Artisanal Bamboo Paper

Bamboo paper has excellent ink absorption and good toughness. Last year, I visited a modern pulp and paper factory in Guizhou, which was a high-tech industrial plant, but bamboo paper is also being produced by local artisans. Nancy Norton Tomasko has written an interesting article in 2010 about hand-made bamboo paper production, and she mentions that Fuyang in Hangzhou district in Zhejiang province, China, is the most famous place for traditional bamboo paper production in China.

INBAR produced a Transfer of Technology Model for manufacturing hand-made bamboo paper in 2001. This describes the process, and makes the case that producing bamboo paper is a relatively low-investment use of bamboo fibres. It could be done anywhere where there is healthy bamboo, and I could be an opportunity for local industry development in many INBAR Member States, as you need minimal infrastructure and capital investment.

I was in Hangzhou recently to participate in the award ceremony for the Most Beautiful Bamboo Village in Hangzhou. During the trip, I also paid a visit to the Hangzhou Fuyang Greater Yuan Zhu Paper company where they make paper by hand from bamboo fibres.

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I was told that bamboo paper manufacturing began in Fyyang during the Southern Song Dynasty, and has been passed down from generation to generation for more than a thousand years. The key is to use young bamboo culms, so the stems are still relatively soft. They are cut into pieces and soaked in a bath of lime water. I was told that the company used the culms of the current growing season – only a few months after they have reached maturity. These have not yet become hard and contain relatively small amounts of lignin.

The bundles of bamboo pieces are stacked side by side under water, and lime is added to accelerate the decomposing process. This particular company prides itself on the fact that no chemicals are used, and natural lime is added to reduce the PH in the bath, and to allow for the decomposing of the bamboo fibres.   If chemicals are used, the process may be faster, but the waste water is polluted. In the case of the Greater Yuan Zhu Paper company there is no chemical pollution, and the waste water is released into the nearby stream.

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Once the fibres are softened, the bundles are taken out of the water and drained. You can still see the individual bamboo culms, but the strength has been leached out of the culms, and the fibres are soft enough to be pulped. The bundles are washed, boiled and further broken down to produce raw bamboo fibres, which can then be processed further

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The breakdown of the fibres into mulch is done of the traditional way, by using a large mills stone. In historical times this must have been the work of donkeys, but now a simple machine operates the mill stone. I can imagine that in another other geographical context animal power could still be the way to move the mill stone for grinding the fibres into pulp.

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Once the fibres are pulped, and soaked further into smaller pieces, the solution is thick enough to make paper. This is done by pulling a screen through the water, which collects a thin film of bamboo fibres. Tomasko describes different ways of doing this, but the company that I visited dips the screen only once.   The thin films are stacked to form a pile of thin, fragile sheets, which are the basis for the traditional paper.

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The actual paper sheets are produced by drying the thin films of fibres on a heated sheet. This is professional work – Several members of our team tried their hand at it, and everyone ripped the sheets of fibres. You need to be trained and experienced to paste the thin sheets onto the heated panel and pull off the dried sheet of paper.

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The dried sheets are stacked and packaged to be put on the market.  I was told that this type of hand-made paper is sold to artists, museums and vocational training centres, mainly for use in calligraphy and professional drawing. This factory does not produce paper for thecomputer printer or for normal daily use: it provides a source of high-quality professional material. It may be a small high-value niche market, but what a wonderful use of bamboo fibres.

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Bamboos in Cornwall? You bet!

I visited Trebah Gardens in Cornwall in South-West England, a sub-tropical paradise near Falmouth with a stunning coastal backdrop of the Helmford River.  It is one of the Great Gardens of Cornwall and rated among the 80 finest gardens in the world.

The garden has an interesting collection of bamboos and I therefore wanted to get some photos for the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR).  The bamboos in Trebah Garden are grouped together in a specially created maze of paths known as the Bamboozle which zig-zags alongside the small stream that eventually flows into Helford River. There are some 40 different species and cultivars to be found there.

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It surprised me to see so many bamboos in an English garden, but the micro-climate in this area is very gentle. The fairly narrow, steep valley runs north-south into Helford River, and rarely experiences frost. The steep slopes protect the plants from severe winds. It was unfortunately raining when I visited Trebah, but this clearly benefits the bamboos as well. They all look very healthy, and there were many new shoots. Bamboos shoots are a delicacy in China, and the local squirrels in Trebah Garden also like to take a bite out of new bamboo shoots. In order to avoid this, the shoots are protected with wire mesh.

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Most of the bamboos in Trebah Garden come from China, which is not surprising as the largest number of bamboo species are found there. But there are others in Trebah Garden as well, and I was taken by Thamnocalamus spathiflorus from the Himal Region, which is a clumping bamboo with relatively thin culms.

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The Garden has several Phyllostachys species, including a hybrid that was cultivated in Trebah Garden. It has beautiful thin yellow culms. There are also several nice stands of Phyllostachys aurea. Apparently, the English name is fishpole bamboo, so it was appropriate that the bamboos are planted around a small lake. For security reasons, they have positioned a life-ring next to the healthy bamboo clump, as you can see on the following photo.

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A different species from SW China is Fargesia robusta, with a tight, non-invasive clumping habit.  It is apparently one of the earliest bamboos to break soil in spring and the white culm sheaths contrast beautifully with the dark green canes to give what is often described as a chequerboard effect

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The common Moso bamboo from China, Phyllostachys edulis, is also very happy in Trebah Garden, and there is an information plaque about its incredible growth rate. In China, this species can grow up to one metre per day, and can reach heights of 30 metres, but the English climate does not provide for this. According to the information on the board, the growth rate in UK is up to 20cm per day and the maximum height is 6 metres. That is still a lot faster than any tree species that I know of!

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This was a nice visit to a beautiful garden and a very interesting discovery of healthy bamboos in the UK.  For more information about bamboos in the UK, you can contact the Bamboo Society of Great Britain .  They had a meeting in Trebah Gardens last May!

 

 

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!

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.

USD 60 billion – the total value of trade in bamboo and rattan?

INBAR has just released an analysis of the 2012 international trade figures of bamboo and rattan products. This is an important report with an in-depth review of the international import and export of bamboo and rattan, recorded in the United Nations Comtrade database. INBAR is the International Commodity Body for bamboo and rattan, and therefore it monitors the international trade.

The report concludes that in 2012 the international trade in bamboo and rattan amounted to USD 1.9 billion. However, these figures are questionable, for the following reasons:

  • There is a limited number of so-called HS codes that can be used to describe products that are exported or imported. More HS Codes for bamboo and rattan have recently been approved by the World Customs Organisation, but these new codes will not come into operation until 2017
  • Some countries still include bamboo and rattan products in wood products when they report their trade, as they do not use the HS codes effectively. This could be due to a lack of understanding or recognition of bamboo and rattan products
  • Not all countries register their trade figures consistently and accurately. This can be a result of lack of awareness, or the need for training of those responsible for reporting the trade figures.

The recorded international trade of bamboo and rattan products in 2012 was nearly USD 2 billion, and the predictions for 2015 amount to USD 2.5 billion, but the shortcomings that I have just listed mean that the real figure could be much more.

Even if we assume that the figure for international trade is double what we have recoded, cross-border import and export is dwarfed by the domestic market, and the total value for trade of bamboo and rattan globally is therefore a lot more than the international trade figures would suggest.   Let me explain.

We have a fairly good idea of the domestic trade in China, as the State Forestry Administration of China has a bamboo development plan. According to the official statistics, the national production value of bamboo industry increased to USD 19.5 billion in 2012 from USD 13 billion in 2010, with an annual grow of 16%. Using the same figure of growth for the following years, the production value of bamboo industry of China in 2015 can be expected to be as high as USD 36billion.

In a bamboo handicrafts factory in Anji County, Zhejiang Province

In a bamboo handicrafts factory in Anji County, Zhejiang Province

 

 

The other main bamboo producer in Asia is India. In 2011, the Forest Service of India reported a total cover of bamboo forests in India of nearly 14 million Hectares, which is more than double the 6.7 million Hectares of bamboo reported by the State Forestry Administration of China in 2013. Yet, despite the fact that there is such a large amount of bamboo available in India, the potential size of bamboo industry of India in 2015 is estimated as USD 4.35 billion in a recent report by Aniket Baksy.

This must be an underestimate, but there are no reliable up-to-date statistics for bamboo trade in India, maybe due to the fact that in many States bamboo is simply included in forest and timber statistics. I know that the bamboo industry in India is not as developed as the bamboo industry in China, but I cannot believe that the production is only one-tenth of what China produces.

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Using the figures above, the total domestic market of China and India, the two most important traditional bamboo producers in Asia, and arguably in the world, would amount to at least USD 40 billion by 2015, but it is presumably more.

Although we have little or no information, it is very likely that a domestic market also exists in other traditional bamboo producing countries in Asia, like Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia. There must also be a local market in Brazil and Mexico in Latin America, and in some African countries with significant bamboo resources such as Ethiopia and RDC.

We have no real figures, but using the trade distribution in the international market in 2012, the domestic market of bamboo products in the major producing countries, excluding China and India, can be estimated to be at least USD 5.5 billion in 2012. This is again a gross under-estimate as we have no statistics for DRC, and Brazil does not record its trade in bamboo. Yet, these countries both have significant bamboo resources, simply by virtue of the size of the country.

If we use the figure of USD 5.5 billion as the baseline, and we apply the same 16% growth for other countries as experienced in China during the past years, there will be an additional USD 9 billion by 2015.  This would lead to a combined total value of domestic trade in bamboo products of nearly USD 50 billion, which is more than ten times the value of the recorded international trade.

Bamboo sculpture from the Philippines.  Photo by Prof Zhu Zhao Hua, INBAR

Bamboo sculpture from the Philippines. Photo by Prof Zhu Zhao Hua, INBAR

The area of natural rattan distribution is much smaller than the natural cover of bamboos. Using the percentages of bamboo and rattan products in international trade, an amount of USD 6.2 billion can be estimated for the domestic market for rattan products in the major rattan producing countries in 2012. As the general view holds that rattan trade is not expanding very much, or maybe even contracting, we can assume the same figure of USD 6.2 billion for 2015.

Using these estimates above, the global trade of bamboo and rattan products in 2015 can be considered to have a value in the order of USD 60 billion. But, as I said earlier, these figures are most likely still gross under-estimates, and INBAR will try to get better information directly from the countries during the coming years. I cannot make any founded suggestions about the real figures, but the real value of global trade in bamboo and rattan products must be more than USD 60 billion. This is serious business!

INBAR garden illustrates bamboo and rattan benefits

I wrote last week about the opening of the Qingdao Horticultural Expo, and the INBAR Garden, which highlights the role bamboo and rattan play for horticultural purposes. In Europe and the North America, bamboo is often used as a garden plant or even as interior decoration. However, in other parts of the world, bamboo has many more uses.

In his speech during the opening of the Qingdao Expo last week on 25 April, Tim Briercliffe, Secretary General of the International Association of Horticultural Producers, AIPH, stressed the role of plants and trees in urban planning. He emphasised that research has shown that a green city is a healthier city than an urban environment without plants and trees. Urban trees and plants provide shade and help to cool the micro-climate, they absorb pollution and generate oxygen, and they attract birds, bees and butterflies. In tropical areas, bamboo could pay a key role in urban planning, as it grows fast, it maintains is foliage throughout the year, and it could provide additional resources when cut. INBAR had a visit recently from a group of town planners and architects from HongKong, who are looking into ways and means to use bamboo in their plans, and they are not the only ones.  The following photo is taken in Chengdu. southern China, where bamboo is used to create a shade corridor in a park.

Bamboo corridor in Wangjianglou Park, Chengdu, Sichuan, China

Bamboo corridor in Wangjianglou Park, Chengdu, Sichuan, China

The INBAR garden at the Qingdao Expo is a showcase for many of the uses and benefits of bamboo and rattan, and as the EXPO will remain open to the public for 6 months, I hope that many people will visit the INBAR garden to see first-hand what an amazing species these two plants are. The garden has 23 different bamboo species from all over China, although Qingdao is towards the northern margin of the natural range of bamboo. Unlike some of the other gardens that are designed as temporary structures, bamboo can remain in the Qingdao EXPO forever, and we are discussing the possibility of having a permanent presence. The different species are an illustration of the wealth of bamboo, and different species have different uses. Particularly striking bamboo for horticultural and decorative purposes is the turtleshell bamboo (Phyllostachys heterocycla), but we also show the typical Chinese moso bamboo (Phyllostachys pubescence) and the giant bamboo from Yunnan Province (Dendrocalamus sinicus) in the south of China.

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The garden designers constructed a traditional bamboo house, to show how round pole bamboo can be used in building sturdy structures. Such bamboo houses are earth-quake proof, as the bamboo will respond to movement, and the joints are all natural without nails or bolts. INBAR has promoted such structures in Sichuan after the 2008 earthquake, and is currently working with partners in Bhutan to enhance building practices there. We are also working with partners in South America to develop affordable, modern bamboo housing examples, and we showcased some of the recent work at the World Urban Forum in Medellin earlier this month.

The path through the INBAR garden is made from decking of engineered bamboo. Bamboo has been used to make indoor parquet flooring for 30 years, and there are many ways to do so, but the use of bamboo for outdoor decks and terraces is a relatively new development. The bamboo planks in the INBAR garden are manufactured with physical treatment, which means less pollution compared to chemical treatment. Manufacturing is a mechanical process of heat and pressure, and the outdoor planks are guaranteed for more than 10 years.

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Manufacturers in the USA, Australia and Europe also produce such outdoor bamboo materials, often from raw materials that are imported from Asia.   The 2012 trade flow of bamboo and rattan products from Asia to Europe was USD 420 million, 68% of the total export value from Asia to the World, and there is a large internal market in the EU of USD 164 million. This is a market that comprises import of raw materials or partially finished products and export or internal trade of finished goods. Flooring is one of the examples.

There is a small stream in the INBAR garden. We have planted bamboo on the banks, and have used bamboo pieces to create small dams.   This aerates the water, and the bamboo on the banks stops soil erosion. The aim is to illustrate how bamboo could be used on larger scale to help protect the banks of waterways, and how constructed wetlands can help with water treatment. Rwanda has a legislation that calls for waterway bank protection by bamboo (10m buffer for riverbanks, 20m for lakeshores) and other countries have also recognised this potential. The concept of manmade wetlands for water treatment has been implemented in many places around the world, especially using reeds and aquatic vegetation, such as the papyrus swamps in Lake Victoria near Kampala in Uganda, but using bamboo is a new approach which can be developed for small communities without mechanical waste water treatment facilities. And by introducing bamboo, we open up the possibility for the local communities to develop new economic activities.

INBAR does not only represent the producers and users of bamboo, but we also a responsible for the sustainable management of rattan. The garden has large bridge and corridor made from rattan, to show how this plant can be used in design and construction. Rattan is mainly found in South East Asia and Central and West Africa. IBAR is discussing with the 10 ASEAN nations how we can develop together a more sustainable future for rattan, including appropriate management of natural resources, planting of rattan to restore depleted sources and assistance with international regulations regarding trade and economic development. I will be visiting the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta in a few days’ time, and I will be discussing the rattan programme with the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry.

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Finally, we have constructed a building in our garden at the Qingdao Expo which houses some examples of the many household uses of bamboo and rattan. The building is totally made from bamboo and rattan, but the walls are not made from round bamboo poles. We have used strandwoven boards that can be used in any modern construction, and the ceiling is made from bamboo plasterboard. But, we have used some massive round bamboo poles as main supports for the roof structure, to illustrate how one can combine traditional building crafts with modern housing design and construction. The shape of the building is modelled on a sailing boat, and we have the flags of all 39 Members of INBAR flying from the stern.

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Inside, there are examples of traditional bamboo painting and calligraphy, but also some modern bamboo weaving products. We have both traditional and modern interior design pieces made from rattan and bamboo, and there are examples of bamboo-based textiles. A word about the textile made from bamboo. Currently, it is difficult to produce yarn from natural fibres, as the industry has not yet discovered an economic solution to lengthen the relatively short bamboo fibres. Most bamboo textiles are there produced from viscose, and this process involves the use of chemicals. However, bamboo viscose is not any worse than viscose made from other raw materials. What makes bamboo viscose environmentally friendly is the fact that the raw product – bamboo is a plant that does not require agro-chemical applications (although some farmers may add fertiliser to speed up growth), grows on marginal lands and slopes, needs little or no irrigation once established, and does not compete with foodcrops. Moreover, as it is a crop, bamboo can be harvested every year, after 3 to 5 years for reaching maturity.

In the bamboo house you can also find some traditional round bamboo and rattan furniture, produced through a very new patented technology that uses round bamboo for handmade high quality furniture. It does not crack, even during the very dry Beijing winter. In the bamboo house you can also find other bamboo products like a bamboo computer keyboard and mouse; a bamboo radio and a bamboo calculator; a selection of bamboo charcoal products, and more.

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All-in-all, bamboo and rattan are versatile plants with an immense range of applications and uses. The INBAR garden does not explain the role of bamboo in CO2 sequestration and the fact that it absorbs as much if not more than comparable tree species. It does not talk much about the role of bamboo is restoring degraded lands and helping to bring unproductive soils back into life. It also does not show the important role of bamboo and rattan in biodiversity conservation, as the Chinese giant panda, the Gorillas in Eastern Africa and the Madagascar bamboo lemur all depend on bamboo in nature. And the INBAR garden is not able to present to you some of the ground-breaking research that is still taking place with regards to the production of ethanol and butanol, the potential pharmaceutical properties and chemical applications. But – the INBAR garden in the Qingdao EXPO shows a lot of bamboo and rattan aspects. If you have the chance, please go and visit!

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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.