Bamboo is a highly versatile and rapidly renewable resource that offers a broad range of livelihood applications – from traditional homes and furniture to modern engineered products. If harnessed properly, the plant promises employment, higher incomes, and an opportunity for countries to alleviate poverty and meet their sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Bamboo offers many advantages to rural communities: it grows rapidly, quickly rejuvenates after being cut, produces a harvestable yield every year or two, and provides a reliable source of sturdy fibres that lend themselves to many different uses.
It also requires minimal tending and few inputs such as fertilisers, and grows on land suitable for other crops, making it a convenient and useful addition to diversified agriculture and agroforestry systems large and small.
Because bamboo culms weigh little, they are relatively easy to harvest and carry home, and because bamboo poles split linearly, semiskilled workers using simple tools can easily process them into value-added products.
Bamboo is perhaps best known as an alternative for timber to make homes, requiring little processing to become posts, roofs, walls, floors, beams, trusses and fences. An estimated one billion people worldwide live in bamboo housing, most of them in traditional houses that use bamboo culms as their primary frame building material.
But as well as this, the plant also lends itself to a wide variety of common household articles made of bamboo – furniture, mats, baskets, tools and tool handles, hats, and traditional toys – and more refined and artistic traditional bamboo products, including musical instruments and woven items such as trays, bottles, jars, boxes, cases, bowls, fans, screens, curtains, cushions, lampshades and lanterns.
In short, bamboo provides livelihoods to many of the world’s poorest communities – and especially to vulnerable groups within them, including women and the elderly. It is an effective, reliable and sustainable pathway out of poverty, and could be a key contributor to SDG 1.
In addition to more traditional uses, the recent rise of industrial bamboo products has created new value chains that rural communities can supply if they take on the sustainable management of existing stands of bamboo and plant new ones.
Modern uses for bamboo include: bamboo panels – outperforming their wooden counterparts by technological measures of strength and rigidity, and widely used in modern building construction; laminated bamboo panels – overcoming many of the problems associated with traditional bamboo, such as high labor and transport costs, low productivity, and susceptibility to damage from insects and fungi; processed bamboo flooring – which is stable and resistant to warping and decay; bamboo pulp and paper – equal to that made from wood pulp, but with natural advantages; and bamboo fabrics – which use new technologies as a source of composite fibres for a range of textiles.
The plant can also be at the centre of a new energy revolution – as it can be heated and broken down into charcoal, oil, and gas. Bamboo charcoal is a practical and cost-effective alternative to wood charcoal and fossil fuels. It is an excellent fuel for cooking and its calorific value is almost half that of oil of the same weight, and on a par with wood charcoal.
Global trade of bamboo is growing and is now worth an estimated USD60 billion. But, although this growing demand represents a unique economic opportunity for countries and rural communities, more efforts are needed to develop national bamboo sectors and make them work for rural communities.
An important initial step is to develop expertise in micro-enterprise development and the promotion of local market mechanisms, in areas such as micro-credit or technical assistance for small-scale or more industrial-level production.
For this to work, experience suggests the following is also required: linking value chains to managed bamboo forests; initiating the design and local production of equipment to process bamboo and manufacture products; and undertaking efforts to popularise the new technology.
Bamboo holds great promise for rural communities across the tropics and sub-tropics. It is widely regarded as a plant of the future with the potential to generate employment and higher incomes, while helping communities adapt to climate change. Failure to properly harness this strategic resource would represent a missed opportunity and a huge failing on the part of bamboo-producing countries.
This blog is based on information presented in INBAR’s Policy Synthesis Report 1 – ‘Bamboo: A strategic resource for countries to reduce the effects of climate change.’