What's so special about bamboo?

Bamboo is very special. It is a fast growing natural resource whose rate of biomass generation is unsurpassed in the plant kingdom. It is without doubt one of the most important non-wood forestry products and one of the most important agricultural plants in the world.

Technically, bamboos are grasses belonging to the subfamily Bambusoideae.  Over 1200 different species grow world-wide. Various species can reach heights of 30m and more. About 18 million ha of bamboo are distributed in world forest ecosystems, in Asia, Africa, and America.   

Unlike most timber, bamboo is a self-regenerating natural resource; new shoots that appear annually ensure production after individual culms are harvested. In developing countries it is a basic raw material with numerous traditional uses.  Bamboo has many applications  in rural industries (handicrafts, furniture, utensils and houses) and it is also widely used in modern wood and paper industries.Governments, research institutions, and private enterprises are taking increased interest in the environmental and economic possibilities of bamboo. In the last decade, there has been a boom of manufacturing industries utilizing bamboo world-wide.

Bamboo is a plant that provides considerable environmental benefits.  It is  used for ecological purposes such as soil stabilisation and erosion prevension on hill slopes and verges. It is a very important forestry plant which is  harvested from existing natural forests,  plantations, and mixed agroforestry systems. Bamboo silviculture is a option for conserving and  protecting tropical forests while creating enduring supplies for the wood and cellulose industries. 

There has been a growing awareness in recent years that bamboo is a vital component of development and an effective means to improve the livelihoods of rural poor people. Over 600 million people generate income from bamboo; hundreds of millions of  people in the world live in bamboo houses.  A great part of the bamboo that is used is  harvested by women and children, many of whom live  below subsistence levels in developing countries. 

Bamboo is a natural vehicle for development because rural people generally have adequate access to it. It  can be easily grown and harvested in the perimeter of forest areas or under agroforestry schemes.  Bamboo agroforestry requires only a modest capital investment  and generates steady income to farmers. In many parts of the tropical world the rural poor are dependent on bamboo for their shelter and for every-day utilities.

During the last decade, increased knowledge and reserach about bamboo has had a tremendous economic impact and has given rise to many new industries and products. In China, for instance, income from bamboo products has increased sevenfold in the 1990s due to an emphasis on R&D. Many export markets have been opened and the development of innovative products is a continuous process. The utility of bamboo has expanded to include its transformation into various structural composite panels. Bamboo composites offer strategic advantages in promoting bamboo as an alternative to wood and other construction materials.   There is also general interest and expertise in using bamboo for producing pulp and paper.

One of the main problems with bamboo is that it has been regarded as a natural resource which is simply there to take. However, in industrial economies such practice leads to overexploitation and rapid depletion of bamboo resources, especially in the vicinity of the paper mills and factories.  Harvesting bamboo from natural stands too distant from mills and factories results in transportation costs becoming too high for bamboo to be economical. Estimates regarding future use of bamboo indicate that there will be a huge shortage for bamboo planting material in medium and long term.

In Europe, bamboo has been used as an ornamental for over 150 years and currently over 300 different species of temperate bamboos are grown throughout Europe. Only recently has bamboo been recognised as a potential agroforestry plant in Europe. There are significant developments within Europe in propagation techniques, biotechnology, and wood technology that are relevant for enhancing the value and utility of bamboo globally.  Research shows that bamboo has potential as an alternative crop for the agricultural sector in Europe as a non-food crop. 

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