It is a pleasure to write a few words for a new bamboo promotion initiative, and I wish Green Gold Bamboo well. INBAR is an intergovernmental organisation, with presently 40 State Members, dedicated to improving the social, economic, and environmental benefits of bamboo and rattan. We depend on local initiatives, and rely on others helping to spread the message that bamboo can assist in achieving many of the world’s challenges, particularly those related to poverty reduction, climate change mitigation, sustainable energy, green urban development, ecosystem management and sustainable trade.
Bamboos are amazing plants. There are about 1250 or more different species of bamboos, and while many larger woody bamboos look like trees, they are actually giant grasses. This is important as it explains why they are the fastest growing plant in the world, with growth rates of up to one metre per day depending on the species, and local soil and climatic conditions. But it also is the reason why bamboos are so good at holding soil in place – in fact one bamboo clump is said to hold 6 cubic metres of soil. Last, but not least, as bamboo is a grass, you can cut the culms and the plant will simply grow new shoots during the next growing season. All this makes bamboo a very suitable tool in the fight against soil erosion, landscape degradation and desertification.
But the plant has other, important values. Natural bamboo forests are the home to charismatic species like the Giant Panda in China or the Mountain Gorilla in the Ruwenzori Mountains of Rwanda. The Bale Monkey in Ethiopia depends on bamboo, and several lemurs in Madagascar. There may be species in India that need bamboo for their survival, but this is not common knowledge.
Studies in China have shown that bamboo sequesters more carbon than a comparable Chinese fir tree, and research on calorific values of bamboo charcoal in Ethiopia and Ghana has indicated that it burns as well as charcoal from eucalyptus, but it produces hardly any smoke, and has no smell.
Once you cut the bamboo poles, you can use them in many ways. They can be part of construction, either as scaffolding poles, or as round pole building struts, but also as engineered bamboo beams and panels. The future is in using bamboo fibres to produce solid, heavy construction materials which can be used in any modern building or architectural design. We can also use these new technologies to produce furniture and flooring that competes with hard wood equivalents. The international trade in such products is currently estimated at 1.9 Billion US Dollars
As bamboo produces fibres when it is processed, we can also make pulp and paper from bamboo, and there is a growing bamboo textile industry. Currently, we still have to use environmentally unfriendly processes to produce bamboo viscose, but research is taking place to produce yarn from natural bamboo fibres.
Finally, a new area for future innovation and development is bamboo for energy, and not only by making charcoal. The National Mission on Bamboo promoted bamboo for energy several years ago and INBAR has installed a pyrolytic biomass gasifier in one of its projects in India that produces energy from bamboo. We believe there is more that can be done, in India and in other bamboo producing countries.
All-in-all, bamboos are versatile plants that provide a variety of ecosystem services. The culms can be harvested by poor farmers and provide income for local families and communities to enter a value chain that eventually produces high quality and high value goods for the international market.
Dr Hans Friederich is the Director General of the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR – www.inbar.int)