Can bamboo offer an alternative to trees?
FOR villagers living in Sagande area in the Honde Valley, Manicaland, the Bindura bamboo (oxytenanthera abyssinica) is a plant they have cherished.
Generations of their ancestors have been able to manufacture robust and solid hand-made baskets, brooms and beautiful mats, machetes and other handmade tools like simple chairs, fish traps, baskets, and containers from the bamboo.
They have been able to advance their craftsmanship and adapt to modern trends and are making coffins, household furniture, lamp holders, bed bases, tables and cooking utensils and toothpicks from the plant.
The rural community, who have worked with bamboo for decades, say traders from nearby towns and villages buy their wares.
While the villagers are able to keep pace with the demand for bamboo products, they say they are restricted by the myth that products made from trees provide the best furniture, pulp and fuel wood, thereby depriving them of an income from a resource that has changed many farmers’ lives in Asia, and grossed millions even in countries in Africa.
Louise Bragge, a bamboo consultant with a Zimbabwean non-governmental organisation, Bio-Innovation Zimbabwe, believes the community’s assertions are true.
“Communities with this abundance of resources and plenty of skilled craftsmen need support. If there were an improvement in the production of these products that reflected advances in style, there may be a chance to compete in a global market,” she said.
Bragge noted that in order to be competitive in the global market and be successful, communities need to decide on what breakthrough products to produce to meet global needs.
Create value added products
The concept of value addition is very crucial for success and provides something more to the consumer, while at the same time not necessarily increasing the cost dramatically.
Bragge, who is in charge of bamboo growing at Bio-Innovation Zimbabwe, said the plant can revolutionise environmental conservation and benefit traditional subsistence and commercial farming in Zimbabwe and southern Africa. She said the seeds are available locally and can also be produced through tissue culture technology.
“This is biotechnology practice that produces seedlings, which is a form of asexual reproduction of seedlings. The benefits of this plant cannot be underestimated as it prospers in wide range of ecological conditions and can be produced virtually in all parts of Zimbabwe, including in areas with harsh environments,” she said.
She recommended farmers to embrace bamboo to better manage climate change, provide beneficial ecosystem services and have new income sources.
“Bamboo can help rural communities become less vulnerable to climate change when they include it in sustainable forestry and agro forestry systems,” she added.
Bragge explained that the rapid establishment and growth of the plant allowed frequent harvesting which limits exposure to disasters such as fire and extreme weather. Bamboo can also be used to produce both wood fuel and charcoal for cooking and heating as well as generate electricity using bio-mass gasification technology and help create the much needed jobs.
According to the World Trade Organisation, global bamboo trade is worth an estimated US$60 billion per annum, providing African producers access to lucrative export markets. Bamboo provides a practical and rapid solution to a number of natural resources and poverty challenges. The plant has proven its effectiveness for restoring damaged land and ecosystems, for combating climate change through carbon sequestration and avoiding deforestation and boosting rural livelihoods.
Unlike timber from indigenous and exotic trees, bamboo is a self generating natural resource; new shoots that appear annually ensure production after individual culms are harvested. It matures in a short period of four to six years, unlike trees that takes 40 years to mature.
The option, according to Stephen Zingwena, operations manager at the Zimbabwe Forestry Commission, is getting more farmers growing the plant such that it will drive the industry.
“Already we have the tobacco farmers looking at alternative energy sources to cure their crop,” said Zingwena.
With calorific values similar to wood and almost half that of petroleum by weight, bamboo charcoal produces fewer pollutants than both wood and petroleum products. It has the potential to help millions, who rely on bio-mass as their energy source and millions others who live without electricity.
Zimbabwe’s natural resources experts and the government estimate that more than 300 000 hectares of indigenous forests are destroyed annually by new, mostly small scale tobacco farmers
Illegal forest occupations in both indigenous and exotic plantations, inadequate funding of the sector, veldt fires, limited information on the forestry resources, limited participation of local communities in management, communal land tenure system and the issue of evasive alien species (pests) are some of the challenges facing Zimbabwe’s forestry sector.
“Bamboo has a 25-30 percent annual increase in bio-mass with a very short harvesting period. The potential for bamboo to be used for biomass is significant since it can be cultivated for fuel-wood or other bio-mass needs as opposed to trees that have as lower and less sustainable biomass production,” Zingwena pointed out.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) sees opportunities for many African countries, proffering that economic growth of their economies would come from diversifying from traditional crops.
“If this level of exploitation continues we risk jeopardising the livelihoods of millions who rely on forests for income. With the African continent’s population expected to reach 2,4 billion by 2050-one quarter of the world’s –population there is pressing need for a shift towards a green economy based on new kinds of goods, services and energy,” FAO has noted.
Worldwide, Bamboo traditional market consisted of hand crafts, blinds, shoots, chopsticks/toothpicks, and furniture. These items make up 95 percent of the global bamboo market.
The emerging market of bamboo entails flooring, plants, and non-traditional furniture, and this makes up the remaining five percent of the global bamboo market.
Non-traditional furniture is furniture that has been processed and made into sheet like panels. These panels are very malleable and may be constructed into many types of modern furniture. Traditional bamboo furniture has not gone through the panel like processing and still is recognisable as bamboo given that it is still in its shoot-like form.
Bamboo shoots are widely consumed across the world as a source of food for many different cultures. It is this popularity which drives bamboo shoots trade. Bamboo shoots are new bamboo culms which have recently sprouted from the ground. These shoots are edible and are very common among many Asian dishes and broths, in fact over two million tonnes of edible bamboo shoots are consumed each year around the world.
Bamboo fibres are too short to develop a yarn, and it is because of this that bamboo fibres are woven and blended with other materials such as rayon in order to make fabrics and the accumulation of bacteria in the material. In recent years bamboo clothing has become very popular with the growing environmental movement across the world.
Bamboo is commonly used in third world countries as pipes to transport water.
The shoots are very suitable for this job because of their outer most layers which are naturally designed to keep water within the shoot itself. Due to the tight structure of bamboo strands, bamboo is also used to filter water.
According to the World Forest Institute, there are two important steps which governments must take to encourage the bamboo industry.
The first step that governments must take is to recognise the potential of bamboo as a forest product that can help to alleviate rural poverty and that can provide important environmental, as well as economic benefits.
Although traditional timber resources are dwindling, there is very little emphasis placed on bamboo as a sustainable form of timber. —
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