A few weeks ago, I attended the Eco Forum Global in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province in southern China. This was the fifth annual meeting of the forum, and it turned out to be a higher-profile event than I had expected. I met the President of Ethiopia and his Minister of Environment, the Prime-minister and his deputy from Malta, the Vice Prime Minister from China and several other high-ranking diplomats.
The Forum promotes the introduction of eco-civilisation and eco-culture. Ecological civilization is a concept proposed in 2007 by Hu Jintao, the then General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. It reflects an important change in the Party’s understanding of development. Rather than emphasizing economic construction as the core of development as it did in the past, the Chinese authorities realised that development, if sustainable, must include the right relationship between man and nature.
The political decision was a very important first step, but China will need to put the relationship of its huge population with nature in a new perspective: consider nature as part of our life rather than something we can exploit without restraint. In a way, it is finding back the strong link that has existed with nature for centuries. Bamboo has always been part of life in China, and neighboring countries, but the accelerated economic development during the past decades has changed the priorities. The party leadership, and therefore the Government as a whole has realized this is no longer sustainable, and eco-civilization is an expression of the new thinking.
China talks of eco-civilisation, but this is not very different from the concept of sustainable development promoted by the rest of the world. After all, the integration of social and economic development with environmental protection aims for the same goal of working with nature, rather than exploiting nature without controls. INBAR uses the term “inclusive and green development”, and co-civilisation and inclusive development are both concepts that are based on the recognition that nature is part of life, and that humans and nature need to live in harmony in order to achieve sustainable development. Whether we use the term sustainable development or green development, we mean that nature, culture and economic development are working in synchrony, not in conflict. Bamboo and rattan are excellent examples of plants that provide both environmental services and economic goods to support human society. I therefore felt “at home” in the Eco Forum Global, and was happy to lead a discussion about the many ways in which bamboo and rattan can help to achieve sustainable development and eco-civilisation.
Eco-culture is a society that has embraced the concepts of eco-civilisation and sustainable development, and bamboo and rattan have helped populations of many countries to do so for generations. While both species provide the raw material for a whole range of products, the natural living plants have formed part of the East Asian landscape as long as we can remember. The typical ancient pen-and-ink drawings of bamboo landscape and culture in China are recognised the world over, and natural bamboo forests provide the habitat for some charismatic species like the Giant and the Red Panda. But, bamboo forests also give life to the Mountain Gorilla in the Ruwenzori Mountains of East Africa, the Golden Lemur in Madagascar and the Bale monkey in Ethiopia.
Bamboo as a commodity has also played a role in the culture of many societies for centuries, and what is so exciting is that its role has adapted over time. It has provided traditional music instruments like the Pan flute in Peru, or the Angklung in Indonesia, but bamboo instruments are still used today by music ensembles and orchestras. Bamboo paper was used as the canvas for calligraphy in East Asia in ancient times, but modern bamboo pulp can provide eco-friendly paper made from a sustainable source of fibre, and recently patented processing has enabled paper to be made from bamboo pulp without the use of chemicals. Ancient bamboo tools are forerunners of some of the plastic utensils used by modern society, but modern cooks around the world use bamboo chopping boards in the kitchen as they are strong and eco-friendly.
Maybe most striking are the developments in the construction and interior design sectors. Traditional bamboo and rattan furniture has been used for centuries around the homestead in the Global South and in the gardens of many European households, but modern designers have found bamboo and rattan as a source for state-of-the-art creations, such as the iconic bamboo chair from Tejo Remy and Rene Veenhuizen.
Bamboo has been one of the main eco-friendly construction materials in the tropics, as it is strong but flexible, resilient but soft to touch, insect-proof and easily replaceable. Bamboo and rattan are the raw material for some amazing traditional creations, including bridges, houses and other structures. But also in the world of construction has bamboo adapted with time, and it now is the foundation for some eye-catching modern structures, not only in Asia but also in other parts of the world.
The Eco Global Forum in Guiyang launched a code of conduct to promote eco-civilisation and to recognise the importance of eco-culture. One of the tasks of the International Network of Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) will be to promote bamboo and rattan as eco-friendly species and commodities, which will contribute in many ways to the achievement of these goals.