The environmental benefits of bamboo are already well-known. This perennial grass grows incredibly fast and renews itself more quickly than any other crop. It produces more oxygen than an equal area of trees, and it has a tensile strength comparable to steel. As a natural resource, bamboo provides an excellent alternative to deforestation and to plastics and synthetics. For reforestation and land restoration, bamboo acts as an valuable pioneer crop to rehabilitate degraded landscapes. This miraculous grass also brings hope to alleviate poverty in rural communities in the developing world.
A boon to global ecology, bamboo also creates a wealth of opportunities for rural economies. The same tropical areas where giant bamboo forests are most widespread are also home to some of the most severe poverty. But as the use and demand for bamboo expand around the world, those close to the source stand to benefit by playing an important role in these emerging supplying chains. From managing the bamboo groves to promoting traditional crafts to stimulating new forms of industry, the myriad uses for bamboo can lead to many paths for reducing poverty in these equatorial regions.
The geography of global poverty and bamboo
With more than 1,400 species worldwide, bamboo is native to five different continents and flourishes from the tropics to the snowy slopes of the Andes and the Himalayas. But we can find the most significant swaths of bamboo around the equatorial belt and in the subtropical latitudes.
Bamboo in the West
Colombia and Ecuador, for example, have the greatest populations of bamboo in the Western Hemisphere. Their habitats extend well into Mexico, and throughout Brazil, and across the Caribbean.
These regions where bamboo is most abundant correspond pretty closely to those where the economies are most impaired and poverty is the worst.
The United States, the world’s richest nation by most standards, has three native species of bamboo. But it’s never been considered a crop of great economic value or importance. Those three varieties of Arundinaria pale in comparison to the great timber bamboos like Moso, Asper, and Guadua.
Europe, another key center of global wealth, is the only continent with no native species of bamboo. Gardeners do grow it ornamentally, but only quite recently has the idea of bamboo farming gained any interest in Europe.
Bamboo in the East
Despite the economic and cultural importance of bamboo in some parts of Latin America, we still consider the Far East to be the real epicenter of bamboo. China is home to about 60 to 75% of the global bamboo trade. According to INBAR (International Bamboo and Rattan Association), the Chinese bamboo industry had grown to about $18 billion in 2020.
Meanwhile, the bamboo industries in India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia have been expanding exponentially. The giant, clumping bamboos, with the largest and highest quality canes, grow best in these subtropical climates. Varieties of Dendrocalamus and Bambusa are especially valuable for a wide range of applications, including furniture, biomass and engineered lumber.
Sub-Saharan Africa, which suffers from some of the world’s most abject poverty, is also home to several native species of bamboo. And in recent years, equatorial nations like Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya and Uganda, have taken a particularly keen interest in cultivating more bamboo as a means of combating both poverty and the impacts of Climate Change.
Check out our in-depth article about Where bamboo comes from.
Bamboo’s enormous economic potential
With new bamboo innovations happening all the time, and demand for bamboo increasing, poor communities are quickly recognizing this opportunity. Africans and Indians in particular are planting bamboo at an unprecedented rate as a way of preventing erosion, restoring degraded soil, and revitalizing forestry.
The unfortunate fact is that these marginalized communities, who already suffer from extreme poverty and exploitative land management, are also the most vulnerable to floods, droughts and other effects of Climate Change. Years of over-logging and over-mining have scarred the landscape and depleted their resources. And now changing weather patterns are exacerbating those weaknesses.
The good news, however, is that bamboo offers a simple natural solution. It requires little from the soil, can establish itself quickly, and creates a robust root system that holds the terrain together and bolsters the topsoil. Once in place, bamboo acts as a pioneer plant, providing shade and healthier soil, paving the way towards better conditions for other trees and plants.
Take a look at our story on Planting Bamboo for Water Purification.
And of course, bamboo not only provides value to the ecosystem. The fast-growing, woody grass is also exceptionally valuable as a cash crop. Those fragile, rural communities who plant bamboo to protect and restore their landscapes also understand that bamboo is a prized commodity.
In addition to using harvested bamboo within their own communities, for building things like rudimentary but sturdy housing, they are also finding ways to monetize their crop and add value to it in other ways.
The simplest ways of monetizing bamboo are with simple crafts like woven floor mats, basic furniture and household items. Bamboo charcoal has also become very popular for heating homes. Unlike traditional charcoal, commonly used in India and Africa, bamboo doesn’t require the felling of trees and it produces less smoke. Industrious farmers can easily turn bamboo into charcoal for their own use or to sell at the market.
Edible bamboo shoots are another easy way to cash in on a bamboo crop. While it can take several years for a bamboo plant to reach maturity and produce full-sized culms, the fresh shoots start coming out in year one. An easy source of revenue and nutrition, bamboo shoots are an important part of many traditional cuisines, from Cambodia to Kenya.
In the developing world, the bamboo economy consists primarily of these simple products that require no industry or processing. But when these rural communities tap into more sophisticated markets, they can see their bamboo turned to other products like engineered lumber for flooring and construction.
Processing facilities can also convert bamboo into a variety of other goods, including paper, bio-ethanol, vegetable-based plastics, fabrics and textiles. To really escape from poverty, places like Africa will need their own mills and factories. Otherwise, they are left with little more than their natural resources, with little or no added value. It’s the same story throughout colonial history. Therefore, it will take a combination of financial investment and political will to truly harness the economic potential of bamboo in the developing world.
Bamboo expansion in the post-colonial world
Ironically enough, Europe and the United States find themselves in a similar situation to Africa regarding their bamboo industries. China has dominated the field for so long, and the West really has no bamboo industry of its own. Now, at last, the EU and the US are trying to kickstart their own bamboo enterprises, starting from scratch, with no tradition of bamboo farming and no mills or factories. How and whether they will include the poorer countries in this emerging scheme remains to be seen.
In terms of bamboo cultivation, the Far East is leaps and bounds ahead of Africa. But with several native species of bamboo, Africa still has a significant edge over Europe, which has none. Now is the chance for African nations to step up and play an important role in the international bamboo market.
Large-scale farming efforts are already underway in South Africa, Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia. What’s needed now is for local governments and international institutions to get on board and support the necessary conditions for an industry that will create jobs and bring income to those regions that need it the most.
Enrich your bamboo knowledge
In times of global crisis, bamboo’s ability to restore the ecology and economy of the planet gives us all a glimmer of hope. To learn more about it, take a look at some of these other inspiring articles on our website.
- The best architecture school for bamboo and sustainability
- Sourcing the most sustainable bamboo
- Bamboo blessings for the earth and the soul
- A gallery of bamboo species
FEATURE PHOTO: Bamboo huts adjacent to a grove of bamboo in rural Thailand