The many potentials of bamboo

By Henrylito D. Tacio

“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind,” the legendary martial artist Bruce Lee once said.

No wonder, most Asian cultures believe that humanity emerged from a bamboo stem. In the Philippines, for instance, legend tells that the first man and the first woman each emerged from split bamboo stems on an island created after the battle of the elemental forces (sky and ocean).  In Malaysia, a similar legend tells of a man who dreams of a beautiful woman while sleeping under a bamboo plant; he wakes up and breaks the bamboo stem, discovering the woman inside.  

Bamboo is known as the world’s tallest grass.  But recently, it has received a new tag, “the grass of hope.”  More and more people around the world are now beginning to see bamboo in a different perspective.  Although bamboo has been part of their art and culture, it was only recently that Chinese leaders took the plant seriously and is now building a massive bamboo industry. 

The Philippines is following suit.  “Bamboo has proven to be vital resources in terms of their contribution to the national economy and ecological stability of the country,” Environment Secretary Lito Atienza was quoted as saying.

A Master plan for the development of bamboo as a renewable and sustainable resource showed that there are 39,000 to 52,000 hectares of bamboo stands in forest lands, government plantation, privately-owned plantations and natural stands all over the country.  “I think during the 1930s, we have around 200,000 hectares of bamboo plantations,” revealed Romualdo Sta. Ana, president of the Philippine Bamboo Foundation.

All over the globe, there are 91 genera and about 1,000 species of bamboo, generally known as kawayan in the Philippines.  “We have seven or eight commercial species which are massively grown in Iloilo, Davao, Bukidnon and some parts of Luzon,” informed Sta. Ana.

Bamboo is the most diverse group of plants in the grass family, and the most primitive sub-family. It is distinguished by a woody culm, complex branching, a generally robust rhizome system and infrequent flowering.

“Bamboo is not a weed, it’s a flowering plant. Bamboo is a magnificent plant,” commented Steve Lacy.   Thomas Edison supposedly used a carbonized bamboo filament in his experiments in developing the light bulb. Alexander Graham Bell also used bamboo for his first phonograph needle.  “You can eat, wear, and build with bamboo,” said Michael Block.

In terms of exports, the bamboo’s potential remains in the areas of furniture and handicrafts, whose global market grows at an average of US$8-billion annually.  “We’re not talking here of raw bamboo for export, but finished products made from bamboo. From roots to tip, you can make soap, medicines, cosmetics, furniture, bricks, clothing, paper, floor tiles, wall panels, drinks, vegetables — even surf boards from bamboo,” said Trade Undersecretary Merly Cruz.

Why is there a sudden craze for bamboo these days?  “Bamboo is seen as a green product and a renewable resource in the developing world — more and more buyers are taking a closer look at bamboo as raw material,” Cruz added.

The exports of bamboo furniture in the Philippines rose from US$625,000 to US$1.2 million in the mid-80’s until the mid-90’s.  Both bamboo furniture and handicrafts racked up US$438 million from 1991 to 2000.   Total exports of bamboo furniture in 2000 were recorded at only US$3.2 million.

Bamboo, once considered the poor man’s timber, is now a fast growing industry and the Philippines stands to benefit from it if more people understood what the stakes are, said noted Filipino architect Francisco Bobby Maosa, whose bamboo designs include the Coconut Palace.
Next in line is bamboo shoots (new bamboo culms that come out of the ground), which have been traditionally used as vegetable food in China, Japan, Korea, and in many other Asian countries.  Some of the most popular species of bamboo used for food are “kawayan tinik” (Bambusa blumeana), “bayog” (Dendrocalamus merrillianus), “bolo” (Gigantochloa levis), giant bamboo (Dendrocalamus asper), and “kayali” (Gigantochloa atter).  Just a health warning: shoots of some species contain toxins that need to be leached or boiled out before they can be eaten safely.

“With the increasing awareness on the many health attributes and recipes one can make out of bamboo shoots, it is now gaining popularity within the broader population and in the global market,” reports Nimfa K. Torreta of the Department of Science and Technology. “There is also a worldwide interest on bamboo shoots because of the growing population of Asian ethnic origin around the world who have particular preference and taste for Asian food.”

Bamboo shoot has a huge potential for market.   Export of bamboo shoot from Thailand in 1994 was pegged at US$29.50 million.  Japan has a steady market of 250 tons per month while Australia imports 6,000- 12,000 tons of canned bamboo shoots annually.

There’s more to bamboo than just furniture and food.  Its role in the construction field is equally substantial. Hundreds of millions of people live in houses made from bamboo. In Bangladesh, where 73% of the population live in bamboo houses, bamboo provides pillars, walls, window frames, rafters, room separators, ceilings and roofs.  In Costa Rica, building with bamboo withstood earthquake which buildings with other materials were unable to.
Throughout rural Asia it is used for building bridges, from the sophisticated technology of suspension bridges to the simpler pontoon bridges.  Bamboo scaffoldings employed on the high rise structures of Tokyo and Hong Kong.   Building with bamboo in Costa Rica withstood earthquake which buildings with other materials were unable to.

Bamboo is also used for musical instruments of all three types: percussion or hammer instruments, wind instruments, and stringed instruments.  The  Bamboo Organ of Las Piñas has pipes made of bamboo culms.   In Java, Indonesia, 20 different musical instruments have been fashioned of bamboo.

Capitalizing on this current trend and without much effort and capital needed, bamboo production could be a very promising livelihood opportunity for Filipinos.   There is a lot of future in bamboo, said Sta. Ana.  However, it is not as appreciated yet in the country.

As trees are fast disappearing in various parts of the world and with the concern of environment growing, timber are getting scarce day by day. This is due to long period of time taken by even softwood to attain maturity. So, a substitute or if that is not possible, an alternative, has to be found. Bamboo is the answer for this. 

Bamboos can be extensively grown in a wide range of habitats, from lowland to mountain forests in both dry and humid tropics, even on wastelands, swamps and dry or regularly flooded river banks.

Sta. Ana pointed out that bamboo is the fastest means of re-greening the country’s forests.  It takes only three years for bamboo to grow, as opposed to trees that take years before its wood can be used for construction and other purposes.  Bamboo matures in four to five years and growers and farmers can enjoy multiple harvests in 20 years.

An advocate of bamboo as a reforestation species, particularly in cogonal areas, is Domingo Alfonso, according to an article which appeared in the defunct Agribusiness Weekly.  More than a decade ago, he planted bamboo in his 20-hectare cogonal land in Pililia, Rizal.  Today, his farm is a full-grown bamboo forest.  He said it was not difficult for him to plant and grow the bamboo.  And his experience proves that income from bamboo can give anyone who plants it a decent living.

According to Alfonso, there are three main reasons why bamboo is a superb crop for cogonal areas:  both bamboo and cogon belong to the same plant family and so are compatible; bamboo grows faster and taller than cogon, and can quickly shade out the later; and bamboo is not killed when the cogonal area is burned accidentally or deliberately.

Environment Secretary Atienza said bamboo, along with rattan “must be used, whenever applicable, in the ongoing rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems and idle production areas.”  He added that both plants could be planted along riverbanks and coastal areas under reforestation activities of the environment and natural resources department.

“God can be realized through all paths,” Ramakrishna once said.  “All religions are true.  The important thing is to reach the roof.  You can reach it by stone stairs or by wooden stairs or by bamboo steps or by a rope.  You can also climb up by a bamboo pole.”  — ###



One response to “The many potentials of bamboo

  1. Philippines house builders use bamboo for construction also for bracing while building in Cebu.

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