Bamboo offers a practical and cost-effective ‘ecological infrastructure’ that helps to reverse land degradation and strengthen adaptation to the many risks posed by climate change. It should be a key input to the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – specifically SDG 15.
Bamboo regulates water flows and prevents erosion on slopes and along riverbanks, as well as removing pollutants from wastewater dumped into streams. Stands of bamboo make good windbreaks, sheltering natural vegetation and crops. In short, bamboo is an asset to just about any landscape in which it appears.
When strategically placed, bamboo can provide an ‘ecological infrastructure’ that is increasingly acknowledged as a cost-effective ways to adapt to risks from climate change.
Mangrove forests are the best-known example of ecological infrastructure, as they protect shorelines from storm surges at least as effectively as built infrastructure but at a lower cost, while providing other ecosystem services as a bonus. Similarly, bamboo forests are useful and cost-effective when deployed as part of a comprehensive approach to rehabilitating degraded hillsides, catchments and riverbanks.
Many landscapes in or near the tropics suffer degradation, which has accelerated in recent decades. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published a study in 2011 that found fully a quarter of the land on the planet to be high degraded, and another 8 percent moderately degraded.
Because bamboo is hardy, and its many species are adapted to a wide range of environments in or near the tropics, the plant can be used to help restore the fertility and productivity of much of this degraded land.
The plant is being used as an input to the Bonn Challenge – a global movement launched in 2011 to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020 – a first step towards restoring the estimated 2 billion hectares of degraded land worldwide that has potential for restoration.
INBAR’s 41 member countries have collectively agreed to the restoration of 5 million hectares using bamboo, by 2020, with the motivation that this could result in 10 million as national plans and initiatives progress over the coming decade.
There are many advantages to planting bamboo on degraded land to restore its fertility. Bamboo establishes systems of underground rhizomes and roots that can measure up to 100 kilometers per hectare and survive for a century.
These systems allow bamboo stands to survive and regenerate even if the biomass above ground is largely destroyed in a fire or storm. As harvesters take culms from a managed stand little by little, amounting each year to between a sixth and a third of the biomass above ground, they actually encourage thicker growth in coming years.
Bamboo grows well on problem soils and steep slopes that can sustainably support few other food, fodder, cash or groundcover crops. It also grows quickly – up to a meter per day in some circumstances – to produce a dense evergreen canopy from which leaves fall to the ground throughout the year, preventing splash erosion, mulching the soil and enhancing infiltration.
Extensive root systems 60 centimeters deep help bind topsoil, slowing water run-off and reducing soil erosion. Because it is so versatile – growing in pure stands or together with other species, at the edges of fields, along streams and at homesteads – bamboo integrates well into almost any production system that mixes agriculture, agro-forestry and aquaculture.
Healthy stands of bamboo can conserve nearby forest lands from deforestation and degradation. They do so by providing to rural and per-urban communities an attractive substitute for less renewable timber.
Farmers and foresters who can regularly harvest raw materials and fuel from bamboo stands are under less economic pressure to unsustainably exploit less renewable forests, especially if the bamboo is closer to home.
Examples of bamboo-led restoration:
Uplift in Allahabad
A recently documented case in Allahabad, India, tells of the rebuilding of rural livelihoods where 80,000 hectares of degraded land were brought back into productivity using bamboo as a pioneer species. INBAR provided technical assistance and financial support to restore a pilot area of 106 hectares. Farmers planted bamboo primarily on bunds between crop fields, where it could bind the soil and prevent wind and water erosion.
Encore in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is on track to achieve further success in land restoration as part of the 95 million USD second phase of the Sustainable Land Management Project, managed by the country’s Ministry of Agriculture as part of the NEPAD-supported Terra Africa programme. INBAR is working with many partners to institute sustainable watershed management in 135 highland districts, benefiting two million people.