In this era of climate change, habitat loss, and rapid deforestation, it looks like bamboo might have everything we need to save the planet. The miracle grass produces more oxygen than trees, and it grows faster than anything. Not only that, but it can also thrive in areas with erratic weather and mediocre soil. So, we have to ask ourselves, why not use bamboo to reclaim some of those landscapes denuded by human expansion and slash and burn agriculture? Could this be the fastest path towards reforestation and a greener planet?

Bamboo is a promising plant, but when it comes to reforestation, there are many critical factors to consider. With its tremendous ecological and economical potential, bamboo could be the ideal solution for many scenarios. Various species of bamboo naturally occur in many sensitive, tropical habitats. But it’s not the one size fits all remedy for every case of deforestation. Examining the 10 rules of reforestation, we can see that bamboo has both pros and cons. In some settings it could be the best option, but in other cases it’s simply not the right choice.

The deforestation crisis

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the earth has lost about 50 million acres of forest in the last five years. That’s a significant improvement since deforestation levels peaked in the 1990s at around 16 million acres a year. But it still points to a climate catastrophe.

The destruction of forest for agricultural use is the leading cause, responsible for about 80 percent of the world’s deforestation. That includes large scale cattle ranching, and soya and palm oil farming, as well as small scale, local, subsistence farming. The highest rates of deforestation are also occurring in the regions with the highest levels of biodiversity, such as Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The Global Tree Search database of the Botanic Garden Conservation International includes just over 60,000 species of trees. As of 2019, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) identifies 20,334 tree species as threatened and more than 1,400 as critically endangered.

Clearly, the world is facing an imminent crisis and must take immediate, concerted action towards reforestation. But how useful and effective can bamboo be in this global undertaking?

Bamboo, the wonder crop

Here at Bambu Batu, one of our mottos is, “If it can’t be done with bamboo, it probably shouldn’t be done.” We say this half in jest, but the other half is quite earnest. The vigorous grass produces wood as strong oak, building materials vastly greener than steel or concrete, and fabric softer than cotton. Reaching maturity in five or six years, full-sized bamboo culms can be harvested twice a year without the need for replanting. And they require little or nothing in the way of pesticides and fertilizers.

When it comes to fighting climate change, bamboo’s value cannot be overstated. A grove of bamboo can produce about 30-35 percent more oxygen than a equal area of trees. And because bamboo can be continuously harvested without killing the plant, that allows it to serve as a precious and long-lasting carbon sink.

Bamboo farms or bamboo forests?

Farming bamboo offers great benefits for the environment. But letting bamboo grow in the wild is not the same thing. For one thing, we are much less likely to make use of wild bamboo for its myriad industrial applications.

More importantly, untended bamboo doesn’t have nearly the same capacity for carbon sequestration as a well-managed bamboo farm. If the bamboo is not harvested regularly, the canes will simply grow old and eventually rot, thereby releasing their carbon back into the atmosphere. Harvesting healthy bamboo, on the other hand, locks the carbon in its woody fibers, where it can be stored for many long years, in the form of durable furniture or building material.

Still, there can be great value in a bamboo forest, under the right circumstances. A number of projects are underway in Africa to reclaim degraded land and expand bamboo habitat. In Volcanoes National Park, in northwest Rwanda, for example, they are restoring the forests with bamboo. But in this case, the bamboo is part of the native ecology and strategically important as a vital food source for the endangered mountain gorillas and golden monkeys.

Another major forestation effort is now underway on the southern border of the Sahara Desert. Stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea, the Great Green Wall means to create a buffer against increasing desertification. The Sahara has been encroaching on the African savannah at a frightening rate, and local people are using planned forests and landscapes to slow the spread, mitigate the threat of climate change and improve food security. Bamboo, not native to this semi-arid habitat, has not played a significant role in this project, but it is important in the higher elevations further south.

Pioneer species or peregrine species?

In many of the tropical areas that have fallen victim to slash and burn agriculture, or other means of deforestation, bamboo can act as a resilient pioneer species. In other words, where vegetation is barren and soil is depleted, bamboo can enter, survive and gain a foothold.

While other species might struggle, the bamboo establishes itself and in turn makes the land more hospitable for other vegetation. Bamboo has a tenacious root system that is excellent for erosion control. In this way, bamboo stabilizes the soil and gives other native species time to germinate and get established rather than washing away in the next heavy rain. Also, as bamboo grows tall and fast, it’s able to provide considerable shade. This makes a more welcome habitat for young startups, and speeds up the overall recovery.

In many situations, however, bamboo is more of a peregrine species, non-native and potentially invasive. If the bamboo gets in early and spreads quickly, it can actually grow too well. Overtaking the landscape and outperforming native species is no way to protect forests and preserve biodiversity. So it’s essential to plant bamboo mindfully, selecting the right locations and the right species of bamboo that will flourish naturally without taking over.

10 Rules for reforestation

A number of scientific and conservationist organizations have put together their own lists of 10 rules for responsible reforestation. Kew Gardens in the UK published its own pointers in January 2021, and the international tree hugging community is rallying around it. Here we’ll review those suggestions and see how well bamboo fits with their ideal vision for reforestation.

  1. Protect existing forests first. Before going out and planting a new forest, our priority should be to protect the diverse, carbon-storing forests already in existence. In specific instances, bamboo could be part of that strategy. In the wildlife refugees of east Africa, for example, bamboo is a vital component of the native habitat.
  2. Work with local people. Projects to protect remote, tropical forest areas should involve the local populations. Without their participation and support, these reforestation efforts are less likely to succeed. In many cases, local farmers can participate and profit from land restoration efforts that involve bamboo cultivation.
  3. Maximize biodiversity. Reforestation isn’t just about maximizing square miles of green space. Promoting diversity and protecting rare species is key. As a food source for endangered animal species in Africa and Madagascar, bamboo is critically important, and one of the key features in these vulnerable habitats. Many rare species of bamboo also populate the islands of Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
  4. Select the right areas. Territory that was historically grasslands or wetlands will be unsuitable for a healthy, successful forest. Trying to reclaim agricultural land and make forest out of it will also prove challenging. Replanting forests where forest had grown before makes the most sense, ecologically and economically. Bamboo, being less particular about soil conditions, is more versatile. It can actually be a good choice in areas with degraded soil that has been over-farmed.
  5. Use natural reforestation. Rather than planting forests with nursery stock, a far more effective strategy is to protect existing habitat so that it can recover and revitalize naturally. Whether or not bamboo is part of that solution will depend on the specific composition of the forest.
  6. Select species to maximize biodiversity. Running bamboos can spread and monopolize a wide area, but tropical, clumping bamboo is better at coexisting among a variety of other species. Bamboo, with over 1,400 species, has plenty of diversity of its own. When bamboo is used in tropical reforestation projects, they should make an effort to include more unusual and endemic varieties.
  7. Consider climate change and plant resilient species. The sad truth is that what grows in a forest today might not be suitable in the same forest 20 years from now. Many areas are seeing higher temperatures and lower rainfall. Reforestation efforts need to take that into account. In these cases, bamboo could be a wise choice, as most species of bamboo are quite resilient and adaptable.
  8. Plan ahead. Any reforestation project needs a long term vision. Local communities need to know what they can do to maintain and protect the forest in the years to come. That means planning for seed collection and for harvesting certain species. Bamboo is more beneficial, both economically and ecologically, when it’s managed and harvested responsibly.
  9. Learn by doing. Reforestation is something that involves an enormous range of variables. It’s best to start small and experiment. Learn what works and which species grow well together in specific areas before embarking on a major project.
  10. Make it pay. In reality, a reforestation project will gain more support from local governments and communities if they can find ways to monetize it. There are many ways to do this, including selling carbon credits, selling forestry products and promoting eco-tourism. Bamboo can work well with all three of these strategies.

Conclusions

While bamboo can act as a vital tool in the struggle to stop climate change, bamboo reforestation is not necessarily the best application. In certain situations, restoring habitat for the bamboo lemurs of Madagascar or the golden monkeys of east Africa, bamboo is essential.

In other cases, it might make more sense to plant bamboo as an agricultural crop that can be managed effectively. Rather than replacing forests with bamboo, we can plant bamboo on abandoned agricultural land or other degraded soil. In the forests, we should give priority to native restoration and maximizing diversity. So it’s really a question of whether bamboo is part of that native landscape. Then it’s a matter of identifying and propagating the appropriate mix of species.

When it comes to saving the earth, there’s no simple, single, silver bullet. We need to consider every option from every angle, and apply a panoply of well-thought-out innovations. And surely, bamboo can and should play an important role in that dynamic polyculture of solutions.

Learn more

If you found this article about bamboo and reforestation interesting, you might also check out some of these other blog posts about the importance of bamboo in the green economy.

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