Bamboo in northern Thailand

I celebrated Christmas 2015 in Thailand. My wife and I visited good friends in Chiang Mai, and we subsequently spent some days further north in rural Thailand. It was a wonderful experience, with several visits to Thai temples, walks in the forest to waterfalls, a fabulous Christmas dinner in the Four Seasons Hotel in Chiang Mai, evening shopping in Chiang Rai night market, views over the mountains in Burma and the chance to eat many delicious meals.

One of my overwhelming memories of the trip is the abundance of bamboo clumps throughout the area.  Rungnapar Pattanavibool wrote in 1998 that there are 60 species of bamboos recorded in Thailand.  Thai clumping bamboo forests are so different from the Chinese Phyllostachys forests that I have visited in China. The density of bamboo culms is much higher in clumps, and most of the clumps are part of a mixed forest canopy.

My first encounter with bamboo during this trip was near a small temple Wat Pha Lat in Chiang Mai, not far from the zoo. After a steep walk we arrived at the temple complex, adjacent to a set of rapids in a small stream. There were several nice clumps of bamboo, but I am not sure of the species.

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After Christmas, we travelled north to Chiang Rai, where we stayed at “The Imperial”. This is a very pleasant hotel, with a nice garden on the bank of the Mae Ping. The island at the bottom of the hotel garden was full of green-and-yellow striped Bambusa vulgaris, and you could get from the bank to the island on a rickety bamboo bridge.  It is not the image I would like to promote, as there is so much more you can do with bamboo, apart from building simple emergency bridges, but it makes a pretty picture.

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The following day we travelled further north and west, through the landscape of the Chan community. There is bamboo everywhere along the road, and the Chan people are using bamboo for daily life use. Small stalls along the road sell bamboo baskets, brooms and other tools. Later we also found bamboo ladders for sale along the road.

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We stopped at a local village and saw how bamboo is used for fencing, for all kind of household tools, and for construction. Traditionally, houses are constructed by using bamboo strips to make the walls, although it seems that the main structure is often made from timber. This combination of wood and bamboo is what makes buildings that can withstand earthquakes or other natural disasters. INBAR has a lot of good experience in this area, especially in Latin America.

The houses we saw had very simple wall constructions. The bamboo is  split and the pieces are used as a panel of bamboo strips.  There does not appear to be any further enhancement.

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As I already stated, most of the bamboo in northern Thailand is part of the natural forest, and bamboo is mixed with timber tree species. In many cases you recognise the crown of bamboo trees from the distance, as they appear like plumes of feathery leaves. I assume there are different species, but is difficult to see from a distance. Although I had expected to see rattan as well, I did not notice any rattan in the forests that we travelled through.

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We stayed two nights in the Maekok River Village Resort in Mae Ai, which is a fabulous “chill-out” place with beautifully landscaped gardens. The owners, Bryan and Rosie Massingham, told us that the place is not very old, and it was created from nothing. One of the key activities of the resort is to link international school pupils from Chiang Mai or Bangkok with local school children in northern Thailand. This is a fantastic way of linking different groups for mutual benefit. They carry out joint projects in local villages and are using the resort as an education venue to teach outsiders about local culture. The resort has not used bamboo for construction, but there is bamboo in the gardens, and Bryan and Rosie are talking about bamboo in their practical classes.  The jetty in the Mae Kok River is also made from bamboo

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One day, Bryan suggested that we should visit a local waterfall, where there was natural bamboo forest. We found the place, and the bamboo: giant bamboo, or Dendrocalamus giganteus! The culms were up to 15cm thick, and 30 metres high or more. To say that these clumps looked “majestic” is an understatement!

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With all these bamboo resources, one might have expected a thriving bamboo industry in this part of Thailand, but that is not at all obvious. I saw lots of very simple uses, without much – if any – added value. The production value chains seem to stop at the most basic use of bamboo, mainly using the natural culm or slats that have been split from the culm by hand.

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There is no higher-value industrial use, despite the ample resources. Why are there no flooring companies, or pulp and paper mills, or modern furniture producers? This is an area which could be developed without too much effort. The “One Tambon One Product” philosophy could be a perfect way of promoting local bamboo development, but private investment may be needed to encourage some local communities to start production of high-value bamboo goods.

Thailand has just indicated that it wants to join INBAR as a Member State, and this may be one catalyst to identify opportunities for development. I hope that we can work with the Royal Forest Department of Thailand to identify and properly map the main bamboo resources, and then to help determine the best options for local and industrial green development with bamboo.

Happy New Year!

Greening “One Belt-One Road” with bamboo and rattan

Greening “One Belt – One Road” with bamboo and rattan

This morning, I attended the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) Annual General Meeting for a discussion about the greening of the “One Belt One Road” initiative. President Xi Jinping launched the Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road in 2013, as two major regional cooperation efforts, and they are now referenced as the “One Belt One Road” initiative.

At the heart of “One Belt – One Road” lies the creation of an economic land belt that includes countries on the original Silk Road through Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East and Europe, as well as a maritime road that links China’s port facilities with Southeast and South Asia and the African coast, pushing up through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. But it has developed into a major Regional development plan, and an opportunity to promote South-South cooperation amongst the 60+ countries involved.

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Another Chinese innovation is the concept of eco-civilisation, which was incorporated into the Communist Party of China Charter at the 18th National Congress in 2012, indicating that it has been elevated to the center of China’s national development strategy. The core aim of eco-civilization is to balance the relationship between humanity and nature. Eco-civilisation is based on the socio-economic-environmental triangle of sustainable development, but also takes into account cultural and institutional considerations.  I have talked about eco-civilization in previous reports about the Eco-Forum Global in Guiyang, Guizhou.

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This CCICED meeting in Beijing brought together a group of experts to present their thoughts and recommendations about greening the “One Belt-One Road” initiative, and I was given the opportunity to speak about bamboo and rattan. I presented the International Network of Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) as the first Inter-Governmental Organisation based in China and I explained how bamboo and rattan contribute to all 5 aspects of eco-civilisation.

  • Economically, bamboo and rattan currently represent a market value of nearly USD 60 billion, with China as the dominant producer and Europe and USA as the two main consumers.
  • Environmentally, bamboo and rattan provide opportunities for sustainable natural resources management, land restoration, climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation. I reminded the audience that the Giant Panda depends on healthy bamboo vegetation for its survival.
  • Socially, bamboo and rattan cultivation and small and medium enterprise development provides jobs and income for local poor communities. Some 7.5million people are engaged in bamboo industry in China and this is expected to rise to 10 million by 2020.
  • Culturally, bamboo and rattan have been used for construction and production of furniture and household utensils for thousands of years, while bamboo is a traditional source of household energy. Both plants feature in local village life and play an important role in many traditions and ceremonies.
  • Institutionally, bamboo development requires inter-sector coordination, as the plants and their products fall under the purview of several authorities, including those responsible for forestry, agriculture, environment, rural development, energy and small scale industries.
Wayanad Bamboo in India.  Photo: Wikimedia

Wayanad Bamboo in India. Photo: Wikimedia

I reminded the audience that bamboo and rattan grow in many of the countries covered by the “One Belt One Road” initiative, and I made the point that bamboo and rattan therefore are excellent opportunities to promote green development in these countries. I explained that China is already providing training and capacity building for bamboo entrepreneurs, and promoting South-South collaboration in the field of bamboo and rattan development, bilaterally and through INBAR.

There is progress, and there are positive signs for global bamboo and rattan innovation and development. But – with proper planning and increased coordination, we can do a lot more!

Land Degradation Neutrality and bamboo industry

I attended the 12th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in Ankara.  The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) is a new Observer to UNCCD, and I am was invited to participate in the high level events.

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Today, I was part of the dialogue with the private sector, and I was pleased to give our thoughts about private sector support to Land Degradation Neutrality.

Bamboo is arguably the world’s most important non-timber forest product, representing a growing economic sector worth some 60 billion USD every year. In many countries, potential gains are growing at a rapid pace. For example, in China, production was valued at 19.5 billion USD in 2012 – representing an increase of nearly 50 percent from 2010. And in India, where some 8.6 million people depend for their livelihoods on bamboo and the industries it supplies, the plant was projected to create value equal to 4.4 billion USD this year – around 130 times the 34 million USD recorded in 2003.

This rapid growth is attributable to the plant’s versatility and the multiple uses it lends itself to. Bamboo products include furniture, flooring and construction materials, pulp, paper and fabrics. Engineered materials and innovative fabrication techniques have also enabled the emergence of prefabricated bamboo houses made with laminated bamboo boards, veneers and panels.

Bhutan house under construction

Bhutan house under construction

In the years and decades ahead, bamboo’s economic role is likely to expand at an accelerating pace – as other forest resources become strained under climate change, as the imperative to mitigate climate change enforces less dependence on fossil fuels, as water stress forces us to look for crops that do not require irrigation and as research discovers new applications for this valuable plant.

The expansion of bamboo commodity production provides an opportunity to harness the plant’s many environmental benefits. Bamboo is an effective tool to improve soil health and control erosion and slope stability: it has an extensive root system that helps bind soil, and an evergreen canopy that drops leaves year round, providing a perennial source of nutrients. It also thrives on problem soils and steep slopes, playing a potentially important role in efforts to reverse land degradation, and as an effective tool to help achieve Land Degradation Neutrality and support SDG15.

Increasing demand will also deliver economic benefits to rural communities: the rise of industrial bamboo production creates new value chains that rural communities and SMEs can supply and opportunities for them to benefit economically from growing export markets. Bamboo can be harvested on an annual basis, as all bamboos are grass species. This makes it a particularly sustainable opportunity for small and medium business development.

La Florida, Peru

La Florida, Peru

The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan represents currently 41 Member States, containing more than half the world’s population. We believe that there is great potential to link the potential use of bamboo for land restoration with the opportunity to develop profitable value chains for bamboo production.

Turning Waste into Wealth

At the World Bamboo Congress in Damyang, Korea, I attended the UEDA lecture by Professor Zhu ZhaoHua from China. He explained that in the process of furniture manufacturing, 40% of the raw material ends up as sawdust. In the past, this was considered waste, and was not used.

Now, there are several options to make money from turning waste into valuable products.

One option is to make particle boards. According to Wikipedia, particleboard or chipboard, is an engineered wood product manufactured from wood chips, sawmill shavings, or even sawdust, and a synthetic resin or other suitable binder.

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Another possibility is to turn the sawdust into briquettes that can used to make charcoal.  The holes in the middle are used to increase the flow off oxygen.  The photo below is taken in Zhejiang Province, China during one of the MOFCOM-funded INBAR/ICBR training courses..

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Finally, sawdust can be pressed into pellets, which can be used as bio-fuel.

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All three options are relatively low-technology, and  there is no reason why producers anywhere in the world should miss these opportunities to turn waste into wealth!

Strengthening bamboo-water interactions

The water needs of growing bamboo is one of the fundamental questions we need to address. Some bamboos grow in semi-arid areas, but tropical bamboos thrive in high-rainfall environment.

The #Forests2015 Blog

Bamboo

Research on bamboo is feeding into a new global initiative to safeguard the vital role that forests play in the provision of safe and reliable freshwater.

Bamboo demonstrates important water conservation properties – it has a high water absorption capacity, a canopy that reduces evapo-transpiration and conserves soil moisture, and a dense root system that enhances water infiltration. But, its ability to conserve water resources is often overlooked – even by those that benefit most from its application.

To address this, research on bamboo is feeding into a new five-year plan to be launched at the
World Forestry Congress 2015 – an initiative designed to enhance knowledge about forest-water interactions and ensure this evidence informs national and international policies and agreements.

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INBAR contributions to the World Forestry Congress 2015

INBAR is presenting the values, benefits and opportunities for bamboo and rattan at the World Forestry Congress in Durban next month.

The #Forests2015 Blog

INBAR

The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) brings a core message to the World Forestry Congress: “Bamboo and rattan are strategic forest resources and could be key drivers of global green economies – helping to generate income for rural communities, strengthen resilience against the effects of climate change, and conserve increasingly scarce natural resources.”

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