Master weavers from the forest

INBAR is in charge of the Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) Global Partnership Programme, and is trying to identify case studies of successful NTFP production. One of the striking examples of NTFP use is the production of woven mats and baskets from leaves and strips of material from the stems of plants.  Talking about weaving with NTFP made me reflect on my own memories of basket weaving in four of the countries where I lived

When I was young, I used to visit the Biesbosch, a large area of coastal wetlands in the southwest of the Netherlands. One of the traditional crafts from this part of the country was weaving baskets from young flexible willow branches. This is not a true NTFP, although the way willows are coppiced, allows them to continue growing.

We had a large basket for washing at home and our dog slept in a willow dog basket. Weaving baskets from willow branches is an old craft in the coastal wetlands of Europe, but due to high labour costs it is no longer economically viable in the Netherlands. Some master weavers still practice the trade for educational purposes, and in order to maintain a cultural heritage, and there are enterprises that have combines traditional basket weaving with other more general weaving of screens and partitions.

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Dog basket from willow by kwantum.nl

During my University Studies in the UK, I was fortunate to be invited to join the 1987 Royal Geographical Society expedition to Gunung Mulu in Sarawak, Malaysia. A few years later, I went back to the same place, as a member of the British-Malaysian Speleological exploration team that discovered the largest underground chamber in the world. The limestone mountains are now the Gunung Mulu National Park, a place well worth visiting.

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During the expeditions, we were sometimes invited to the local longhouse to exchange ideas, and to cement our relationships with the Berawan people that traditionally lived in the area. During these visits, I admired the beautiful weaving examples, and I found out that this is a trade that is particularly well developed in Indonesia and Malaysia. Baskets, mats and wall hangings are made with exquisite patterns and colour combinations, using natural rattan fibres.

According to the Sarawak Museum, weaving and plaiting baskets isn’t just for convenience. In the Iban community for example, the ability to plait fine baskets would enhance the standing of a woman within the community. The baskets and other plaited items are made in their own design and technique that represents the ethnic identity.  The following photo is an example that is kept in the Peabody Museum of Harvard University.

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Rattan is the name for the roughly 600 species of palms in the genera Calamus, Daemonorops, and Korthalsia climbing palms of tropical Asia, all belonging to the family Palmae (palm family). Most rattans grow in Indonesia and neighbouring countries, although they are also found in Africa. Rattans are threatened with overexploitation, as harvesters are cutting stems too young and reducing their ability to re-sprout. Unlike bamboo, rattan requires a long time to regenerate, and unsustainable harvesting of rattan leads to forest degradation, affecting overall forest ecosystem services, and this is a serious problem also recognised by the weavers.

In my current position of Director-General of the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, I am planning to develop a programme of activities for sustainable rattan management in partnership with our members that produce rattan. We are not alone, and will be working with other organisations that are promoting similar work. I will report on progress in this area later this year.

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A rattan palm from Indonesia

When I moved to Botswana in the early eighties, I discovered the basket weavers from Etsha in the Okavango Delta. They are true master weavers as well, using the leaves of another palm tree – the Mokola (Hyphaene petersiana) that grows in the Okavango Delta – and produce pieces of art. I bought several baskets during an interior design exhibition in Serowe in 1985, and have carried them around the world.

Commercialisation of the basket industry in the Okavango has led to changes in the population structure of the palms, but the Ngamiland Basket Weavers Trust, a local association set up mainly by women from the area is planting new trees to ensure a sustainable supply of raw materials. A private company Botswanacraft is also selling Botswana baskets from the master weavers in Etsha, and they fetch at least several hundred dollars per piece.

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Baskets from Etsha Village in Botswana. Photo by L’Arco Baleno

Now, I live in China and a few weeks ago I visited Qingsheng County in Sichuan Province in southern China. Master weaver Zhang showed us what he can do with bamboo! He makes the finest woven covers for porcelain vases and pots, some of which are sold to exclusive addresses in Europe. The photo below shows Master Zhang and me admiring one of his creations.

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Master weaver Zhang also teaches local people how to make woven paintings, using different colours of bamboo strands. The strands are hand-produced, by splitting bamboo into small strips, which are then separated into 10 layers. These thin layers are again split into even thinner strands of bamboo, and they are used to make the intricate weavings.

 

I have been fortunate to see master weavers in action in several countries, and they all use Non-Timber Forest Products. The NTFP Global Partnership Programme may be able to find other masters weavers, or maybe you know of some. I would love to get in touch with them.

 

Shooting Bamboo

Last week I saw for the first time in my life a bamboo shoot appear above ground. I was in Changning County of Sichuan Province in southwestern China, on the edge of the so-called bamboo sea. The bamboo Sea is a large area of bamboo forest, mainly Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys pubescens), stretching as far as the eye can see.

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Moso bamboo is a monopodial bamboo, which means that its roots and rhizomes spread out over a large area, reportedly up to 100 metres. The rhizomes create nodes which produce the new shoots. This happens every two years in spring for moso bamboo, while shooting happens for every year for other bamboo, and the month of March is normally the time when the new shoots start to appear. New shoots grow quickly and after a short periods, the growth can reach speeds of one metre per day. After one month or so, the new culm is complete in its height and diameter growth, but it needs a few more years to harden before it can be harvested.

New shoots are bullet shaped, and the outside is furry, possibly to make it easy to push through the soil. There are new shoots every other metre, and apparently there will be as many shoots as there are culms per hectare.

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Changning county has made bamboo shoot production its niche market, and many bamboo plantations and natural bamboo groves in the county are managed for bamboo shoots. I enquired whether cutting the new shoots off to process them for food slows down the regeneration of the bamboo forest, but my colleagues explained that the opposite is true. Out of every thousand new shoots, about 500 will naturally die, due to competition for nutrition and space. Half the new shoots can therefore be harvested, giving the other half more chance to survive. Moreover, nodes where the new shoot has been cut off sometimes re-grow a second shoot, and therefore more new shoots will re-appear after a few weeks. Therefore it is acceptable to harvest even more than 50% of the new shoots every year.

The harvested shoots are boiled, and put in large vats with preservative agents, until they are cut up, and packaged for sale. I visited a medium-sized enterprise in town that is making good business from this particular use of bamboo.

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INBAR has worked with the owner of this company to try and improve the environmental aspects of the production, and look for ways to reduce preservatives and water use and potential water pollution. This is a challenge for any new business, and lessons learned from this particular company can be transferred to other similar activities.

That is one of the objectives of the INBAR-supported SME Training Centre in Changning, which is being developed with assistance from Citi Foundation and EU funded Switch Asia Programme for sustainable consumption and production. We visited the building that will be transformed in a training facility during the coming months. It is located inside a large nursery, and will be a fantastic centre for learning and knowledge transfer.

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Dr Zhu Liang, Vice-Mayor of Changning County and INBAR Director-General Hans Friederich in front of SME Training Centre

More business training, improved technical knowledge and a better understanding of the ecology of bamboo will give a boost to the economic development of the bamboo resources, especially support to an expanding bamboo shoot business. The good thing is that bamboo shoot production does not harm the forest, as this is an industry that is a positive example of green development.

 

 

Indian Bamboo Advice

Yesterday, we had a visit by D.N. Tewari. He is an Indian specialist with a distinguished career in forestry management.  He was the first Director-General of the Indian Council for Forestry Research and Education, former member of the Indian Planning Commission, former Trustee of ICRAF – the World Agroforestry Centre, former Member of FAO working group on biodiversity and much more.

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Dr Tewari is also the Founder and Director of Utthan, Centre for Sustainable Development & Poverty Alleviation.  INBAR and Utthan developed a project some twenty years ago in an attempt to help local communities near Allahabad who were living on totally degraded soils in an area that had been devastated through years of brick making. The brick-making industry had come to a halt, and the soils were so bad that there was no opportunity to grow crops or make a living.

Natural regeneration of the historical tree cover would take tens of years, so the plan was hatched to use bamboo as a means to speed up the process of ecosystem regeneration. This was the start of the “Greening Red Earth” project that has been described in an INBAR report from 2003. We are returning to the project area later this year to review what has happened since, and to be able to record the development, but Dr Tewari told us yesterday in broad terms what the impact of the project has been: In 15 years, some 90,000 hectares of mined soil has been rehabilitated in the project area, but similar work elsewhere by Utthan and its partners has resulted in upgrading of millions of hectares of degraded lands.  Side effects of the projects have also included literacy classes for the workers in the nurseries, access to vaccination and sanitation and general improvement of the living condition of nearly 1 million households.

The project is a case study of a success story, but there are new challenges, and Dr Tewari listed the following as areas where INBAR could help.

  • Policy constraints. Some areas are over-regulated and therefore nothing happens. Other areas have little or no regulation and therefore the wrong decisions are taken. Overall, there is need for policies at national level to guide sustainable development
  • There is lots of money available for rural development, but most of it is locked up in large funds with institutions that require project proposals to access the funds.  Local communities have limitations in project formulation and writing of proposals. Training by local organisations like Utthan is critical, and INBAR should liaise with in-country expertise to facilitate this.
  • International trade in forest products is regulated through certification and standards. Bamboo and rattan are often treated as a tree product, leading to unnecessary red-tape. There is need for awareness and education both in producing countries and in the countries that import bamboo and rattan.
  • There has been some exciting field work in the past years, but a lot is hidden in project reports, local language research papers, or institutional archives. We need more publications to illustrate the benefits of bamboo and rattan and to document the progress that has been made in developing the resources sustainably.
  • INBAR should take the global stage and talk about the values and benefits of bamboo and rattan so that those outside the traditional bamboo community will learn and understand what the opportunities and challenges are for bamboo and rattan producers.
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The advice from Dr Tewari fits very well with my own understanding of priorities and future direction for INBAR:

  • Ensuring that bamboo and rattan are included in socio-economic and environmental development policies at national, regional and international level
  • Coordinating inputs from a global network of members and partners and representing the needs of Members on the global stage, including the development of production standards and trade regulations
  • Sharing knowledge, providing training, communicating lessons learned and raising awareness about the socio-economic and environmental values of bamboo and rattan
  • Promoting adaptive research and on-the-ground innovation by helping to establish pilot best-practice case studies and supporting up-scaling of successful practices across the INBAR Member countries.

 

Bamboo Bikes

When I visited the Bamboo museu in Anji County, Zhejiang Province, China last week, I was photographed next to a bamboo bike.

INBAR Director-General in bamboo museum, Anji County, Zhejiang Province, China

INBAR Director-General in bamboo museum, Anji County, Zhejiang Province, China

I know many people see bamboo bikes are a bit of a gimmick, but there are now a number of companies around the world that are producing bicycles made from bamboo.  The arguments are that the bikes are made of a sustainable product, they are as sturdy as traditional bikes and they even feel more comfortable as the bamboo is slightly flexible and absorbs bumps and shocks better than a steel frame.  I have never been on a bamboo bike, so cannot vouch for the reliability of these claims, but let me tell you about some of the activities that I am aware off.

In Ghana there are at least two organisations making bamboo bikes.   Bamboo Bikes Limited (BBL) is a Ghanaian owned manufacturing company located in Kumasi, which is where the INBAR Regional Office for West Africa is also located.  According to their website, the principal aim of the company is to provide affordable transportation to many poor rural inhabitants who are denied access to market for their produce, face difficulty in reaching medical facilities and many other challenges as a result of inadequate or no roads.

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A fully grown bamboo tree has an average length of 16 metres, and their bicycle production unit uses only 4 metres of the pole for its production.  BLL Ghana has therefore added a toothpick section to make use of the remaining two-thirds of the bamboo tree that would otherwise go to waste.  The company employs 34 workers in the factory and also provides an alternative source of income for the communities where the bamboo is harvested.

The other initiative in Ghana is the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative.  They had some unexpected publicity when United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon sat on one of their bikes at the Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw, Poland late last year.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres with bamboo bike

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres with bamboo bike

The Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative claims to address climate change, poverty, rural-urban migration and youth unemployment by creating jobs for young people, especially women, through the building of high quality bamboo bicycles.  They explain on their website that compared to the production of traditional metal bicycles, bamboo bikes require less electricity and no hazardous chemicals.  They say the bikes are light and stable, can handle rough terrain and can carry large farm loads and passengers.

The woman-led Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative trains people, especially women, with little or no education in the manufacturing and assembling of bamboo bikes.  The activity has created 30 jobs (10 jobs for farmers and 20 jobs for bamboo bike assemblers), and they were recently featured in a Rockefeller Foundation web story.

Ghana Bamboo Bikes women

Zambikes says that they exist to change lives in Zambia by developing and providing efficient transport solutions throughout the country.  The vision of the company is to be the leading supplier of high quality and customized bicycles and accessories in the Southern African region, and this includes bamboo bikes.  Their bamboo bikes are custom handcrafted by skilled Zambians, using locally grown and sustainably sourced materials.  And the process to build a frame takes over 2 months.

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A similar initiative called Bambike is a socio-ecological enterprise in the Philippines that hand-makes bamboo bicycles with fair-trade labor and sustainable building practices. The Bambike builders come from Gawad Kalinga, a Philippine based community development organization for the poor, working to bring an end to poverty.  Bambike says that it is also working on a bamboo nursery for reforestation and has plans for a scholarship programme.  Their goal is to do better business and to make the greenest bikes on the planet.

Bambike-Philippines

I have also seen a bamboo bike in the INBAR Regional Office for South Asia in New Delhi which is produced by our partner the Centre for Indian Bamboo & Technology (CIBART).

Even the USA has bamboo bike manufacturers.  A company called Erba advertises that riding one of their bikes made with natural fibers means you’re taking environmental conscience a step further – as bamboo is one of nature’s fastest natural growing resources, and the joints of Erba bikes are apparently made from plant-based hemp and flax.

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Bamboo bikes sell for two thousand dollars or more, so the market is small.  I do not expect this to be a major development area for any of the INBAR Members, but bamboo bikes are very good publicity tools for the benefits of bamboo.

I have listed a few of the better known initiatives, but there may well be others.  Let me know and send photos if you are aware of other initiatives.

Best regards, Hans

 

The World’s Bamboo Production Centre

On Saturday 8 March and Sunday 9 March, I visited Anji County in Zhejiang Province.  Anji County produces nearly 20% of China’s bamboo industry, and half of the annual income of the County is related to bamboo production.  Bamboo has been used for thousands of years, and there is a lot of bamboo in the County.  To put it into context: The famous fighting scene in the bamboo forests of the film Crouching Tigers – Hidden Dragons was filmed in Anji!

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The bamboo industry in Anji County is highly sophisticated.  There are specialized companies for each stage in the production process:  collection of bamboo poles; processing of raw materials for further production; quality enhancement of basic products and eventually production of high-value, high-quality items.  The forest department of Anji County lists the different bamboo production lines as follows:

  • Bamboo boards, flooring and furniture
  • Woven products from bamboo
  • Bamboo-based textiles
  • Bamboo handicrafts
  • Production of Bamboo processing machines
  • Food from bamboo
  • Chemical extracts from bamboo
  • Bamboo charcoal and vinegar

To start the day, we visited the bamboo research station of the County Forest Service which is studying the most effective and efficient ways of managing bamboo plantations.  They are measuring growth rates, density and other parameters, as well as air quality, CO2 and other conditions.

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We then looked around a workshop that is specialized in splitting the cut bamboo poles into strips, which are used for either production of venetian blinds or for bamboo flooring.  The side products of this particular operation are charcoal from the waste products and bamboo scaffolding from the top of the poles which are too small for splitting but very strong and flexible.  The sawdust that is generated can be used for particle boards or for fuel to power the boiler.  Finally, the edges of the strips that cannot be used for the primary purpose can be made into fibres for pulp and paper production.  Nothing is wasted in the production chain!

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Small bamboo strips ready for further processing

Afterwards, we visited one of the largest bamboo factories in Anji which produces top quality floor planks, wall panels, furniture and interior design.  The products on display would take pride in any showroom in Europe or the USA, and the latest designs were in one word: brilliant.  The company supplies a growing domestic market, but also exports internationally, including to well-known large international furniture companies.

Anji has a wonderful bamboo museum with archeological discoveries, historical anecdotes, educational displays about bamboo biology, ecology and distribution as well as examples of traditional and modern use from China and the rest of the world.  The introduction display describes bamboo as “a grass that does not act like a grass which looks like a tree but is not a tree”.

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The INBAR visitors at the entrance to the bamboo museum with the director and forest department staff

The museum also has a small zoo with four very happy giant pandas that were munching away on bamboo leaves.  They get occasionally an apple to boost their vitamin intake and I was lucky enough to feed the pandas.  It was the first time that I have seen a giant panda in the flesh!

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The following day we visited a factory that specializes in the production of textiles from bamboo viscose.  The material is extremely soft, has very high water absorption capacity and apparently has anti-bacterial properties.  Bamboo textile industry is one of the fastest growing aspects of bamboo the sector.  Commercial application did not start until mid-noughties and after 8 years it is worth more than 10 billion Yuan.

It is still not possible to produce textiles from pure bamboo fibres as they are too short, but I would not be surprised if further Research & Development may find a solution for this in the future.  However, making textile from bamboo viscose still has important positive environmental benefits: growing bamboo instead of cotton means that less irrigated land is needed for cotton and therefore more land can be used for food production, and bamboo does not need the agro-chemical applications that are required for cotton production, thus reducing soil and water pollution.

We also visited a trading company that buys handicrafts from a large number of small producers, often women who work from home.  While this sounds like small-scale business, the company was loading a 40ft container for export to Japan, and this is not unusual.  This is a multi-million dollar business.

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Anji County calls itself the centre of bamboo production in the world, and now I understand why.

Bamboo charcoal – what an amazing resource

Last Friday, I left Bejing with my colleague Dr Fu Jinhe and my wife Bee to travel south to Zhejiang Province, and more specifically to Suichang County, which is the heart of bamboo charcoal production.  Suichang is rich in bamboo, with 82% of the territory under forest cover and much of that is bamboo.  The total area of bamboo forest is reported to be 233 square kilometres.

What impressed me most during the visit was to discover the many uses of bamboo charcoal, and the fact that nothing is wasted in the process.  My first encounter with bamboo was with a local farmer who was digging for winter bamboo shoots.  Bamboo produces shoots twice per year, and the winter shoots do not appear above ground.  Less than 20% survives because of competition for nutrients, and therefore it is actually good to dig up a proportion of the winter shots, thus given the remaining ones more chance to survive.  Because winter shoot are difficult to collect, they are valuable, and they taste supposedly very nice.  I ate some of the shoots later in the day, and can confirm that they have a lovely slightly nutty taste and they are soft and delicious.

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In 1995, the Chinese Government imposed restrictions on charcoal produced from wood, and some entrepreneurial individuals in Suichang County started to use bamboo as an alternative source of charcoal.  The first attempts reportedly resulted in large piles of ash, but over the years, the process has been honed so that now large quantities of high quality charcoal are produced.  The charcoal is mainly traded in the domestic market in China, but the charcoal producer Mr Weng told us that he also sells to Korea and Japan.  Bamboo charcoal is made from the waste of other bamboo utilization processes, and the bamboo kiln that I visited had heaps of bamboo cuts that will go into the furnace during the coming days.

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The bamboo is heated to 900-1000 degrees in a closed kiln, and after a certain period of time the oxygen flow is stopped so the bamboo carbonizes.  After one week, the charcoal can be collected.  One kiln can produce a tonne of charcoal, and currently a kilo sells for 4 Yuan (0.50 dollars).  That is not all, because the steam coming out of the chimney at the top of the kiln is fed into long bamboo poles, and cools so that the liquid flows back down the inside of the poles as vinegar.  This is collected in large containers, and provides the raw material to whole range of products, varying from cleaning liquid to preservative.  This is not done by Mr Weng, but is the purview of a separate chain of product development.  Mr Weng has six kilns in one row and four in another row, and his small enterprise provides employment for 45 people.  He is 77 years old but going strong.

Mr Weng in front of his charcoal kiln

Mr Weng in front of his charcoal kiln

Once the charcoal has been manufactured, there are several subsequent production chains that use bamboo charcoal to produce other high-value goods.  Some of the charcoal is developed for general household use purposes, such as fuel or de-humidifying agent and some of it is bagged or put in boxes for use as air freshener.  But charcoal powder is also mixed with flour to make charcoal biscuits, the coating for peanuts or black noodles.  Charcoal has medicinal properties because its high absorption capacity allows it to absorb stomach acids, so mixing charcoal in with other foodstuff makes it particularly healthy food.  I stayed at the Tanyuan Inn, managed by the delightful Mr Chen Wenzhao and his equally lovely wife Mrs Ji, and they produce all kinds of bamboo charcoal food.  Their shop also sells black bamboo charcoal soap, and they are in charge of the Suichang bamboo charcoal museum.

The local government of Suichang County has allocated space to a number of bamboo charcoal companies, in order to promote the development of bamboo charcoal industry.  Apparently there are now 54 bamboo charcoal enterprises registered.

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One line of production mixes charcoal dust with clay to create extremely stylish wall and floor tiles.   The company that I visited also produces high quality charcoal air and water filters. They have a high-tech laboratory, and are looking for other new innovations.  Other products that are being developed, in addition to what I saw, include textiles, chemical products, cosmetics, charcoal cement and more.  We had an interesting meeting with the vice-governor and her staff and she explained that in Suichang County bamboo trade amounts to 1.2 billion Yuan per annum, and 350 million Yuan of this is from bamboo charcoal.  Bamboo charcoal is good business.  As one of the businessmen told me: “I used to have 50,000 Yuan in 1995 and now I have 100 million Yuan, all as a result of my bamboo charcoal business”

Finally, the extensive bamboo forests, the production of charcoal and associated activities have created a destination for nature-based tourism.  Many visitors from Shanghai, Hangzhou and other nearby towns come to Suichang for entertainment and recreation, especially since the highway was opened 5 years ago.

In short: the bamboo charcoal is a valuable primary product, a source for growing innovative secondary production and a catalyst for a booming tourism service industry.

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This was a very informative and enjoyable visit!

Can bamboo help to reach the Sustainable Development Goals

Last week, I was asked to be panellist at the closing session of the World Congress on Agroforestry in Delhi.  The topic for the panel discussion was agroforestry and the Sustainable Development Goals.  Dennis Garitty, former Director-General of ICRAF the World Agroforestry Centre had made the point in his key-note speech that we need new approaches towards agro-forestry and that the time has come to look for innovation and out-of-the-box solutions.

My message was that bamboo and rattan are excellent tools to help reach these goals, and that they should play a key role in future agro-forestry schemes.  I made the case that bamboo is found throughout the tropics and sub-tropical belt; that it is arguably the fastest growing plant in the world and that cultivating bamboo is relatively simple compared to other crops.  Therefore, bamboo could be one of the innovative solutions that Dennis Garrity was asking for.

Milicent Atieno at her farm in Kenya

Milicent Atieno at her farm in Kenya

I explained that bamboo is directly helping to reduce poverty and provide alternative income for local people, for example by transforming the bamboo into charcoal.  This is a sustainable practice, as bamboo grows back after harvesting, it produces good charcoal with a high calorific value and the smoke from bamboo charcoal is cleaner than smoke from a wood fire.  What I did not stress is that charcoal can be used in fuel-efficient stoves, using smaller quantities of fuel and reducing the smoke production even more.

bamboo charcoal

bamboo charcoal

I stressed the environmental aspects of bamboo, especially the ability to bind soil, maintain slope stability and therefore the potential to help combat soil erosion and land degradation.  I also made the point that a bamboo forest absorbs more Carbon Dioxide than an equivalent forest of fir trees, by showing one of the graphs of the INBAR publication on bamboo and climate change.

 

Finally, I explained that bamboo also has a major economic role to play.  Traditionally, bamboo and rattan were mainly used for mats, baskets and furniture, and this is still a major economic activity for many local communities and individual households or small enterprises.  The future for bamboo production is to enable large-scale landscape restoration, create industrial building materials of high quality and high value and maybe provide a source of bio-ethanol and bio-butanol.

I concluded by reiterating that bamboo and rattan are extremely helpful tools for the goal of sustainable development, and urged the agro-foresters in the room to consider bamboo in their future planning.