Are Bamboos Invasive

I was recently in Europe, and talked with different people about bamboo.  Many see bamboos as a threat, and talk about the invasiveness of bamboo.  I wonder how big a threat this is.

Bamboos are members of the grass family, and there are 1250 different species. Like many grasses, bamboos are perennials with a rhizomatous growth habit. The woody bamboos, which make up the vast majority of bamboo diversity, are classified into two large groups, the temperate woody bamboos and the tropical woody bamboos.

The temperate woody bamboos occur mainly in China and Japan, and most are characterized by running rhizomes, and relatively long flowering cycles, often on the order of 60 or 80 to 120 years.  The Chinese Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis) is one of the best known temperate woody bamboo species.

bamboo poles 3

Moso bamboo plantation in Anhui Province, China

The tropical woody bamboos occur in tropical and subtropical zones in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. With few exceptions, they have clumping rhizomes and their flowering cycles range from 7 to 60 years.

In general, when bamboos do flower and produce seed, most of the seed falls near the parent plants. Much of the seed may be eaten by birds or rodents, but some will germinate and reestablish the clump.  Although many bamboos have small bristles adjacent to their seeds, which may allow animals to accidentally transport them, this is not a very effective dispersal mechanism.  Studies reported from USA suggest that dispersal away from the parent population is a relatively rare event.

Most temperate woody Bamboos reproduce usually by rhizome growth.  Running bamboos may extend their rhizomes from a few centimetres to several metres in a growing season, and this is often considered invasive behavior.  It is also possible that rhizome pieces could break off along river banks during floods or heavy rains and be transported downstream, but this type of dispersal is rare.

Running bamboo root system.  Photo by bamboobotanicals.ca

Running bamboo root system. Photo by bamboobotanicals.ca

The European Union has recently agreed a legislative text on Invasive Alien Species. The text, published in the Official Journal of the European Union on 4 November 2014, is in the form of an EU Regulation (Regulation 1143/2014), and becomes immediately enforceable law in all EU Member States on 1st January 2015. Unlike EU Directives, EU Regulations become national law without having to be transposed.

The backbone of the legislation is the list of harmful invasive species (a ‘black list’ approach), namely ‘‘Invasive Alien Species of Union Concern,’’ selected only among species that are alien to the EU and that are identified as invasive through a detailed risk assessment.

While the Regulation at this stage only lists a small number of species, there is concern about bamboo. Personal communication with focal persons in DG Environment in Brussels and colleagues in Headquarters of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Switzerland made it clear that Europe is worried about the potential invasiveness of certain bamboo species.

They made no differentiation between different bamboo species, and as a result all bamboos are considered as a threat.  This is not right, as has been pointed out by the American Bamboo Society. They issued a statement in 2012 that says that bamboos generally have low potential for invasiveness due to their rare flowering, but recognizes that some running bamboos can be aggressive spreaders and form large stands if left to their own devices.

The American Bamboo Society concludes that in almost every situation where bamboos are problematic, especially in urban and suburban settings, it is because people have not planted them properly, have not maintained them properly, or have not disposed of them properly.

Yet, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a species profile for two bamboo species under its list of invasive species.  USDA warns that this is not a list of all invasive plant species, nor does it have any regulatory implications, and the profiles are provided as an educational informational tool.  The list includes Phyllostachys aurea (golden bamboo) and Nandina domestica (sacred bamboo).  The US National Park Service list the following three species as invasive species: Common bamboo – Bambusa vulgaris; Golden bamboo – Phyllostachys aurea; and Arrow bamboo – Pseudosasa japonica.

Interestingly, Australia is one of the most vigilant countries against invasive species, but it has no bamboo species listed in its list of Weeds of National Significance.

The contradictions in USA and the concerns expressed in Europe show the need for clarity.   It is without question that the majority of bamboo species are not considered invasive, but some species may be a cause for concern.

There is a lot of interest in the Global South to develop bamboo resources, and one approach to expanding existing bamboo cover is to introduce exotic species. Without clear advice on the risk of invasiveness and guidelines on management of bamboo resources there is a possibility that we are introducing future problems.

I would be interested in your views.

Natural Capital = Bamboo

From 1994 to 2004, I worked in the Mekong Region, first in Vietnam and later on in a regional role from Bangkok. In 2004, I moved to Switzerland, and I lost contact with colleagues in this part of the world.

For the past days, I have attended the 4th Environment Ministers Meeting (EMM4) of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), organised by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and I re-connected with many old friends and colleagues. Very nice to be back in the Mekong catchment!

EMM4-all-six-ministers

EMM4 took place in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, and it heralded the tenth anniversary of the ADB GMS Core Environment Programme. The environment programme was established during the first EMM in Shanghai in 2005, and further enhanced during EMM2 in Vientiane in 20008 and EMM3 in Phnom Penh in 2011.

EMM4 focused on natural capital, and the second day of the meeting was a full day Natural Capital Dialogue. I was happy to attend, as bamboo is a very good example of natural capital!

Key-note speakers for Natural Capital Forum

Key-note speakers for Natural Capital Forum

The first day included a Natural Capital Business Forum, where I spoke about bamboo and rattan in the working group on sustainable value chains. My presentation focused on the substantial opportunities for development of bamboo and rattan in the GMS. The plants occur naturally in this sub-region, but the potential socio-economic benefits and ecosystem services provided by bamboo and rattan are not yet fully appreciated. We had several representatives from small enterprises, mainly working with rattan handicrafts, but no medium or large scale business leaders.

The forum agreed that technology transfer is important, capacity building is needed, and further assessment of the benefits and values of bamboo and rattan is critical. There are also obvious opportunities for land restoration and possibilities for further economic development.

The main message during the plenary discussions was the need to recognise natural capital at all levels, expressed amongst others by Pavan Sukdev, formerly of the TEEB initiative and Erik Solheim, Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee. James Nugent, ADB Director-General of the Southeast Asia Department made a statement that economic growth in the GMS has to some extend taken place at the cost of natural resources. He stressed the interest and willingness of the ADB to work with the governments in the region to avoid continued depletion of natural resources, which will be an opportunity for collaboration with INBAR.

Myanmar Vice-President Dr Sai Mouk Kham reflected in his opening speech on the landscape around the beautiful pagodas of Bagan. I have not visited the site, but this Wikimedia photo shows the beauty of the area.

Bagan in Myanmar.  Source: Wikimedia

Bagan in Myanmar. Source: Wikimedia

This cultural heritage area with tens of pagodas is nowadays a landscape with small bushes and agricultural fields, but historical records talk about extensive forests and wildlife. Dr Kham explained that the trees were cut to provide fuel for the kilns that made the bricks for the cultural relics. So the creation of these majestic cultural structures resulted in depletion of the natural resources.

This reminded me of discussions I had in Hue City in Vietnam many years ago. The uplands of Thua Thien Hue province were barren, and I was not aware of the reason for these degraded lands. The provincial Director of Environment explained that the trees that once covered the hills around Hue were cut to provide the building material for the palaces and temples of the imperial city of Hue. Smaller bushes were subsequently used by local people as fuel-wood.

Degraded-lands

The story of Bagan also made me think of the INBAR film about land restoration in central India – Greening Red Earth.  This is a story about an area that was devastated after many years of brick making, and when the brick industry collapsed the local people were destitute.  Now, after nearly 20 years of work, the area is a lush, productive agro-forestry system, and that is mainly due to the introduction of bamboo as a pioneer species.

Greening-Red-Earth-cover

These three examples are a lesson for the future, and illustrate why it is so important to consider natural resources in development strategies and plans. Unsustainable development will result in depletion of natural resources, but the loss of natural resources will eventually lead to problems for the local people.

Could bamboo and rattan help to avoid such natural disasters? Bamboo can help restore degraded land, and it could provide a renewable source of energy, but not all bamboo species will grow everywhere. Bamboo is not a solution to all our development challenges, but bamboo and rattan should be included in agro-forestry systems and in green development strategies. They may not solve our problems, but they can help address major challenges, as explained in a recent INBAR publication.

How bamboo and rattan contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals

How bamboo and rattan contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals

Bamboo for frost protection? Why not?

This morning, I walked passed a park in Beijing, and the local gardeners were busy preparing for winter. It can get cold in Beijing, and in December and January it is frequently below zero at night. To protect the more sensitive plants, structures are constructed of wooden slats, which are then covered with material. These boxes keep the cold out, prevent freezing of the leaves, and even keep the snow off the plants, if there is precipitation of that kind.

Beijing-winter-preparations (10)

Beijing-winter-preparations (1)

To my surprise, the workers are using wood to make these box structures, not bamboo. It seems such a waste of timber to use wooden slats and strips to make these winter boxes, when China has abundant bamboo resources.

Beijing-winter-preparations (5)

It would be a great arrangement if there was a green procurement policy for the parks management department that promoted, or better still forced them, to buy local bamboo poles from southern China. This would provide jobs for local people in bamboo producing areas, a guaranteed market for harvested bamboo poles and a green material for the construction of these winter boxes in Beijing.

The interesting aspect of the work this morning was that bamboo was used to cover the rounded plants, as this required the strips to be bent, and you cannot do that with timber.

Beijing-winter-preparations (7)

So why not use bamboo for all of the supports?

Back to Qingdao

Last month, I read “the Siege of Tsingtao” by Jonathan Fenby. This is a book that describes the battle between the German forces in the port of Qingdao and the invading English and Japanese troops during in November 1914 during the First World War. It illustrates why Qingdao is a special place.

Penguin - Siege of Tsingtao

I have visited the town four times this year, and that is more than any other place in China. The reason for my visits has nothing to do with World War I, or German occupation, but is linked to the Horticultural Expo 2014. Every other year, the International Association of Horticultural Producers (AIPH) organises international horticultural expositions, and this year the EXPO was in Qingdao. INBAR has a garden at the Qingdao EXPO, and this has been one of our main activities in China during 2014.  I wrote about this on 3 May on my blog.

INBAR-garden-signboard

The first time I visited Qingdao was during the official opening of the EXPO in April. The opening ceremony was an amazing event with song and dance, music and flag-raising. It started with a welcome dinner the evening before, and culminated in the official opening of the EXPO.  I already wrote about this on 25 April this year.

INBAR Deputy Director-General Dr. Li Zhiyong at Qingdao EXPO Opening Ceremony

INBAR Deputy Director-General Dr. Li Zhiyong at Qingdao EXPO Opening Ceremony

The day after the official launch was INBAR’s own ceremony to open our garden. We had an impressive occasion with several Ambassadors, high-level Chinese officials, local dignitaries and a group of invitees. Professor Jiang Zehui, Co-Chair of the INBAR Board of Trustees gave the keynote speech at the opening ceremony, and invited Minister for Forestry Zhao Shucong to the INBAR showroom.

Professor Jiang Zehui and Minister for Forestry Zhao Shucong visit INBAR showroom

Professor Jiang Zehui and Minister for Forestry Zhao Shucong visit INBAR showroom

In May, we received notice that Vice Premier Wang Yang was planning to visit the EXPO. Vice Premier Wang is responsible for agriculture and forestry matters, and he expressed interest in paying a visit to our garden. INBAR Deputy Director-General Dr Li Zhiyong and myself flew to Qingdao to welcome the Vice Prime Minister, and show him around the INBAR showroom. The Vice Premier was impressed with the garden and with the bamboo products on show.

China Vice Premier Wang Yang reads poems about bamboo in the INBAR showroom at the Qingdao EXPO

China Vice Premier Wang Yang reads poems about bamboo in the INBAR showroom at the Qingdao EXPO

After the summer holidays, we organised a staff meeting in Qingdao to discuss the new 15-year INBAR Strategy and the associated re-organisation of the Secretariat, and to talk about fundraising. We also use the day to visit the garden with the full INBAR staff team.

Qingdao-staff-retreat

Yesterday, 25 October 2014, I returned for the closing ceremony of the EXPO. This was another impressive event, but shorter than the opening ceremony. I signed the transfer of management of the international gardens to the local authorities, on behalf of all the international partners. INBAR also received the Top Grand Award for our garden.

Dr Fu Jinhe and the writer with the Top Grand Award

Dr Fu Jinhe and the writer with the Top Grand Award

I visited the INBAR garden for the last time, and it still looks very good. The outdoor decking has weathered well, he bamboo are nearly all healthy. The main building is still in good shape, and there was continued interest from visitors, both inside the building and outside in the garden.

25October (3)

In 2016, the next Horticultural EXPO will be in Antalia, Turkey. We have started discussions about a possible INBAR contribution, and we welcomed a delegation from Turkey to our Headquarters the following morning.

Commissioner-General Selami Gulay of EXPO 2016 Antalya with INBAR DG Hans Friederich

Commissioner-General Selami Gulay of EXPO 2016 Antalya with INBAR DG Hans Friederich

I will let you know what will happen!

Bamboo at the Biodiversity Convention

Last week I was in Korea, where I attended the last two days of the twelfth meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. This meeting is simple referred to as CBDCOP12. I was there together with the new INBAR Director of Communications and Outreach, Michael Devlin, and we had a busy few days.

CBDCOP12 was organised in a sky resort in Pyeongchang, some three hours drive from Incheon International Airport. It was cold in Pyeongchang, and the discussions took place in large tents. Picture delegates sitting at their desk with coats, scarves and even hats and gloves – that was CBDCOP12!

CBDCOP12-Korea-small

This is not the first time that I attend such a meeting. When I worked for IUCN, I participated in several “COPs”, and they have always seemed special events. Most of the time during the plenary meetings towards the end of the COP is spent on debating the details of text of various documents, and there is no longer room for presentation of new thoughts or discussions of substance. That happened in the preparatory meetings and earlier in the first week. Towards the end of the COP, there are only side events where substantive issues are presented and debated.

INBAR hosted one of the side events this year, and the main aim was to launch the nine finalists of the TVE Biomovies competition. Ethiopia is the Chair of the INBAR Council, and I was very happy that the Head of the Ethiopia Delegation to COP12, Dr. Gemedo Dalle Tussie, gave the opening remarks at our side event. The Biomovies competition asked young media people to propose scripts for short videos. The judging team chose the 9 most promising proposals, and the film-makers were given financial and technical assistance by TVE to produce their video. This year, we had three categories: a) bamboo and rattan, b) renewable energy and c) protecting the world’s environment. INBAR was the sponsor for the bamboo and rattan category, and therefore we hosted the launch of the final videos.

HF-CBDCOP12

The winners were nine interesting films with different perspectives. The bamboo and rattan finalists are from Bolivia, Nepal and Zimbabwe. The Bolivian video describes a bamboo clump that is dreaming of flying. The pole is cut and the material used to make a kite. The film ends with the bamboo flying, and the message that you can do anything with bamboo! The Nepal entry describes a boy who is drawing a picture and who is slowly losing his pens, his drawing and even his clothes. The message is not to ignore the values of bamboo. The video from Zimbabwe is a series of short interviews with poor kids on the streets of Harare or Bulawayo who make a range of things from bamboo and rattan. The message is that bamboo is very versatile and its uses are unlimited. All nine films are now on-line and we are asking the public to watch and vote!

We also used the side event to talk about a project in India that INBAR was involved in from 2000 to 2003. We were very fortunate to get the perspective on Mr Hem Pande, the Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in India, who joined us briefly at the event. The project aimed at helping poor farmers in an area that had been devastated during brick making, and the top soil had been stripped for several metres. INBAR and its local partner Utthan started a re-planting project with bamboo, which was very successful. We published a report “Greening Red Earth” and a few years after the project ended Utthan received the Alcan Sustainability Prize.

Greening-Red-Earth-cover

Earlier this year, I wondered what had happened, and asked one of my colleague to go back to the same place and have a look, take some photos and talk with local people. The result was not as imposing as we had hoped, as there is no large bamboo forest! But, the results are actually very impressive. Farmers have used bamboo as the keystone in an integrated agro-forestry and inter-cropping system, and as a result they are now doing well, gaining at some 10% of their income from bamboo. Bamboo provides all kinds of obvious services and it is a source of material for furniture making and construction. We started with a few hundred hectares in 2000 and now Utthan has covered 85,000 hectares. It is a real success story, which we will present in a new publication later this year.

Apart from hosting the side event, we also participated in the general discussion, and in the corridors I bumped into old and new acquaintances. Many former IUCN colleagues were at the meeting, and it was very nice to renew contacts with former staff and peers. I also met with representatives of the INBAR network, and especially the dinner with Vice Minister Adobo from the Philippines and his whole delegation was a very nice experience.

We also had meetings with representatives from Korea. Discussions with the Department of Forestry focused on the possibility of Korea becoming a member of INBAR. We talked with a delegation from Damyang Province, as this is where the World Bamboo Fair and the World Bamboo Congress will take place next year in September. INBAR still has to work out what it will do in Damyang, but it is clear that I will be back in Korea next September!

WBC-2015

Back in Vietnam to discuss bamboo and rattan

I lived in Vietnam from 1994 to 2000, and visited several times until 2004, when I moved to Switzerland.  I have not been back since, and all-of-a-sudden found myself back in Hanoi.

The reason was two-fold. One the one hand, the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) is the focal point for INBAR in Vietnam. They had sent a message that they would like to discuss future collaboration between INBAR and Vietnam. One the other hand, INBAR received messages from SNV – Netherlands Development Organisation in Hanoi who are supporting the Provincial authorities in Thanh Hoa Province in their efforts to develop a bamboo strategy and action plan for the province.

I therefore travelled to Hanoi for a day of discussions with MARD and SNV. I also met my old friend Nguyen Minh Thong, who took over from me as IUCN Country Representative when I left late 1999, and who is now the Country Representative of Fairventures Worldwide. Thong is also advisor to the Vietnam Green Building Council and he talked passionately about the opportunity to use bamboo as a sustainable building material in Vietnam.

I stayed in the Sofitel Plaza, which used to be the Meritus Hotel when my wife and I lived in Hanoi. We used to be members of the hotel’s fitness club and swimming pool in the late nineties, as we lived nearby. I went in search of our old house near Truc Bac Lake and found this has not changed much from the outside. Getting to places on foot is a challenge in Hanoi, as there are so many motorcycles and mopeds, and the pavements are often occupied with parked cars, hawkers or groups of people playing a game or chatting.

Lac Trinh street in Hanoi

Lac Trinh street in Hanoi

My discussions at the ministry and SNV were very constructive. Vietnam is very keen to develop its bamboo resources. According to MARD, out of the total area of nearly 14 million hectares of forests in Vietnam, 518,000 hectares are bamboo forest, and 673,000 hectares are mixed tress and bamboo forest. In addition, there are 87,000 hectares of bamboo plantation. This is a total of 1.278 hectares or roughly 9% of the total forest area in Vietnam. Thanh Hoa has the largest area of Luong bamboo (Dendrocalamus barbatu) in Vietnam, with over 80,000 hectares of natural bamboo forest and 71,000 hectares of planted bamboo, largely under household management.

Both MARD and SNV are asking INBAR to provide technical support in developing bamboo utilisation plans at national and provincial level. MARD explained that the main missing link is market access and appropriate technology for bamboo development, but they are also looking forward to working together on sustainable production of rattan.  Thanh Hoa Province is partially looking at its internal market, but SNV agreed that technology transfer is a key issue for the province as well. I took on board all the requests and comments, and we will discuss internally how best to respond, but it seems to me that INBAR has fantastic opportunities in Vietnam.

In the evening, I took a taxi to the centre of old Hanoi – Hoan Kiem Lake. This is a historical part of town, which still looks the same as in the early nineties. I read in the local newspaper – Vietnam News – that at a workshop earlier in the week, architects and cultural experts had agreed that no new high-rise buildings should be constructed around the lake to maintain the current outlook.

Hoan Kiem lake in central Hanoi

Hoan Kiem lake in central Hanoi

It was a joy to saunter around the lake and to lose myself in the old town. Hanoi is a very social city with people sitting on small stools along the road and on terraces and porches, chatting, drinking and eating.

What a pleasure to be in Hanoi again.  The discussions I had with MARD and SNV suggest that I will be back before too long.