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Benefits of Bamboo

Page history last edited by Malcolm 11 years, 6 months ago

March 13, 2012, 9:59 pm
In Africa's Vanishing Forests, the Benefits of Bamboo


In the district of Asosa, the land is thick with bamboo. People plant
it and manage the forests. They rely on its soil-grabbing roots to
stabilize steep slopes and riverbanks, cutting erosion. They harvest it
to burn for fuel, to make into charcoal sticks to sell to city dwellers
and to build furniture.

Asosa is not in China, not even in Asia. It is a district in the west
of Ethiopia, on the Sudanese border. To many people, bamboo means
China. But it's not just panda food — mountain gorillas in
Rwanda also live on bamboo. About 4 percent of Africa's forest
cover is bamboo.

Soon it may be much more. Bamboo may provide a solution to a very
serious problem: deforestation. In sub-Saharan Africa, 70 percent of
the people cook their meals over wood fires. The very poorest cut down
trees for cooking fuel; those slightly less poor buy charcoal made from
wood in those same forests. Every year Africa loses forest cover equal
to the size of Switzerland. Terence Sunderland, a senior scientist at
the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, said
that in southern Africa, even trees that can be used for fine carving,
such as ebony and rosewood, are being cut down and made into charcoal.

Deforestation starts a vicious circle of drought and environmental
decline. Burning wood releases the carbon stored inside. And
deforestation accounts for at least a fifth of all carbon emissions
globally. As tree cover vanishes, the land dries out and the soil
erodes and becomes barren — a major reason for Ethiopia's
periodic famines.

Reliance on hardwood fuel poses more present dangers as well. It's
a woman's job to collect firewood, and when trees are scarce, women
must walk farther and farther to find it, an often dangerous journey.

Much cooking, moreover, is done indoors. The resulting air pollution
kills some two million people a year. Almost half the deaths are from
pneumonia in children under 5. Bamboo and charcoal made from bamboo
burn more efficiently and cleanly than wood and wood charcoal

Sunderland is talking to several southern African governments about
bamboo. Farther north, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan,
a membership organization of 38 countries based in Beijing, is providing
technical support for growing and using bamboo in Ghana and Ethiopia.

Hundimo Dedere is a farmer in Southern Ethiopia in Sidama zone, Hagere
Salma Hula distinct. He is involved with bamboo resource management.

How does bamboo improve on hardwood? Cut down a hardwood tree and
it's gone. It will take several decades for another to grow in its
place; it can take a century for a forest to grow back after cutting.
But bamboo is a grass, not a tree. Under the right conditions, it can
grow a full meter a day — you can literally watch it grow. It is
also fast maturing. A new bamboo plant is mature enough to harvest
after three to six years, depending on the species. Most important,
bamboo is renewable. Unlike hardwood trees, bamboo regrows after
harvesting, just as grass regrows after cutting. After it is mature,
bamboo can be harvested every single year for the life of the plant.

Bamboo has other advantages. Its roots grab onto soil and hold it fast.
Plant bamboo on a steep slope or riverbank and it prevents mudslides and
erosion. And bamboo is parsimonious with Africa's most precious
resource: water.

"In Africa you want everything," said Dr. Chin Ong, a retired
professor of environmental science at the University of Nottingham in
England, who was formerly a senior scientist at the World Agroforestry
Center in Nairobi. "You want firewood, you want to reduce erosion,
to maintain the water supply, generate cash and employment. Bamboo
comes the closest — it gives you the most things."

The need for firewood is now critical in Ethiopia; trees covered 35
percent of the country a century ago; by 2000 they covered just 3
percent. Ethiopia is trying to reverse deforestation by planting
trees, and it lags behind only China and India in sheer numbers — in
2007 alone the country planted 700 million trees. But even a huge,
continuing campaign may not be enough to reverse deforestation. It has
been a problem wherever people settled in Ethiopia. The country's
capital had to be moved five times since the first century B.C., because
any concentration of people quickly ran out of firewood. In the 1890s
the problem was solved by importing eucalyptus from Australia — a
tree that, like bamboo, is renewable. The first plantations were
around Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's new capital, which at times has gone
by the name Eucalyptopolis.

But while eucalyptus trees provide a renewable source of wood, they
starve other trees and plants of water, and rob water from rivers and
reservoirs. They gobble so much water that they are sometimes planted
for the purpose of draining swamps. By 1913, the government issued a
proclamation ordering the destruction of all eucalyptus trees. It was

In Ghana, Chinese experts taught a local man how to use bamboo charcoal
and energy efficient stoves.

In the last five years or so, Ong said, Ethiopia has realized that
bamboo is a more profitable and greener solution. INBAR's program is
a four-year project financed by the European Commission and the Common
Fund for Commodities, a United Nations organization. The technology
comes from China. The project provides bamboo seedlings and trains
people to manage bamboo plantations. It teaches villagers to build
kilns to make charcoal, which they can sell to city dwellers (rural
people in Ethiopia and Ghana can't afford charcoal. They burn wood.
) The program also promotes bamboo as fuel, and has helped village
women to set up businesses making and selling a stove with a closed
chamber that uses half the fuel of an open fire. In Ethiopia, the stove,
locally made of iron and clay, costs only $3.

Coosje Hoogendoorn, INBAR's director-general, said that while people
in Ghana are slower to embrace bamboo because they can still find
firewood, Ethiopians need no convincing — there are hardly any
trees left to cut down.

Bamboo is not the perfect plant. Although the kinds of bamboo that
grow in Africa are not invasive — some varieties that grow in cooler
climates are — it can be very difficult to get rid of the networks
of roots when the plant is no longer wanted. While bamboo can
tolerate dry conditions, like any plant it will grow more slowly with
less water, and it cannot grow in desert climates — exactly where it
is needed most. And most bamboo is hollow, which means it burns more
quickly than hardwood. Fortunately, bamboo that grows in Africa's
lowlands is one of the few solid bamboo species.
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Because bamboo requires few nutrients, it can grow in soil inhospitable
to other plants — not only does it thrive there, it can reclaim the
land so other plants can thrive, too. Its roots leach heavy metals from
the soil, hold the soil together and draw water closer to the surface.
One example is a project in Allahabad, India, to reclaim land whose
topsoil had been depleted by the brick industry. In 1996, an INBAR
project planted the land with bamboo. Five years later, villagers could
farm the land again. Dust storms — a local scourge — were
greatly reduced. The bamboo also helped raise the water table by seven
meters. In 2007, the project won the global Alcan Prize for

Charcoal, of course, is not the only thing that can be made of bamboo.
Its tensile strength makes it a good construction material, and it is
also used for furniture, flooring and textiles, among other things.
Paradoxically, harvesting bamboo to make durable goods is greener than
not harvesting bamboo. Here's why: bamboo culms — the poles
— do not live as long as hardwood trees, usually up to a decade.
When an old culm decays, it releases carbon into the atmosphere. (The
root system, which hold 30 to 40 percent of its carbon, last much
longer.) This means that an untouched bamboo forest is a poor carbon
sink. Fortunately, the best way to turn bamboo into an excellent
carbon sink is to make money with it — harvest the bamboo to make
durable products before it starts its decay. Treated bamboo flooring or
furniture will last as long as wood, storing its carbon the whole time.

In some ways, the challenge in Africa is not to introduce bamboo, but to
persuade people and governments that it has commercial uses.
"We've taken policymakers from Africa to China and India where
bamboo used in everyday life — and there's still very poor
adoption," said Ong. In some countries, for example, Kenya, making
charcoal is illegal — a well-intentioned ban that seeks to prevent
deforestation, but one that is impractical as long as people need to
find their own cooking fuel. "It is not effective to ban charcoal
production," said Jolanda Jonkhart, the director of trade and
development programs at INBAR. "It is more effective to promote
charcoal production with renewable biomass sources such as bamboo."

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