By Charlotte King, international communications specialist, International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR).
New research underlines what many communities have already known for years: that bamboo can play a critical role in land restoration and forest management.
Bamboo can be a critical tool to restore severely degraded soils, according to a report released at the Global Bamboo and Rattan Congress, held in June in Beijing.
The report, written by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, assessed data from nine case studies across Colombia, Ghana, India, Nepal, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, and Anji and Chishui counties in China.
As the studies show, bamboo’s properties make it a very useful tool for land restoration. With its long root systems, ability to grow on degraded soils and steep slopes, and extremely fast growth, bamboo can revegetate even the most degraded soils within a short period.
In the case of Allahabad, India, severely degraded soil – the result of an intensive brick making industry – staged a remarkable recovery after planting with bamboo: within 20 years, the groundwater table had increased by 10 meters, and agricultural crops and tree species had been incorporated into a bamboo landscape. In Chishui, China, bamboo plantations have 25 percent less water runoff than adjacent sweet potato farms. And in Ghana, bamboo is being used to restore the health of degraded mining areas.
Although its soil binding abilities may come as a surprise to some of the millions of people who live near bamboo, its usefulness as a source of income is well known. The report highlights the economic importance of bamboo as a significant co-benefit for local communities. In Anji, China, as a result of an intensive reforestation program using bamboo, the number of “bamboo tourists” exploded: by 2011, there were some 8 million tourists visiting per year, and the local market for bamboo shoots had reached almost $2 billion. In Tanzania, meanwhile, bamboo-related enterprises have generated an estimated extra $200 every month per household, and created jobs for almost a thousand villagers.
“As far as degraded land is concerned, bamboo is green gold”, stated Hans Friederich, director of INBAR. “We are seeing more and more countries use bamboo for land restoration. However, there are huge gaps in the literature about what works. This is what this report is trying to address.”
As INBAR aims to show, it’s not all about land restoration.
At the Global Bamboo and Rattan Congress, speakers discussed bamboo’s uses as an important tool for forest management. Importantly, bamboo charcoal provides a fast-growing, legally harvestable source of renewable energy for rural communities, with a similar calorific value to other commonly used sources of biomass. Easily created, sometimes using nothing more than a converted oil drum, bamboo charcoal reduces stress on forest resources and provides a lucrative source of income – particularly for women, who often collect firewood for the home.
Speaking at the congress in a session on “Women, bamboo and rattan,” Dancille Mukakamari, the Rwanda National Coordinator for the Africa Women’s Network for Sustainable Development, described how “charcoal is crucial for women in Africa.” And Gloria Adu, a successful Ghana-based entrepreneur who has been making bamboo charcoal for several decades, emphasized its huge potential for deforestation prevention, mentioning that almost three-quarters of Ghanaian forest loss came through charcoal production.
The future uses of bamboo promise to be no less important. At the congress, Pablo van der Lugt, a sustainability expert working for Dutch bamboo business MOSO, introduced a new INBAR report about the plant’s carbon storage potential. Although the potential of bamboo to store carbon – often at very fast rates – has been researched, the importance of bamboo products for “avoiding” carbon emissions, by replacing emissions-intensive materials such as cement, plastic and steel, has not been assessed. According to Van der Lugt, when this is factored in, “the carbon emissions reduction potential of a managed giant bamboo species forest… can be significantly higher than for a Chinese fir growing under the same conditions.” Overall, the report estimates that bamboo can store from 200 to almost 400 tonnes of carbon per hectare over the course of a year.
The potential of bamboo to become part of national carbon storage plans has not been realized by most countries – save one. China, which boasts some 6 million hectares of bamboo, has already worked with INBAR to develop methodologies for bamboo carbon accounting.
In a striking display of support, on the closing day of the congress Li Nuyun from the China Green Carbon Foundation committed to offset all the emissions produced over the three days of the event – by establishing a bamboo plantation in Yunnan province, China. Over a period of several years, the plantation aims to absorb around 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide.
If bamboo is so revolutionary, why is it not more used?
Ignorance is one critical factor. Poor or non-existent international standards for bamboo products and housing, as well as inaccurate trade data, and and a dearth of cross-country knowledge and technology sharing, compound the problem. With greater awareness and better networking, however, many congress speakers believe they can inspire investors and policy makers to take these plants seriously.
Speaking in plenary, entrepreneur and author of The Blue Economy, Gunter Pauli, said it best: “The science is already there. We don’t have to convince people about bamboo, we have to inspire them – and bamboo is an inspiring product.”