Mediterranean Cane

I spent the Christmas and New Year’s holiday on the island of Gozo, which is part of Malta. The weather was generally nice, and the island was quiet, compared to the summer when I normally visit. The Gozitans know how to celebrate Christmas and New Year, with concerts and performances in the squares and in the churches.

St-George Square, Rabat, Gozo during Christmas

St-George Square, Rabat, Gozo during Christmas

Gozo is a dry island, and there are not many trees. I was surprised to read in the local Museum that in the past the island was covered in woodland, which was cut for construction and fuel. You would not believe that, as currently the main woody vegetation is made up of olive and fig trees. I also noticed that many of the dry valleys on the island have clumps of reeds that look remarkably like bamboos from a distance, and the local farmers call them canes.

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This year, I walked up the dry valley in Mgarr-I-Xini, and I found myself in a forest of these canes. The stems have nodes and the roots have rhizomes, just like the bamboos that we see in many parts of the Global south.

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But the leaves clearly show that they are not real bamboo species, and I therefore took this opportunity to learn more about these plants.  Wikipedia tells me that these reeds are Arundo donax, or giant cane. Other common names apparently include Spanish cane, wild cane, and giant reed, and A. donax is native to the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East. Wikipedie says that plants generally grow to 6 metres high, with hollow stems 2 to 3 centimetres in diameter. The leaves are alternate, 30 to 60 centimetres long and 2 to 6 centimetres wide with a tapered tip, grey-green, and have a hairy tuft at the base.

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The canes in Gozo used to be the main raw material for fishing traps and lobster pots, but these are now often manufactured from plastic an imported from outside the country. Fortunately, there are still some fishing traps to be found, and I saw these for sale in the market on I-Tokk in Rabat, Gozo.

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The other use of the reeds is the manufacture of curtains that traditional houses have on the front door. It provides privacy when the door is open during the hot summer days. We do this ourselves, as a breeze in the courtyard is very nice, but you do not want the house to be open to the elements and the casual passer-by.
Many of the modern curtains come from the Far East, as it is often cheaper to buy imported mass-produced goods, than hand-made local produce, but fortunately there are still some local manufacturers on the island. My wife and I bought a custom-made curtain from a traditional manufacturer in Gharb, and he has no website or other means of advertising. We got to his house by talking to a lady in the street and asking where he lives. I forgot to take a picture, so will share a photo from the internet.

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It was an interesting discovery to learn about the Gozo canes, and although they are not a bamboo species, I can relate to them.

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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!

 

 

Are there really 276 Bamboo species in Yunnan?

I visited Yunnan Province in southern China several times during the first years of this century, when I was helping the local authorities and the UNESCO National Committee of China with the nomination of the Stone Forest near Shilin as a natural World Heritage Area.

Last weekend, I returned to Yunnan, but with a very different agenda, as I am now in charge of the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR). I had been told that Yunnan is very rich in bamboo species, and I wanted to see this with my own eyes.

First my wife and I spend the weekend in the charming old town of Lijian, a cultural World Heritage Area. It is a beautiful town, and well worth the visit. One of the highlights of our stay was a visit to the Mu mansion, and I did see bamboo in the garden of the palace.

Wu Mansion in Lijiang, Yunnan, chiina

Wu Mansion in Lijiang, Yunnan, chiina

But, the main objective of this trip was a visit to Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden-which is referred to as XTBG on signposts and posters. Professor Yang Yuming, President of the Yunnan Academy of Forestry, is about to publish a flora of bamboo species in Yunnan Province and the latest count is that the province houses 276 species of bamboo, which is more than half of the total of China’s bamboo diversity.

Xichuanbana Tropical Botanical Garden

Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden

All of the bamboos in Yunnan are tropical bamboo species, and that means that they represent sympodial, clumping bamboos, where the culms grow from a central root mass. There is no wide spread of roots and rhizomes, which is the case with the temperate monopodial bamboo species, which we call running bamboos. There are more than 100 different bamboo species represented in XTBG, including the striking Bambusa vulgaris.

Bambusa vulgaris in XTBG

Bambusa vulgaris in XTBG

A large number belong to the genera Dendrocalamus. Dendrocalamus yunnansis is only found in Yunnan, as the name suggests, and Dencrocalamus hamiltonii is only found in Xishuangbanna. Dendrocalamuus sinicus is one of the largest bamboos in the world, and can reach heights of more than 30metres. and Dendrocalamus giganteus is also a large species.

Dendrocalamus giganteus - XTBG

Dendrocalamus giganteus – XTBG

After our visit to the botanical garden we went to a forest research station of the Yunnan Academy of Forestry, which is focusing on finding opportunities for economic development of the forest, without the need to cut down the trees. The researchers are also testing alternatives to rubber trees. Large areas of Yunnan were transformed into rubber plantations in the sixties and seventies, but this is not good for biodiversity and ecosystem health. It is also no longer economically attractive, as the price of rubber has slumped and import of cheap rubber competes with local production. NTFP development, including bamboo planting and harvesting, is one of the many options that is being considered. The nurseries at the research station are very healthy, though currently stocked with hardwood seedlings, and not with bamboo plants.

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Our last visit was again focused on bamboo, and took us to a “bamboo introduction area” near Pu’er. The plan is for a 2000 hectares valley to be re-forested with different bamboo species. Currently, the upper slopes are covered in Eucalyptus and rubber trees, and the valley floor and lower slopes are non-productive agricultural land. A healthy bamboo forest would be a real asset, with significant ecotourism potential.

Zhang-Xingbo

Mr Zhang Xingbo, who is the driving force behind the initiative, explained that the garden will become a living museum, with information about the botanical aspects of bamboos, as well as details about their ecology and examples of the many uses. Eventually, the bamboo garden will also house restaurants where bamboo shoots can be eaten and bamboo beer can be drunk, and guesthouses built from bamboo with bamboo furniture and bamboo fittings. There may be outlets for bamboo handicrafts and nurseries that sell bamboo plants for the garden. It is a long-term development plan that would be daunting in many parts of the world, but the Yunnan colleagues are convinced they will get the work done in the next few years.

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The first plants were planted last year, and it is real “work-in-progress”, but the new plants look healthy, and the current selection already represents a variety of species. There are some very interesting individual plants, such as a few species of Chimonocalamus, which is a genera tropical bamboos from Myanmar and Yunnan that are particularly rich in aromatic oil. The main stem and leaves could be exploited commercially for perfume industry or other purposes, but this is not yet happening. Folklore claims that the Japanese store tea in its culms, as it adds flavour to the leaves.

A Chimonocalamus plant with admirers

A Chimonocalamus plant with admirers

Mr Zhang’s nurseries include other exciting bamboo plants, including the smallest bamboo plants that look like grass, and could be used for ground cover. He also has saplings of red bamboo, and a healthy clump of recently discovered black bamboo from Vietnam. Professor Yang explained that the black bamboo is so unusual, that it does not yet have a scientific name.

Black bamboo with prof Yang

Black bamboo with prof Yang

The following day was spent in Kunming where we visited the Provincial Forest Bureau, and signed an agreement to establish a training centre for tropical bamboo, in the Yunnan Academy of Forestry.

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ll-in-all, this was a very interesting learning experience. There is still a lot more to see in Yunnan, and I hope to return next year, not in the least to see the progress with the afforestation of the Pu’er bamboo garden.

 

Are Bamboos Invasive

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

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

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

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Moso bamboo plantation in Anhui Province, China

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

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

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

Running bamboo root system.  Photo by bamboobotanicals.ca

Running bamboo root system. Photo by bamboobotanicals.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would be interested in your views.

Back to Qingdao

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

Penguin - Siege of Tsingtao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Fu Jinhe and the writer with the Top Grand Award

Dr Fu Jinhe and the writer with the Top Grand Award

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

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

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

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

I will let you know what will happen!

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.