Chinese Bamboo Heroes

During the 20th Anniversary of INBAR, the Foreign Languages Press from China published the “100 Heroes of China’s Bamboo Industry”. The book is a snapshot of “who-is-who” in the bamboo world of China.

Not everyone is mentioned in the book, and a second volume is in the make, but the first “100 heroes” is an impressive list of bamboo luminaries.

I have had the fortune to meet several of them, and want to use this blog to reflect on these personal interactions. I have marked the page numbers in the 100 heroes book, where you can read more about the achievements of these amazing men and women.

Professor Zhou Guomo (page 25), the President of Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University (ZAFU) has become a friend during my time at INBAR. INBAR has been working with ZAFU for a number of years already, and ZAFU was one of the main partners in the development of guidelines for carbon accounting in bamboo.

He invited me last year to give a speech at the 70th Anniversary of ZAFU, and it was a pleasure to share INBAR’s experiences with the audience. I always enjoy speaking at universities and the feedback from the students is rewarding and encouraging. This time, the audience included a number of university deans from other parts of the world, and many of them did not know much about bamboo or rattan. I hope that I was able to raise awareness and I certainly helped ZAFU to stress the importance of bamboo in China.

During my stay, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit the laboratories and the bamboo garden of the university, and talk with several of the experts. There is a lot of bamboo knowledge in ZAFU, and I hope to maintain contact after I leave China in April this year.

With Prof.  Zhou Guomo from ZAFU

Professor Yang Yuming (page 31), the former President of Yunnan Academy of Forestry in Kunming is another old friend. I visited his former institute a few years ago, and during this trip, he guided me and my wife through the tropical botanical gardens at Xishuangbanna. This is a most impressive garden with an enormous number of trees, plants and flowers, and also an outstanding collection of tropical bamboo species.

We saw a valley that is being afforested with bamboo, with the intention to create an eco-tourism site, including restaurants, bamboo rafts on a lake and craft shops. We also visited several nurseries, where he showed me new species and interesting developments. In one of the nurseries, we saw black bamboo, which originates from Vietnam. The stems really are black, and it not due to age or disease. There is a lot of variety in the bamboo world!

Prof. Yang Yuming and black bamboo

Mr Ye Lin (page 84), on the other hand, is a real entrepreneur, and a private sector innovator. He is the President of Zhejiang Xinzhou Bamboo Winding Composite Technology Co Ltd in Hangzhou, a company that has patented the use of bamboo fibre in the production of composites for a multitude of uses. The main breakthrough was the manufacturing of agricultural and urban drainage pipes with bamboo instead of other fibres. This research is a major development for bamboo industrial use, that was also reported by UNIDO!

I had the pleasure to accompany Ye Lin to the Science, Technology and Innovation Conference (G-STIC) in Brussels in 2017. He presented his innovation and received a warm applause for the new application of bamboo fibres. He told me later that this was the first time that he had given a presentation in a foreign country to an international audience, which made it even more impressive.

We went back to G-STIC in 2018, and this time he talked during a session that I had organized together with my Dutch friend and colleague Pablo van der Lugt. He was no longer just presenting the bamboo composite drainage pipes, but talked about using this technology to manufacture the shells for railway carriages or even housing units. He is already thinking about airplanes, boats and more.

Railway carriage made by bamboo winding technology

Another amazing entrepreneur is Ms Yu Yan (page 119) from Yong’An in Fujian Province. She runs a business that produces the flooring for containers, and she told me that originally the company produced floors made from wood. When Ms Yu became the CEO of the company she decided to change this into flooring manufactured from bamboo, as bamboo is strong, light and abundantly available in Fujian Province. Her business is immense – she apparently provides one quarter of the global container flooring market – so this decision had a lot of impact.

I first met Yu Yan in Durban in 2015 during the World Forestry Congress, where she participated in a private sector dialogue about bamboo. She made it clear that for her bamboo is the future, and she mentioned how her company supports thousands of local households who supply the raw bamboo.

We have kept in contact, and INBAR now has a partnership agreement with Yong’an City. She has participated in other INBAR events, including the 2018 Bamboo and Rattan Congress that INBAR and the Chinese National Forest and Grassland Administration organised in June – BARC 2018.  I met her most recently during the 2018 Yong’An bamboo EXPO.

With Ms Yu Yan and my wife in Yong’An

The third entrepreneur that I have to recognise is Mr Lin Hai (Page 107) from Dasso Industrial Group in Hangzhou. Ms Lin is one of the first businessmen that recognized the opportunities of industrial application of bamboo. Lasso was the supplier of the bamboo that was used to make the fire-resistant ceiling in Madrid International Airport, and currently provides the materials for several European importers of bamboo furniture and interior design material.

I visited his factory and offices in 2014, and was struck by his passion for bamboo and his understanding of the opportunities bamboo provides for sustainable development. He showed me around the showroom, and I was so impressed that I asked if he could supply a dining table for the apartment where my wife and I live in Beijing, as we did not have one.
He supplied a table that is beautiful and strong, but unfortunately it was too large to fit in the lift of our building. We had to find a solution, and it is now the conference table in my office. Due to the dry climate of Beijing, and the temperature changes between winter and summer, many bamboo products crack after a few years. Mr Lin’s table has been in my office which is air-conditioned in summer and heated in winter, but after 5 years it has no dent or crack, which is tribute to the skills of the workers and the quality of the products manufactured by Dasso.

With Mr Lin Hai at the conference table in my office, made by Dasso

Master Chen Yunhua (page 104) is an entrepreneur, but also an artist and a gifted master trainer of the Meishan bamboo weaving craft. He manages a local museum and a training centre in Qingshen County of Sichuan Province, where many students come to learn how to use thin bamboo strips to create magnificent art pieces.

I have met Master Chen so many times, that I cannot remember our first encounter, but several of our meetings are memorable. I recall vividly being with him during a discussion in Lima, Peru on the sidelines of the Climate change meeting in 2014, and I saw him in action during the World Bamboo Congress in Damian, Korea in 2016. During the Regional Bamboo Symposium in Yaoundé, Cameroon in 2017, he provided training and advice to a large group of local farmers and entrepreneurs. He is a true Ambassador of bamboo and he has become a friend, and what struck me was that without foreign languages he is able to communicate extremely efficiently, and he manages to get his ideas across without fail.

Master Chen teaching in Yaoundé, Cameroon

Another Master bamboo weaver is Mr Zhang Deming (page 201), and we celebrated his skills during the 2018 Bamboo and Rattan Congress. I was fortunate to receive a gift of exquisite bamboo weaving from him during the Congress.  Basically, it is a ceramic vase with a cover from woven delicate bamboo slivers, like the ones in the photo below.

I was so impressed that I asked if I could buy a similar item as a gift for UN Deputy Secretary-General, HE Amina Mohammed, whom I was planning to meet during my presence at the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2018. We had an inspiring conversation about bamboo and sustainable development, climate change, and could have taled a lot longer. When I gave her the vase, she placed it immediately on her bookshelf, where it now functions as a beacon for “bamboo as a tool for Sustainable Development”.

A different bamboo artist is Jeff Shi (page 178), who runs Dragonfly Design Centre. Jeff makes the most beautiful bamboo furniture, and his main issue is to make furniture with a Chinese touch. He understands that many people want to buy simple, cheap, mass-produced bamboo cabinets, but he produces affordable custom-made, unique pieces from selected pieces of treated bamboo. His design is a fusion between western and Asian styles, a combination of antique and modern touches, but always focused on individuality and innovation.

He explained this to me when we first met on the way to Yibin in Sichuan Province, and he refreshed my memory in a session about bamboo for design during the 2018 Bamboo and Rattan Congress. His designs have received international recognition, and he continues to promote the use of bamboo as a real tool for design.

Some of the beautiful furniture designed by Jeff Shi

One of the first bamboo woodlots that I visited when I arrived in China in 2014 was the Zizhuyuan Park in Beijing, also referred to as the purple bamboo garden. Mr Cao Zhenqi (page 274) is the Head of the Park, which is one of the impressive greenspaces in central Beijing. Zizhuyuan Park is famous for the many bamboo stands, with different species, and in 2016 INBAR celebrated Earth Day by planting a few extra bamboos.

HE Ambassador Sikonina from Madagascar at 2016 Earth day celebrations

Many years ago, INBAR helped to construct a tea house in the garden, which is built from bamboo panels. I was quite disappointed when I first visited, as I did not see any bamboo, but my colleagues explained that this is its main attraction. The new middle class of China does not want to live in a house or an apartment that looks like a traditional bamboo hut, but they want a dwelling that looks modern. If you can do this with bamboo, so much the better.

In 2017, INBAR organised an outdoor exhibition of photos of bamboo scenes from all our Member States in the Park, as one of the activities to celebrate our 20th Anniversary. We took a long time collecting, selecting and choosing the final pictures, but the exhibition was a great success. It showed visitors that there is a lot of bamboo in other parts of the world, which was a surprise to many of the tourist in the Park.

One of the key benefits that bamboo can provide for national governments is the ability to sequester and store large amounts of carbon. INBAR has carried out research on the ability of bamboo to sequester CO2, together with the China Green Carbon Foundation (CGCF), and Dr Li Nuyun (page 277) was at that time the Director of the Foundation.

CGCF is the first nation-wide non-profit organisation dedicated to combating climate change in China, and has successfully developed a system which helps enterprises, organisations and individuals to store carbon and increase income. Since its establishment in 2010, CGCF has established more than 1.2 million acres of forest to store carbon across 20 provinces in China.

My most recent meeting with Dr Li was during the 2018 Bamboo and Rattan Congress. In a video message to the Congress, Patricia Espinosa, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said: “Bamboo and rattan can make an important difference to the fight against climate change. Nature-based solutions like bamboo and rattan do not just contribute to sustainable development; they also help build the kind of world we want.”

One of my concerns about organising a large congress in Beijing was the carbon footprint of bringing participants from all over the world to China and having three days of discussions in a conference centre. With well over 1200 participants from 68 countries, the Bamboo and Rattan Congress was a huge event with a significant impact on the environment.

Fortunately, CGCF helped us to make the Congress a carbon-neutral event. In a ceremony during the final day of the Congress, Dr. Li announced that CGCF will help establish a bamboo plantation in Yunnan province, China, which is funded by Kunming Suge Greening Engineering Company Ltd. This plantation will sequester all the carbon emitted over the course of the Congress.

According to Dr. Li, just under 2000 tons of CO2 were generated through transportation, catering, accommodation and energy consumption over the course of the three-day Congress. It will take the bamboo plantation around ten years to offset these emissions.

Dr. Li Nuyun and I hold up a certificate, announcing BARC 2018 to be a ‘zero-carbon Congress’

These are some of the Chinese bamboo heroes that I have met during the past years. The list is not exhaustive, as I met so many other bamboo and rattan experts.  I will be stepping down as Director-General of INBAR in a few weeks time, but I hope to keep in touch with all these friends and colleagues.

Advertisements

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.

twitter-bamboo-fibres

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.

twitter-bamboo-culms-alkali-bath

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

twitter-bamboo-culms-softened

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.

twitter-mill-stone

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.

twitter-seiving-mulch

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.

twitter-paper-drying

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.

paper

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:

cropped-presentation-HimalyanBamboo

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.

Nepal-school-design

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.

MadanPuraskarPustakalaya-Kathmandu

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 .

IMG_0906

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.

cropped-hall

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.

cropped-connection

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

IMG_0948

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.

IMG_0202

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.

Dhammayazaka-pagoda-croppped

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.

cows-pagoda-wordpress

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.

wordpress2

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.

wordpress3

wordpress5

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.

wordpress-stairs

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.

IMG-20151223-03281

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.

IMG-20151227-03329

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.

IMG-20151229-03410

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.

IMG-20151228-03386

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.

IMG-20151228-03393

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

IMG-20151228-03403

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!

BigBamboo-HF-twitter

IMG-20151228-03367

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.

IMG-20151229-03415

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.