I have just returned from an interesting international seminar about rattan in South-East Asia. Rattans are climbing palm trees that grow naturally in West and Central Africa and in South-East Asia. This seminar focused on the latter region, and was held in Haikou, the Capital of Hainan Province in southern China. In the past, China has had extensive rattan forests, but currently rattans are only found in Yunnan and Hainan Provinces, and Hainan has the largest area. We had more than 110 participants from Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Timor Leste and Vietnam, and from ADB, SNV and WWF.
I had never seen rattans in the wild, and it was interesting to find out what they look like. Baisha Autonomous County in the central mountains of Hainan, is an area mainly inhabited by the Li ethnic minority. Baisha County has a total area of 202,000 ha, and 177,00 ha is forests. These forests have wild rattan resources, and from 2001 to 2006, additional rattan seedlings were planted amongst the Carribean pine trees in a 3000 ha plantation in the southeast of Baisha County. We visited this plantation area to see the living rattans and were told that in 2014 more than 300 tons of rattan was harvested from the area with a total value of CNY 12 million (approx. USD2million).
I learned that rattan fruit is particularly valuable, and in 2014 5000kg of fresh fruit was collected with a value of CNY 2.8million (approx. USD3.5Million). When we visited the plantation, we saw the fruit as well.
The actual seminar discussed the various challenges and opportunities of managing and collecting rattan plants and producing furniture and handicrafts. The discussions listed a number of key issues, starting with the fact that we lack reliable data about the actual distribution and composition of rattan forests. This is partially due to the fact that rattan is part of a natural forest canopy (with densities of several hundred plants per hectare), but it also reflects the broader challenge of a lack of overall resource inventories. INBAR is launching a Global Inventory and Assessment of Bamboo and Rattan, and the discussions in Hainan supported the need for such an inventory in all of the ASEAN nations that have natural rattan resources, so that the current maps can be verified and updated.
There was a lot of discussion about the need for enabling policies, although it is clear that the situation varies from country to country. Malaysia informed us that there are several policy instruments in operation to guide sustainable management of rattan, and Indonesia has a ban on the export of raw rattans in order to protect the natural resources and to promote domestic industry. We heard that enforcement of regulations is often lacking, and governments were requested to make more effort to support a sustainable rattan industry.
There was a loud call for technology transfer, training and capacity building at the seminar. INBAR was applauded for having organised the meeting, but participants strongly recommended that such training seminars should take place on a regular basis, maybe every year. It was recommended that all ASEAN nations should participate, as well as the ASEAN Secretariat, and all international organisations that play a role in rattan project management. At the same time, complementarity of different projects was recognised, and a request was made that reports of previous project should be made available on the internet. WWF offered to share several of its training manuals and guidelines, and INBAR is in the process of collecting as much information as possible on its new website.
There was a clear demand for development of a reliable supply of rattan for the global market, and the private sector representatives in particular reflected on the fact that investors are reluctant to put their money in a venture with high risk of failure due to a lack of raw products. We agreed that this has two aspects: on the one hand we may identify unexplored natural resources in some countries, and one the other hand we should promote the planting of new supplies in those countries where demand outpaces supply. The field visit was an eye-opener to see rattan growing in a pine plantation, and discussions took place about the possibility to grow rattan in combination with rubber or oil palm plantations. Clearly, more research is needed, but this was seen as a potential win-win situation.
The current market for bamboo products consists mainly of traditional furniture and handicrafts, and design improvement will most likely broaden this market. We visited the showroom and factory of one of the supporters of the seminar, Hainan Sino Rattan Technology Co Ltd, and saw a range of products. As the market of this company is China, the designs are traditional, but others participants reflected on the fact that European customers would be more interested in other designs.
We also talked about the fact that the manufacturing of rattan furniture is very labour-intensive, and therefore it is no longer cheap furniture. This raises questions about the sustainability of the industry as rising labour costs may eventually price the commodity out of the market. This would replicate what happened with the bamboo industry. In the middle of the last century, Japan was leading the development of bamboo furniture. When it became too expensive to manufacture bamboo furniture in Japan, the industry moved to Taiwan. This became too expensive as well, as the furniture industry is currently focused around Anji County in Zhejiang Province of China. There is concern that this may not be a long-term solution, due to the rising labour cost in China.
Dr Yang Shumin from the International Centre for Bamboo and Rattan in Beijing, China (ICBR) gave a presentation about the molecular properties of bamboo and went deep into the matter. She showed all kinds of graphs and analysis, which led her to make a prognosis that new markets may opening up with potentially high-value new rattan products. These new products would have nothing to do with furniture or handicrafts, but would be based on extracts of chemical and pharmaceutical properties, on new compounds using rattan as a component and on biochemistry developments with rattan.
Finally, we spent some time taking about the fact that consumers in Europe and USA are demanding sustainably produced products, and want to know how “green” the production process is. Several presenters admitted that the current process to strip rattan of its spines and make it supple involves the use of chemicals and processes that a far from “green”. There is also a lack of standards for the quality of produced products and for the level of craftsmanship. The meeting concluded that we will need to think about certification or verification of the production methods, and we need to set clear standards for products. In this respect, the new ISO Technical Committee for Bamboo and Rattan was mentioned, and several speakers supported the idea of such a dedicated committee. What needs to be worked out is what role INBAR has in the future management of this committee.
All-in-all, these were two very interesting few days in Hainan.