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By Charlotte King
June marks the start of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration: an initiative led by the UN Environment Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization, which aims to drive attention towards the urgent need to value and protect our ecosystems.
Bamboo, the fast-growing tropical plant, is part of some of the world’s most biodiverse and carbon-rich ecosystems. However, because it is taxonomically a grass, not a tree, it is often neglected from forestry discussions.
The International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation, INBAR, promotes the use of bamboo as a nature-based solution for sustainable development. Did you know?
1. Bamboo may cover as much as 50 million hectares of land.
In its most recent assessment, the Food and Agriculture Organisation reported there were 35 million hectares of bamboo around the world, growing in isolated patches, as part of mixed forests, or in wide swathes of pure bamboo forest. In fact, 35 million hectares is likely an underestimate, given a number of major bamboo-growing countries did not report, or underreported, data. INBAR estimates that bamboo forests may cover as much as 50 million hectares of land, and is looking to produce a more comprehensive database through its ongoing Global Assessment of Bamboo and Rattan.
Because its extensive root systems bind soil and prevent water runoff, more and more countries are planting bamboo on dry and degraded soils: INBAR Member States alone are planning to restore almost 6 million hectares of degraded land with bamboo by 2030.
2. Bamboo can store more carbon than certain types of tree.
Over a period of time, bamboo plants and harvested products can store or avoid 1.7 times more carbon than certain types of tree. This is because bamboo can be harvested more frequently, and made into a wide range of durable goods: from flooring and furniture to housing materials and wind turbine blades. Bamboo could be a low-carbon replacement for cement, PVC, steel and plastics in a large number of everyday products.
The non-governmental organization Project Drawdown estimates that, with more bamboo, it would be possible to save over 7 gigatons of carbon dioxide within 30 years: that’s more than 300 million new electric cars could save in the same time period.
3. Bamboo forests support a huge amount of wildlife.
The giant panda is well-known for its bamboo diet, but bamboo forests around the world support a large number of iconic and endangered species, including the red panda, Indian elephant, South American spectacled bear and Madagascar bamboo lemur. During shoot season, bamboo may account for up to 90 per cent of the African mountain gorilla’s diet, leading the President of Earthday to comment in 2020 that “World Gorilla Day might as well be World Bamboo Day.”
Because it grows in tropical and subtropical forests, bamboo is also integral to the conservation of these important ecosystems. By managing and harvesting these plants sustainably, communities can also protect the forests in which they grow.
4. Bamboo and rattan can support millions more livelihoods.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that we need to rethink our relationship with nature, it has also shown that we must protect rural communities in developing countries, who are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic and its associated economic shocks.
Because they are light, versatile, and easy to harvest and process, bamboo and rattan are already used by millions of people across the tropics and subtropics, to make everything from boats and baskets to houses and bridges, as well as furniture, fuel and fodder.
By encouraging bamboo and rattan value chains – for example, by mandating that at least 25 percent of school desks be made from bamboo, or adopting national standards for bamboo construction – governments can protect forests while supporting income generation in rural communities.
5. Bamboo can prevent deforestation – and power our homes.
Bamboo is growing in importance as a source of cooking fuel, with companies as far apart as Uganda and Indonesia promoting bamboo briquettes and charcoal. This can be an important replacement for wood fuel in parts of the world which still burn biomass for cooking and heating. One study estimated that sub-Saharan Africa could produce 9 million tons of sustainable bamboo charcoal, which would replace over 60 percent of the region’s wood consumption for charcoal production.
And bamboo can be used for more than just cooking fuel. Bamboo pellets, briquettes and gas are already being used to provide off-grid energy generation in some parts of Indonesia, and could be an important part of biomass targets for electricity generation in areas such as Europe. Because bamboo can thrive on degraded or marginal soils, it does not need to compete with agriculturally productive land, making it a more viable energy source than several types of biomass.
Charlotte King is a communications professional with an MSc in climate change and energy policy. She currently works at the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation, INBAR.
INBAR is an intergovernmental organisation dedicated to promoting bamboo and rattan for sustainable development. It is made up of 47 Member States. INBAR is a partner of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. For more regular news about how bamboo is contributing to sustainable development, sign up to receive the quarterly INBAR newsletter and magazine.