In a fascinating talk hosted by SparkHer last week, Dr. J. Coosje Hoogendoorn introduced how Beijing based INBAR is promoting sustainable bamboo agriculture to help vulnerable communities worldwide mitigate, adapt, and develop in the face of climate change.
Bamboo’s rising reputation as a trendy design material is a fad we can all feel good about. It’s a relatively renewable and sustainable resource, and is fast growing. Tropical bamboos may be harvested after 3 years, whereas timber forests may require two to six decades to reach maturity.
A bamboo forest is rarely clearcut. Rather, the root systems and often surrounding foliage are left intact, only a few plants are culled at a time, and in some cases the soil is left untilled. This preserves the delicate soil ecosystems and slows the rate of nutrient loss. Therefore, bamboo requires less chemical fertilizer inputs relative to other crops. It also requires relatively little water*, and in some cases no irrigation at all.
The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), also takes advantage of another of bamboo’s unique qualities – its proximity to the world’s poor. Bamboo is predominately grown in the sub-tropical regions of developing countries. As bamboo gain traction as a global commodity, it has the potential to lift communities out of poverty while also helping mitigate some of the impacts of climate change. Since these same communities are also the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, INBAR’s mission is especially critical.
Bamboo forests are carbon sinks. Perhaps more importantly, substituting bamboo for traditional forest products like paper, building material, and fuel helps slow the rate of deforestation, another major driver of climate change. Dr. J. Hoogendoorn shared startling statistics about deforestation in Africa, the home of many of INBAR’s member countries. Ethiopia currently only has 4% of land cover as forest, but it is disappearing at the rate of .8% per year. A driving factor is the predominant use of firewood as cooking fuel. In response to this problem, INBAR devised an innovative program to process bamboo into charcoal, and a stove particularly suited to burning this charcoal. This has sparked a new industry in Ethiopia and Ghana, which now have over 1,700 small producers of bamboo charcoal as well as small-scale stove manufacturers. Furthermore, bamboo has the potential to generate badly needed income for rural farming households in Ethiopia to sell to the city. The bamboo charcoal is also cleaner burning and may help alleviate some of the health problems suffered by women who spend time cooking indoors. The market for charcoal itself is huge in Southern African countries. In Mozambique alone, a study has shown that over $200 million of charcoal and firewood is sold in the town and cities where it is principally used for cooking.
Bamboo Coal (Photo Courtesy of INBAR)
INBAR hopes that the substitution of bamboo will not only help bamboo farmers, but create sustainable livelihoods for those involved in the industry as well.
Bamboo products are generally processed in the country of origin and often times close to the place bamboo is grown. Unlike natural resources that are shipped abroad in their raw form, bamboo has the potential to enrich surrounding agricultural communities and country of origin through value added processing. In China alone, bamboo represents a $14 billion dollar market with an 18% annual growth rate. INBAR has overseen several innovative trials to help communities close to bamboo agriculture take advantage of this growing market, as well as preserve biodiversity.
To summarize some of their findings:
- In Sichuan, INBAR found that placing fertilizer selectively in bamboo stumps after harvesting helped improve the productivity of the bamboo forest, saved farmers money, and helped improve soil biodiversity.
- In Hunan, an experiment examining mixed bamboo forests found that leaving native plant species intact actually improved the productivity of the bamboo forests and helped boost biodiversity. The local community developed a set of certifications to promote sustainable bamboo forestry and help farmers differentiate their products.
- In Yunnan, education programs put on by children in the local schools helped improve awareness of an endangered bamboo species (qiong) and the benefits of sustainable harvesting, leading to more sustainable harvesting practices and the perseverance of the qiong for the long-term benefit of the community.
The key to INBAR’s programs is to engage key stakeholders in the community. Each of these projects carefully tied the impacts of the program not just to biodiversity, but to the benefit of the local community so they have an incentive to carry forward the changes.
INBAR’s stories are some of the most encouraging I’ve heard about improving agricultural sustainability practices for small land owners and farmers in China. I hope to see more like them in the future! Have you heard of any other similar programs targeting systemic change for small farms in China?
*Note from INBAR: This depends on the individual species. Some species can grow with very little rainfall/irrigation (e.g. Oxytenathera abyssinica (lowland bamboo). In Africa, the savannah woodland where annual rainfall is less than 1000 mm.