Bamboo provides a very effective, but often overlooked, tool for restoring land and preventing desertification.
Forests are more than just trees. Bamboo is an important part of tropical and subtropical forests around the world, growing as part of mixed forests, or by itself in pure bamboo forests covering millions of hectares of land. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN, there are at least 31 million hectares of bamboo around the world, growing in dispersed clumps or as part of forests.
In recent years, an increasing number of countries have begun to identify and include bamboo as a high-priority species for use in landscape restoration. Cameroon, China, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, India, Madagascar, the Philippines and Vietnam are just some countries that now specifically include bamboo in their sustainable land management programmes. Indeed, INBAR Member States have committed to restore almost six million hectares of land with bamboo by 2030.
- An effective root system to ‘grip’ soil.
One of the most distinguishable characteristic of bamboo is its root system: a shallow, extensive network of fibrous rhizomes and roots which fans out from the base of each plant. In bamboo forests, this complex network can control floods and landslides and prevent erosion, by holding soil particles together. This underground biomass means that bamboo is capable of surviving and regenerating when the biomass above ground is destroyed, for example by fire. Importantly, bamboo roots enable the plants to take hold on steep and marginal soils, making them a good choice for reforesting on slopes.
- A fast-growing option for land restoration.
As well as its extensive root system, bamboo is a famously fast-growing woody plants; certain species have grown by up to a record-breaking 90 centimetres in one day. Because of this, bamboo is able to revegetate and restore productivity to bare land over a short period. In fact, sustainable harvesting of bamboo, at between a sixth and a third of the stand per year, encourages even thicker growth of the stand in subsequent years.
- Bamboo forests provide important water regulating services.
Bamboo’s root systems promote water percolation and infiltration. Indeed, pure bamboo forests have a higher capacity for groundwater recharge, and a better local capacity to purify water, than do natural forests, as mentioned in a recent INBAR-CIFOR study of bamboo’s ecosystem services. This is because natural forests’ dense canopy of mixed and diverse vegetation types consumes a higher amount of water than do forests with intermediate canopy cover.
- Combining land restoration
As well as its land restoration credentials, bamboo provides important additional benefits as a commodity. Fast growing and easy to harvest, bamboo can be used to earn income within as little as three years, making it a sustainable alternative to several types of wood. For this reason, bamboo has been used for millennia by rural communities across the world, to create a wide range of products or burn as bio-energy.
In recent decades, bamboo has also played an increasing role in poverty alleviation across many countries – a change partly enabled by the shift from ‘low-end’ crafts to ‘high-end’ value-added commodities, and from an increasing recognition of bamboo’s usefulness as a source of high-strength construction and bioenergy. By creating bamboo products, individuals can now participate in a sector with an estimated annual trade value of USD 60 billion.
Want to learn more?
INBAR’s Policy Synthesis Report, which looks at nine case studies of land restoration with bamboo, which can be downloaded here.
INBAR and the Center for International Forestry Research have produced a framework for assessing bamboo’s ecosystem services, including a summary of bamboo’s benefits for land restoration, biodiversity conservation, bioenergy and raw materials supply. It can be downloaded here.