Bamboo: can it live up to the 'green gold' hype?

It could reduce the pressure on native forests but the rapid expansion in bamboo plantations is in danger of making it the latest in a long line of tarnished 'wonder crops'

From India and Indonesia to Colombia and Costa Rica, the number of bamboo plantations worldwide is rising as quickly as the fast-growing crop itself.

Some of the world’s most impoverished countries are realising the potential of this versatile tree-like tropical grass, which in so many respects seems worthy of its nickname: ‘green gold.’

Because it can reach full, harvestable maturity within five years, it is being touted as an alternative to dwindling timber supplies. Its success could mean hectares of hardwood forest being saved from the chainsaw.
Strong and cheap, bamboo construction projects are already repairing shattered communities in countries like earthquake-prone Haiti – but its cohesive properties work on an organic level too. Growing out of a tangle of carbon-sequestering underground stems, it can help reforest landscapes denuded by development or natural disasters, binding topsoil to prevent erosion.

The UN’s TECA platform (technologies and practices for small agricultural producers) has given the income-generating potential of single-family-run ‘homestead’ plantations the thumbs-up. In rural Bangladesh it notes: ‘so far no negative impact has been observed in respect of social economic and environmental aspects […] Rather [they] have created a positive impact.’

Green gold rush

The problem is that where gold is discovered, gold-rushes inevitably ensue.

India, China and Burma, with almost 20 million hectares of bamboo forests and plantations between them are already zeroing in on its cash potential, and last month the crop made its debut on the world’s financial stage, with the launch of asset-backed ‘bamboo bonds’. EcoPlanet Bamboo, the company behind them, expects the global market to be worth $20 billion by 2015.

‘Our objective to provide an alternative to timber currently sourced from natural forests is unilaterally positive,’ says Camille Rebelo, vice-president and co-founder of EcoPlanet Bamboo, which operates two of Nicaragua’s biggest plantations, totalling just under 3,000 acres. She insists the company is ‘only converting degraded pastureland into healthy, fully functioning ecosystems, and developing all plantations under the strictest certification standards’ (it intends to obtain Forest Stewardship Council and Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance accreditation, but hasn’t yet).

Profits from the bamboo bonds will be used to develop another 4,450 acres of plantation in Panama and the Dominican Republic within the next 12 months. Investors are promised returns of up to 503 per cent over 15 years. Too good to be true? Some financial advisers think so. And environmentalists have their doubts also.

‘Such a driver from the international market is the perfect way to ensure bamboo becomes only part of the problem,’ says Christoph Thies, international forest policy coordinator for Greenpeace International, which is concerned by large-scale monoculture plantations of all kinds. ‘Promising such high returns kills any chance of bamboo becoming part of sensitive, responsible development that takes account of social and environmental considerations.’

Evidence of land-grabbing

Dr Jun Borras, associate professor of rural development studies at the International Institute of Social Studies, the Hague, adds that the large-scale farming of any single crop will necessarily bring negative consequences.

‘While crops are not in themselves inherently bad, it is the social relations and production model that matter. Just like jatropha, which used to grow as a weed, bamboo production can result in socially and ecologically undesirable outcomes when commercial profits through industrial monocropping become attractive. Just like jatropha, under such circumstance bamboo [production] can also lead to land-grabbing.’

Attempts were also made to sell jatropha as an ethical investment last year, as an Ecologist investigation revealed, despite the controversial biofuel being linked to issues of land and food security. Bamboo too has power potential: US company Clenergen operates a bamboo-chip biomass power plant in the Philippines and has ambitions to become a major fuel supplier in southeast Asia.

‘Bioenergy – not only biofuels, but biomass-based energy in general – [is] boosting demand for all kinds of biomass,’ says Christoph Thies. ‘This will be an issue for bamboo and many other tree and plant species.

It is already a concern with China and its aggressive economic development, but [the same will be true for] other countries in the future, driven by cash crops in general, especially those that satisfy huge demand sectors like energy or pulp and paper, which take vast amounts of biomass. In the end [this will lead] to massive conversion of native biodiversity to bamboo, eucalyptus and other energy or fibre cash crops.’

One major issue with bamboo is that there are currently no international laws governing plantations: their management is down to the companies that own them and the countries that provide the land. If bamboo’s increasing popularity and profitability results in unscrupulous producers getting in on the act, the parallel concern is that cash-strapped governments will positively encourage them to do so.
Susanne Lucas, executive director of the World Bamboo Organization, says some people are undoubtedly jumping on the bandwagon to ‘make money quickly at bamboo’s expense’, but stresses the crop’s incredible potential.

‘In most developing countries it is a very progressive movement. I don't know why anyone would want to halt or hinder the expansion of bamboo areas where they make sound sense and could stimulate local economic development where people need it most. [They] are breathing, living, eco-friendly environments and certainly are better than many other types of monocultures that are clear-cut routinely.’

No certification of bamboo

Bamboo could play a role in reducing pressure on native, old-growth forests, but organisations including Greenpeace International oppose the hard separation of pristine areas from those where the principle of intensive agriculture is applied. This position is supported by a recent study in Environmental Research Letters, which reveals that soy expansion in cleared agricultural areas in the Amazon basin continues to contribute to the loss of rainforest itself.

The bamboo industry is currently only a fraction of the size of soy, but Dr Coosje Hoogendoorn, director-general of the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), says the long-term future of the industry depends upon it growing. ‘When we’re talking about developing a sustainable bamboo industry, big doesn’t mean bad,’ she says.

She adds that getting the best out of them in social and ecological terms will rely on pro-poor and pro-environment policies to ensure the right kind of investment, as well as diligence from consumers in promoting sustainable sources. This appears to highlight the fact that the other kind exists.

Certainly a 2005 report produced for Dovetail Partners by Jim Bowyer, former chairman of the Tropical Forest Foundation, cites many examples of bamboo plantations expanding at the expense of natural vegetation, including clear-felling of old-growth forests.

Bowyer observes that much of the bamboo entering world markets would not meet the criteria for certified wood if independently evaluated against those criteria, although it is ‘promising’ that some distributors have taken the initiative to have their bamboo certified.

‘In view of the availability of certified bamboo, and systems for its certification, it is highly hypocritical of some green building programmes to continue to require certification of timber, but not of bamboo,’ he says. While bamboo is a ‘remarkable plant with some very good properties’, he points out that ‘it is not the silver bullet that it is sometimes claimed to be’ and will require safeguards to ensure responsible production.

With massive expansion forecast for the future and the lure of massive rewards, the risk remains of bamboo – like jatropha and palm oil before it – becoming the latest in a long line of tarnished ‘wonder crops’.

Last year a report revealed that jatropha, far from being the key to the global energy crisis, was a biofuel more suited to community-level initiatives. It may be that the golden opportunities presented by bamboo also lose their lustre the further from home they go.


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