There was a policy in China over 20 years ago to stop cutting down trees, and that had two direct implications. One was the import of timber from outside China, the other was to look for alternative resources. Somewhere at the highest level a decision was made to promote bamboo and that resulted in the planting of three million hectares in the last 25 years. The bamboo industry in China, the total development and domestic sales are worth about $30 billion.
India actually has more bamboo naturally than China and has a domestic industry worth about $4billion. But it never put in place an institution to coordinate it. India very much still works in different states, each having their own rules and regulations. It’s very difficult to move bamboo from one Indian state to another without having to pay taxes and import duties. In some cases it’s even prohibited from being moved because it’s considered to be a timber or forest product and falls under forestry laws.
All bamboos are grass. More and more we try to talk about it as a crop because you can harvest it like any agricultural crop, and it grows back and you harvest it again and it keeps growing back. And that’s the beauty of it, it’s not like cutting trees where you have to replant and wait for another ten years for a seedling that you can actually do anything with.
Once you cut the bamboo or rattan it becomes a commodity. You can start trading it, or you can make all sorts of things from it. Basically, it’s a fibre so you can do anything with bamboo that you can do with wood fibre. You can use it in all kinds of construction, manufacturing, interior design, flooring, you name it.
The challenge to that is the effect of standards and guidelines. There are so many for construction. For example, for load-bearing construction you need a building code that allows you to use bamboo. And there are actually very few countries that have done that: three in the Andean countries – Peru, Ecuador and Colombia – and India.
China has not officially changed its building code, so for load-bearing purposes you can’t really use bamboo. But you can use it for interior design, cladding, and so on. There’s a textile industry; you can use bamboo for food – the bamboo shoot food industry is quite nicely developed and cattle fodder is something we are working on more and more, particularly in Africa. If you think about it, if pandas like it, other animals should like it as well. And that’s something we never thought about in the past. It’s actually got a fair amount of sugar, it’s healthy and once you feed it to any kind of livestock they love it.
One area we are particularly keen on is energy. I think bamboo can help Africa really find solutions to some of its major problems. Africa depends on wood energy and its not going to change soon. But most of that energy comes from charcoal, in particular from acacia and eucalyptus trees. So they’re cutting their forests to make charcoal to have household energy. If you plant bamboo to make charcoal from, you’re basically growing replenishing grass, so that would be a real opportunity. You would need a garden of about 10x15m for a household to have a renewable source of energy for the year, which is not much. And if you actually go that one step further and gasify it, you can have a generator that supplies a village.
We are engaging more and more with the climate change community and making the point that, as bamboo is a plant, it has photosynthesis, but grows faster than virtually anything else. It has a high biomass and is therefore a potential carbon sink. It actually does better at that than some of the wood plantations we have modeled in China.
Because farmers can actually plant bamboo in bad soils, it means that you can provide a certain adaptation component. If farmers add bamboo to their forestry systems, they have more hope to overcome any calamities that might come their way. We’re not saying to stop planting anything else, but in many countries they’ve just simply not thought about it. So how we can introduce bamboo into national renewable energy policies, and how we can get bamboo into the commitment for the climate change agreement is really our main job at INBAR. To make that case that bamboo isn’t just a forestry issue but an issue that fits in with many of the Sustainable Development Goals.
1955 Born in the Netherlands
1978 Part of the Gunung Mulu National Park expedition with the RGS-IBG
1982 Obtained PhD in hydro-chemistry from Bristol University
1982 Member of a five-man limestone cave exploration team in the Gunung Sewu mountains in central Java
1989 Joined IUCN as Head of Project Management in Eastern Africa
2009 Made Regional Director for Europe at IUCN
2014 Became the fourth director general of INBAR
This was published in the December 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.