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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Bamboo for Earthquake Reconstruction

I have just returned from Nepal where I attended the National Consultation Workshop on “Bamboo for Sustainable Post-Disaster Reconstruction in Nepal”. This is one of the activities in a CFC-funded project implemented by INBAR that aims to develop capacity for architects and builders in working with bamboo during the reconstruction after last year’s earthquake on 25 April.

The meeting was hosted by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a fellow member of the Association of International Research and Development Centres for Agriculture (AIRCA).  We had a good turn-out with nearly 100 participants, and the meeting was opened by HE Agni Prasad Sapkota, Minister for Forests and Soil Conservation.

The presentations included recent experiences from two Nepali private sector companies: Himalayan Bamboo (www.himalayanbamboo.com) and abari (www.abari.org). They gave examples of building with bamboo, and stressed that a bamboo house does not have to look like a log cabin, but the final product can have the appearance of a “normal” residence. The following slide from Himalayan Bamboo makes the point:

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Nepal already includes bamboo in its national building code and during the past 15 years, INBAR and its Government focal point the Department of Forest Research and Survey have developed a number of bamboo building systems that meet national and international building standards.

One of the recent success stories is that the Ministry of Education has approved a new design for schools from ABARI that includes bamboo to produce the roof trusses. This could help Nepal rebuild many of the 7000 schools destroyed during the earthquake, which was one of the serious effects of the 2015 earthquake. Unicef estimates that nearly 1 million children have been affected as so many classrooms were damaged or destroyed. This recent agreement to use bamboo in those areas where it grows in abundance is a major step forward to resolve the shortage of teaching facilities.

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After the presentations we had a lively discussion with the audience, with many technical design questions, comments about supply and demand, interactions about government policies and building guidelines and more. One of the participants informed us that the Department of Civil Engineering of the University of Kathmandu will include bamboo in its teaching syllabus.

One of the key messages during this discussion is that bamboo is not a “silver bullet” solution for all reconstruction efforts, and most buildings made with bamboo will have other materials in the construction as well. This point was emphasised during the afternoon visit to the building that houses Madan Puraskar Pustkalaya; the largest archive of Nepali literature.

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The original building was badly damaged in the earthquake, and a decision was made to use bamboo as the main structural component in the new construction, and ABARI is taking care of the work. The main vertical supports of the building are made from round bamboo poles that are resting on metal blocks. The bamboo that is used is Bambusa Balcooa; the predominant species in Nepal .

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But, while the main structure is made from bamboo poles, the walls of the building are constructed from rammed earth. This is a process of building by adding layers of soil that re compacted under pressure, creating a solid wall that is as hard as concrete. Other walls will be made by covering wire mesh with concrete and lime.

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The most striking feature of the building is the roof structure, which is made from many intersection pieces of bamboo.  It looks amazing, and will be covered with normal roofing tiles.cropped-roof.jpg

One of the challenges of building with bamboo is how to fix two or more round poles together without cutting the poles. The solution promoted by ABARI is a system that comprises a small metal bar that is inserted across the bamboo poles, and a long screw that is attached to this metal bar and that protrudes beyond the end of the bamboo pole. The screw is then fastened in a metal bracket that holds several bamboo poles together. It is an innovative method that works well, and does not affect the strength of the bamboo poles.

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What intrigued me most was that apart from bamboo and rammed earth, the building also has some concrete beams to hold the first floor.

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This illustrates that a bamboo building does not have to be made of only bamboo, and ABARI stressed the point that a mix of building materials is the best solution. Their main recommendation is to make the roof trusses from bamboo in new construction, which is the best way to avoid future damage from earthquakes, as they bamboo poles will bend but not break!

 

Propping up Pagodas

My wife and I celebrated the start of the Chinese “Year of the Monkey” in Myanmar (Burma). Travelling from Beijing, you arrive in Yangon (formerly Rangoon, and the airline code is still RGN), and we decided to spend a day for sightseeing.

When you are in Yangon, you have to visit the famous Swedagon pagoda.

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The following day we proceeded to Bagan, the ancient capital with its hundreds of pagodas and temples, which was our main reason for the trip. What an unbelievable place.

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Dhammayazaka Pagoda

 

Apparently, real art experts and historians have complained about some of the recent reconstruction work, but for a novice, the many structures on the Bagan plane are amazing. The infrastructure in the area is still rudimentary, with only one or two tarmac main arteries, and most of the access to the many stupas and temples only by small sandy tracks. It therefore feels relatively unspoilt and authentic.

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Re-construction continues until today, and maybe this reflects on the necessity for general upkeep.  I was most interested to see bamboo being used for scaffolding. The area around Bagan is very dry and the natural vegetation seems to comprise only thorn bushes, and I did not see any living bamboo. But a large number of bamboo poles had been shipped in for construction work from other parts of the country.

The main restoration work that I saw was taking place on the façade of the Ananda temple, which is one of the larger temples in Bagan. It has four impressive Buddha statues inside, one on each compass direction.

The northern wing of the temple was being repaired, and bamboo scaffolding covered the walls and part of the roof. I was happy to see that the scaffolding was well constructed and sturdy.

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Some years ago, INBAR published guidelines on the erection of bamboo scaffolding.  These guidelines were based on research in Hong Kong, but they are applicable in all situations.  I was pleased to see that this construction in Myanmar follows some of the recommendations of the INBAR guidelines.

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The bamboo scaffolding appeared very solid, and clearly provides a good working platform for the stone-masons.  There was even a bamboo stair case to get to the upper levels.

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The tour of Ananda Temple was memorable, and it was interesting and rewarding to also include a bamboo aspect in my visit.

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!

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.

 

Shooting Bamboo

Last week I saw for the first time in my life a bamboo shoot appear above ground. I was in Changning County of Sichuan Province in southwestern China, on the edge of the so-called bamboo sea. The bamboo Sea is a large area of bamboo forest, mainly Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys pubescens), stretching as far as the eye can see.

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Moso bamboo is a monopodial bamboo, which means that its roots and rhizomes spread out over a large area, reportedly up to 100 metres. The rhizomes create nodes which produce the new shoots. This happens every two years in spring for moso bamboo, while shooting happens for every year for other bamboo, and the month of March is normally the time when the new shoots start to appear. New shoots grow quickly and after a short periods, the growth can reach speeds of one metre per day. After one month or so, the new culm is complete in its height and diameter growth, but it needs a few more years to harden before it can be harvested.

New shoots are bullet shaped, and the outside is furry, possibly to make it easy to push through the soil. There are new shoots every other metre, and apparently there will be as many shoots as there are culms per hectare.

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Changning county has made bamboo shoot production its niche market, and many bamboo plantations and natural bamboo groves in the county are managed for bamboo shoots. I enquired whether cutting the new shoots off to process them for food slows down the regeneration of the bamboo forest, but my colleagues explained that the opposite is true. Out of every thousand new shoots, about 500 will naturally die, due to competition for nutrition and space. Half the new shoots can therefore be harvested, giving the other half more chance to survive. Moreover, nodes where the new shoot has been cut off sometimes re-grow a second shoot, and therefore more new shoots will re-appear after a few weeks. Therefore it is acceptable to harvest even more than 50% of the new shoots every year.

The harvested shoots are boiled, and put in large vats with preservative agents, until they are cut up, and packaged for sale. I visited a medium-sized enterprise in town that is making good business from this particular use of bamboo.

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INBAR has worked with the owner of this company to try and improve the environmental aspects of the production, and look for ways to reduce preservatives and water use and potential water pollution. This is a challenge for any new business, and lessons learned from this particular company can be transferred to other similar activities.

That is one of the objectives of the INBAR-supported SME Training Centre in Changning, which is being developed with assistance from Citi Foundation and EU funded Switch Asia Programme for sustainable consumption and production. We visited the building that will be transformed in a training facility during the coming months. It is located inside a large nursery, and will be a fantastic centre for learning and knowledge transfer.

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Dr Zhu Liang, Vice-Mayor of Changning County and INBAR Director-General Hans Friederich in front of SME Training Centre

More business training, improved technical knowledge and a better understanding of the ecology of bamboo will give a boost to the economic development of the bamboo resources, especially support to an expanding bamboo shoot business. The good thing is that bamboo shoot production does not harm the forest, as this is an industry that is a positive example of green development.

 

 

Indian Bamboo Advice

Yesterday, we had a visit by D.N. Tewari. He is an Indian specialist with a distinguished career in forestry management.  He was the first Director-General of the Indian Council for Forestry Research and Education, former member of the Indian Planning Commission, former Trustee of ICRAF – the World Agroforestry Centre, former Member of FAO working group on biodiversity and much more.

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Dr Tewari is also the Founder and Director of Utthan, Centre for Sustainable Development & Poverty Alleviation.  INBAR and Utthan developed a project some twenty years ago in an attempt to help local communities near Allahabad who were living on totally degraded soils in an area that had been devastated through years of brick making. The brick-making industry had come to a halt, and the soils were so bad that there was no opportunity to grow crops or make a living.

Natural regeneration of the historical tree cover would take tens of years, so the plan was hatched to use bamboo as a means to speed up the process of ecosystem regeneration. This was the start of the “Greening Red Earth” project that has been described in an INBAR report from 2003. We are returning to the project area later this year to review what has happened since, and to be able to record the development, but Dr Tewari told us yesterday in broad terms what the impact of the project has been: In 15 years, some 90,000 hectares of mined soil has been rehabilitated in the project area, but similar work elsewhere by Utthan and its partners has resulted in upgrading of millions of hectares of degraded lands.  Side effects of the projects have also included literacy classes for the workers in the nurseries, access to vaccination and sanitation and general improvement of the living condition of nearly 1 million households.

The project is a case study of a success story, but there are new challenges, and Dr Tewari listed the following as areas where INBAR could help.

  • Policy constraints. Some areas are over-regulated and therefore nothing happens. Other areas have little or no regulation and therefore the wrong decisions are taken. Overall, there is need for policies at national level to guide sustainable development
  • There is lots of money available for rural development, but most of it is locked up in large funds with institutions that require project proposals to access the funds.  Local communities have limitations in project formulation and writing of proposals. Training by local organisations like Utthan is critical, and INBAR should liaise with in-country expertise to facilitate this.
  • International trade in forest products is regulated through certification and standards. Bamboo and rattan are often treated as a tree product, leading to unnecessary red-tape. There is need for awareness and education both in producing countries and in the countries that import bamboo and rattan.
  • There has been some exciting field work in the past years, but a lot is hidden in project reports, local language research papers, or institutional archives. We need more publications to illustrate the benefits of bamboo and rattan and to document the progress that has been made in developing the resources sustainably.
  • INBAR should take the global stage and talk about the values and benefits of bamboo and rattan so that those outside the traditional bamboo community will learn and understand what the opportunities and challenges are for bamboo and rattan producers.
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The advice from Dr Tewari fits very well with my own understanding of priorities and future direction for INBAR:

  • Ensuring that bamboo and rattan are included in socio-economic and environmental development policies at national, regional and international level
  • Coordinating inputs from a global network of members and partners and representing the needs of Members on the global stage, including the development of production standards and trade regulations
  • Sharing knowledge, providing training, communicating lessons learned and raising awareness about the socio-economic and environmental values of bamboo and rattan
  • Promoting adaptive research and on-the-ground innovation by helping to establish pilot best-practice case studies and supporting up-scaling of successful practices across the INBAR Member countries.