Bamboo is more than just food for pandas. It has enormous market potential and is highly suitable for landscape restoration. This was the take-home message of the side event at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn on 2 December organized by the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR).
There are an estimated 1,642 bamboo species in the world, the largest growing to heights of more than 30 meters. Bamboo belongs to the family of grasses (Poaceae), which explains some of its extraordinary features.
First, bamboo grows incredibly quickly. One particular species grows up to 91 centimeters per day, holding court as the world’s fastest growing plant. Bamboo usually takes less than a year to grow to its full height, and a couple more years to mature. After that, the woody stems can be harvested annually without affecting the viability of the plant; the stems will simply grow back within a year. Naturally resilient, it does not require pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.
Second, bamboo’s hollow, tubular structure – evolved to resist wind – makes it both lightweight and extremely strong. Its fibers can be used to make materials able to bear the same loads steel, and at a cheap cost.
Tropical and subtropical societies have been using bamboo for thousands of years, mostly for low-tech applications. Bamboo poles are often used as an all-around building material – they still often serve as scaffolding in major construction sites – and bamboo shoots have long been a dietary staple.
Only recently have engineers and designers turned more attention to the plant, discovering ways to manufacture it into high-quality and durable market goods such as flooring, paper and clothing.
Chinese companies are at the head of the pack. Zhejiang Xinzhou, a bamboo-based composites company in Hangzhou uses the material to make a wide range of non-metal products, including large-diameter pressure pipes and modular houses that can be built within two hours. Sichuan Vanov Techincal Fabrics, in Chengdu, is the world’s largest manufacturer of unbleached bamboo-based tissue paper. Every year, one million tons of bamboo are processed chemical-free in a closed-loop model in which all waste is reused.
The country’s bamboo sector provides steady incomes to millions of farmers and workers, and the domestic market for bamboo products totals some USD 30 billion annually, according to Hans Friederich, director general of INBAR. The organization’s headquarters are in Beijing.
According to Ye Ling, president and chief engineer of Zhejiang Xinzhou, China’s frontrunner position is partly the result of government investment in infrastructure connecting bamboo-producing areas and factories. The government also developed incentive programs for farmers, paying them to plant bamboo on degraded lands, as well as promotes innovation and business development through tax measures.
In addition to its economic potential, bamboo is ideally suited to help restore degraded lands while absorbing large amounts of carbon. This was stressed by Eduardo Mansur, director of the Land and Water Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, and Vincent Gitz, director of the CGIAR Research Program on Forest, Trees and Agriculture. As what’s known as a ‘pioneer species,’ it can grow on severely degraded lands without external inputs. And – unlike trees – bamboo only takes a couple of years before farmers can begin harvesting it at scale to generate income, making their livelihoods fit snugly into the global restoration agenda.
However, there are risks involved as well. Bamboo can be aggressive, and introducing the wrong species into the wrong landscape can create problems. For example, when a bamboo species that requires a lot of water is brought into a dry environment, it might hurt more vulnerable plant species. Careful consideration is therefore required to select the species that fits best with local ecological conditions, balancing an ecologically diverse landscape over time.