Rediscovering Bamboo and Its Many Uses

Time was when the bamboo virtually lorded it over the whole plant kingdom. Considered as the world’s fastest-growing plant, it was the center of legends and myths. In Asian cultures, people believed that humanity emerged from the bamboo stem. In other cultures, it was a symbol of longevity, friendship, humility, simplicity, and a sacred barrier against evil.

To date, its pliant characteristic and tensile strength have made it into such an amazing versatile plant, offering endless possibilities to men — as weapon, medicine, shelter, ornament, food, furniture — even an earthquake proof material and of late, a protective shield against environmental hazards. Technically a weed, bamboos are also called as “the grass of hope.”

Now, people are beginning to see bamboo in a different light. In China, for example, although bamboo has been part of their art and culture for more than 2,000 years, it was only around 25 years ago when Chinese leaders took the plant seriously and thought about building a massive bamboo industry. Similarly, the Philippines, once considered a bamboo fortress of sorts, has not really looked at the plant as a potential export winner.

In fact, according to DENR’s Cristina Roxas (Bamboo Research in the Philippines) there has not been any reliable inventory of available erect bamboo nationwide except that of an FRI-RP German Project conducted in 1998. A year before that, a bamboo Master Plan revealed that there were 39,000 to 52,000 hectares of bamboo plantations all over the country. “Although much earlier, I think during the 19303, we have around 200,000 hectares of bamboo plantation,” says Romualdo Sta. Ana, President of the Philippine Bamboo Foundation and a former member of the Board of Trustees of the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) based in Beijing, China.

Sta Ana, who is also an International Consultant of the Cane and Bamboo Upgradation Program based in India, is a chemical engineer by profession. The yo-year-old bamboo advocate believes that the country can prosper faster with the development of the bamboo industry. “We were really talking about it as early as the “705,” Sta. Ana recalls, but it didn’t make much wave until the First Gentleman made a trip to China in preparation for the Southeast Asian Games.”

Part of the Philippine team that went with the First Gentleman to China was Laguna Lake Development Authority’s (LLDA) General Manager Edgardo Manda. He was specifically instructed to look at the bamboo forest in Anji City and see if the cultural practices and bamboo technologies can be replicated in the Philippines. The experience of entering a city inside a bamboo forest blew Manda’s mind. “It was so amazing,” said the LLDA General Manager. “When we entered the forest, I was told that this was where the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was filmed and they have a whole eco-industry there. Not only was it exhilarating. It was also inspiring and I told myself, why can’t we do it back home? We have lots of bamboos!”

Upon returning to the country, Manda joined Sta Ana and the rest of the bamboo advocates in helping promote the development of the Philippine bamboo industry. First among his many missions was to surround the whole Laguna lake with bamboo plants in order to help preserve the environment. Manda said bamboos reduce carbon sink. It is also known as a “carbon sequester” as a hectare of bamboo plantation sequesters 12 tons of carbon dioxide each year. Not only that. As a watershed protection, Manda explains, the bamboo plant typically combines six cubic meter of soil. It yields six times more cellulose that pine trees.

In the months that followed, Manda liaised with other agencies like the Philippine Bamboo Foundation and the Meralco Foundation in ensuring that the small farmers understand the potentials of bamboo as a vital source of income. The dynamic LLDA General Manager went around the country and started what he termed as a massive information campaign on the endless possibilities of bamboo farming and processing.

Bamboo Facts

According to Sta Ana, there are around 1,250 to 1,500 species of bamboos all over the world. “Here in the Philippines,” he says, “we have seven or eight commercial species which are massively grown in Iloilo, Davao, Bukidnon and some parts of Luzon. First among these are the kawayang tinik, bayog, kawayang kiling and the Asian giant bamboo which is prolific in Bukidnon and is used for bamboo shoots. It is already accepted in the world market.” In terms of exports, the bamboo’s potential remains in the areas of furniture and handicrafts. Furniture, made from bamboo, according to Sta Ana, earns the country around $US4 million a year, with the US considered as its largest market. Other buyers include Taiwan and Australia. “Our strength here is our ability to make marvelous designs of world-class standards,” he quips. “Unfortunately, most of our great designers are also pirated by other countries.”

Next in line is bamboo shoots for which the Philippines is also exporting to Taiwan, although as Sta Ana claims, we are still lacking in volume. In supermarkets like SM, bamboo shoots are sold at Php6o plus per kilo, while its farm gate price is only P10 per kilo.

This is something which bamboo experts say farmers can look into if they want alternative sources of income. Other byproducts include charcoal, cosmetics, industrial vinegar, flooring, curtains, mats, chopsticks, poles, clothing, brooms, beer, juice — the list is virtually endless. Added to this, bamboo’s waste materials can also be used to produce bamboo powder, dust for fuel, charcoal, brick, fiber board, paper,
lumber, etc.

Propagated mainly through cuttings, the bamboo plant, according to experts, is relatively easy to grow. “You plant a bamboo now, you wait for five years and you can start harvesting for the next 50 to 120 years, depending on the species,” explains Sta. Ana. “And because it is considered as the world’s fastest-growing plant, you can almost see it grow at a rate of 400 millimeters or 15 inches a day.”

Since the plant is considered environment-friendly, many countries in Europe are already considering bamboo as a substitute for most lumber products.

Experts say most Europeans don’t want to import anything that is made out of tropical timber. So they opt to buy bamboo for flooring at around US$100 per square meter — something which Manda and Sta Ana sees as another great avenue for Philippine bamboo exports.

Bamboo Hurdles and Hopes

Just like other emerging agricultural industries, both Manda and Sta Ana allude to the fact that the grave problem facing the Philippine bamboo industry nowadays is its being fragmented, and as such, mobilizing bamboo experts and enthusiasts to get their acts together will be the great challenge.

The second challenge is continuous education and information dissemination regarding the science, art and business of growing and marketing bamboos.

Explains Manda: “Right now, we’re concentrating on teaching farmers the rudiments of nursery management, selection of species and matching them with the soil. And we’ve been successful in some areas like Sariaya, Quezon. There, farmers are starting to plant bamboos because they can sell the seedlings at Php 5o each. There are also farmers who are starting to plant in Benguet, Pampanga and Batangas. I must admit that at first, it’s really hard to convince our farmers, so I always have to start my talk very simply using layman’s terms. I tell them, when you plant palay, most of the time, you don’t have anything else to do after three or four months, so why don’t you try to plant bamboo during your spare time?”

Sta Ana interjects: “In our estimate, a farmer can earn around P100,000 to P300,000 a year on bamboo alone. We just have to document and replicate success stories for our farmers to be inspired. I always tell people, maybe in five to ten years, we can be the number two supplier of bamboo in the world next to China.”

“And by that time,” Manda discloses, “my own estimate is this industry can earn for our country around 30 to 50 million US dollars a year! So imagine, we’re earning and at the same time also doing our share in helping save our environment. That’s how great bamboo farming is.”

source: Marid Agribusiness, www.mariddigest.com

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