potential role as a timber substitute. Some researchers explained this in the following manner, "The abundance of bamboo in South and Southeast Asia is probably responsible for the apathy towards its development. Concern usually comes only when a resource is completely lacking or is scarce" (Lessard and Chouinard 1980). In Malaysia, bamboo had even been considered a weed that interferes with timber growth and regeneration (Ng 1980). Because bamboo grows well naturally, its potential for cultivation had been disregarded, although better agricultural practices could greatly increase its yield. With increased concern for the environment, however, there has been mounting interest in bamboo cultivation and technology research.
Studies in Puerto Rico have shown that the species Bambusa tulda can withstand up to 52,000 pounds per square inch (psi) before breaking (Farrelly 1984). In comparison, walnut wood takes 20,000 psi and steel for reinforced concrete withstands 60,000 psi. This makes bamboo wood a potential alternative, at least in some applications, to steel which requires more energy for processing. Its strength and flexibility also make it a viable material for building shelters that offer protection against hurricanes and earthquakes.
Because harvesting of bamboo can be quite frequent, return on investment comes much quicker than investment in tropical timber plantations. Therefore, bamboo community forestry projects are economically more attractive, especially for small farmers with little capital. There is a considerable potential for bamboo's use in rural development projects aimed at providing sustainable economic opportunities for the poor. Its high yield capability makes it a good cash crop for income generation, and thereby for improvement in the living standards, in rural areas. Incorporating value-added manufacturing into bamboo community forestry projects makes them even more advantageous to rural people, who usually earn the least profit as mere suppliers of raw materials.
In summation, bamboo's fast growth, mechanical and engineering properties make it a fine alternative to tropical timber. Unfortunately, bamboo is still dubbed the "poor man's timber," representing a social stigma (Wilcox 1992). Perhaps this attitude towards bamboo will change with the increased urgency of environmental issues and with more dedicated attention to the poverty problem. More widespread education and communication are needed, mobilizing people to support greater research on solutions and alternatives to deforestation with bamboo playing a pivotal role.
Austin, R., K. Ueda, and D. 1970. Bamboo. John Weatherhill Inc., New York, USA.
Farrelly, D. 1984. The book of bamboo. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, USA.
Lessard, G. and A. Chouinard (eds.) 1980. Bamboo research in Asia. In: Proceedings of a workshop held in Singapore, 28-30 May 1980. International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada.
McClure, EA. 1966. The bamboos: a fresh perspective. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., USA.
Ng, F.S.P. 1980. Bamboo Research in Malaysia. In: Lessard, G; Chouinard, A. ed., Bamboo research in Asia. Proceedings of a workshop held in Singapore, 28-30 May 1980. International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada.
Piper, J. M. 1992. Bamboo and rattan: traditional uses and beliefs. Images of Asia. Oxford University Press, New York, USA.
Sharma, Y.M.L. 1980. Bamboos in the Asia-Pacific region. In Lessard, G; Chouinard, A. ed., Bamboo research in Asia. Proceedings of a workshop held in Singapore, 28-30 May 1980. International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada. pp. 99-120.
United Nations. 1972. The Use of Bamboo and Reeds in Building Construction. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Document No. ST/SOA/113, pp. 95. United Nations, New York, USA.
Widjaja, E.A. 1980. Indonesia: a country report. In Lessard, G; Chouinard, A. ed., Bamboo research in Asia. Proceedings of a workshop held in Singapore, 28-30 May 1980. International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada. pp. 63-68.
Wilcox, D. 1992. Asia's woven shelters. Fiberarts, 19.1, pp. 40-43.
This edition of The Overstory is excerpted with the kind permission of the The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) from:
Quintans, K. 1998. Ancient Grass, Future Natural Resource. The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), Beijing.
The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) is an international organization established by treaty in November 1997, dedicated to improving the social, economic, and environmental benefits of bamboo and rattan. INBAR connects a global network of partners from the government, private, and not-for-profit sectors in over 50 countries to define and implement a global agenda for sustainable development through bamboo and rattan. INBAR develops and assists in the transfer of appropriate technologies and solutions to benefit the peoples of the world and their environment.
Address: The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) Anyuan Building No.10, Anhui Beili, Asian Games Village, Chaoyang District, Beijing, P.R. China Mailing Address: Beijing 100101-80, P.R. China Tel: +86-10-64956961/82 Fax: +86-10-64956983 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web site: inbar.int
About the author
Karina N. Quintans is a graduate of Ohio University's Center for International Studies.
Related editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #9--Integrating Forestry into Farms
- The Overstory #73--Buffers-Common Sense Conservation
- The Overstory #60--Trees as Noise Buffers
- The Overstory #45--Vegetative Erosion Barriers in Agroforestry
- The Overstory #38--Live Fences
- The Overstory #32--Multipurpose Windbreaks
- The Overstory #30--Bamboo Agroforestry