Over the past couple decades, the world has woken up to the enormous potential of bamboo, and to its remarkable sustainability. Western demand for bamboo has been skyrocketing. Meanwhile, Asian farmers are doing what they can to keep up, and to cash in. But bamboo alone is not enough to create sustainability. And if farmers start burning down more tropical rainforests to make a quick return on a bamboo farm, then we’re all in trouble. As horrible as it sounds, bamboo could become the next palm oil.

Bamboo’s astonishing growth rate and rapid renewal make it potentially one of the earth’s most sustainable crops. But more than the choice of what crop to plant, the real measure of sustainability is in how that crop is grown and managed. If eager farmers simply eradicate the native rainforests in order to plant a vast monocrop of bamboo, the results could be nearly as devastating as the recent scourge of palm oil plantations.

Sustainable forestry with bamboo

Establishing a sustainable farm or agroforestry project requires a lot more than just planting a swath of bamboo and letting it run wild. The tropical rainforests are precious and sensitive habitats for a tremendous variety of species, both flora and fauna. So replacing that habit with a plantation of one or two species, even if they are bamboo, is not ecologically responsible or beneficial.

One of the reasons why sustainable agriculture is so rare is that it requires a lot more work. Bamboo grows fast and renews itself without replanting. And it requires little or no chemical pesticides. But to nourish the soil and get the greatest benefits of carbon sequestration, the bamboo needs attentive management.

Monocropped bamboo will eventually deplete the soil and require some kind of fertilizer. It may thrive for years, even decades, but eventually it will grow itself to death. And to really retain the CO2 like an effective carbon sink, the mature poles need to be harvested strategically. Clearcutting, by contrast, can be done quickly with heavy machinery. But sustainable management requires trained bamboo farmers who know what they’re doing and will take the time to do it.

Maintaining biodiversity

Genuine, longterm sustainability means mixing bamboo with a great variety of other natives, including low-crawling groundcovers and taller canopy species. Farmers will also want to throw some other cash crops, like coffee and cacao, into the mix, to boost their profits. An example of environmental stewardship, this technique ensures the longterm health of the forest, provides a safe habitat for wildlife, and avoids the pitfall of farmers putting all their eggs into one basket.

In the tropical and subtropical climates of Southeast Asia and Indonesia, clumping bamboo is far more prevalent. Varieties of Dendrocalamus and Bambusa, indigenous to these regions, naturally grow in relatively dense clumps. Therefore, they’re compatible with a diversity of other plants and trees, and don’t tend to overtake an area. In China, on the other hand, running bamboo like Phyllostachys is far more common. So it’s not unusual to see forests of Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis) with very little else growing in between.

Pillaging habitat for palm oil plantations

Palm oil has been a valuable commodity for cooking and skin care for many centuries, present even in the tombs of ancient Egyptian. But the last 20-30 years have seen a real explosion in the use of palm oil. Today it’s something like the cheap petroleum of the processed food and cosmetics industries.

Slash and burn in thailand
Asian farmers commonly use slash and burn methods to replace native habitat with cash crops like oil palms.

At the same time, the demand has grown so high that farmers in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are willing to plant it at any cost. The sad result has been the utter destruction of vast areas of vital rainforests. In addition to serving as the lungs of the planet, these tropical rainforests also provide a home for millions of rare and exotic plant and animal species.

Orangutan endangerment and habitat devastation

Notably, the orangutans of Malaysia and Indonesia, are quickly disappearing. The Sumatran orangutan, in particular, is now listed as critically endangered. The loss of this exceptionally intelligent great ape is nothing less than tragic. And despite international campaigns to rescue the orangutans from near extinction, the cultivation and consumption of palm oil continues to soar.

Malaysia has attempted to limit the expansion of palm oil plantations, but in Indonesia it goes unchecked. Indonesia became the world’s largest producer of palm oil in 2006, when it surpassed Malaysia. Palm oil farms occupy about 12 million hectares of Indonesia. And that number is rising steadily, largely at the expense of native peatlands and rainforests.

All of this only underscores the environmental devastation that’s possible when a single plant or resource becomes overused and overvalued. If subsistence farmers in Indonesia recognize a similar, short-term gain to be made by replacing jungle with bamboo, the consequences could be dire. Still, it’s hard to convince them of the importance of orangutans when they’re just struggling to feed their families.

Sustainable solutions

The good news is that a broad coalition of environmental activists have been working to raise awareness and promote more responsible practices. In Indonesia, the 1,000 Bamboo Villages Project is showing local villagers a more sustainable way to live and farm.

This ambitious project aims to restore and protect 2 million hectares of rainforest. Their agroforestry plan includes a strong mix of native vegetation alongside selected cash crops. Bamboo makes up no more than about one third of the total area in this managed ecosystem. And ultimately, the project will provide economic opportunities for about 250,000 Indonesians, growing and processing bamboo.

Bamboo farming in the West

Another critical way to curb the kinds of environmental degradation we see from palm oil, and prevent it with bamboo, is to pursue more resource independence in the west. Although most bamboo is native to the Far East, there are many species that grow quite well in America and southern Europe. As the bulk of demand for bamboo comes from the US and the EU, producing our own supply could make this green resource vastly more sustainable.

A great deal of bamboo’s environmental benefit is lost when the raw material is shipped from Asia across the globe. Growing bamboo in Europe and the US could dramatically reduce that carbon footprint, while giving these more industrialized nations more agroforestry options to offset their own carbon emissions.

Greece and Portugal, as well as portions of the American South, have a suitable climate and an adequate amount of degraded ag land to work with. The conditions seem ideal for bamboo cultivation, and the efforts have already begun. Bamboo production for bio-ethanol and tree-free paper are already underway. And bamboo pioneers are eager to see factories for engineered lumber coming online within the next several years.

Further reading

If you found this article on bamboo and palm oil interesting, be sure to check out more from our in-depth archives. Peruse the following links to learn more about bamboo’s amazing potential and the complexity of sustainable agroforestry.