If the passion for bamboo is contagious, then I might say we are currently in the midst of a global bamboo pandemic. But don’t worry, unlike the other pandemic, this is something to celebrate. Bamboo construction is taking off, bamboo textiles are coming along, and the interest in bamboo farming is skyrocketing. One of the most ambitious examples of bamboo agriculture is underway in Indonesia, with the proposal of the 1,000 Bamboo Villages Project.

The 1,000 Bamboo Villages Project is the brainchild of Arief Rabik, the director of Indonesia’s Environmental Bamboo Foundation. Rabik’s goal is to reclaim and restore two million hectares of degraded land in this island nation, regenerating the landscape with bamboo agroforestry. Unlike many bamboo plantations, this project is about highly sustainable reforestation in which bamboo would make up only about one-third of the vegetation. At the same time, it will create a sensational economic opportunity for thousands of local farmers who are willing to invest the necessary time and energy.

The size and scope of the 1,000 Bamboo Villages Project

A project that engages 1,000 rural villages in Indonesia is a big deal by any measurement. The Environmental Bamboo Foundation (EBF) is working across the nation, one village at a time, and its goal is to restore 2,000 hectares of government-owned land around each of these villages.

Do the math, and that quickly adds up to a total of two million verdant hectares. To put that into perspective, this is a little more than the total area of the state of Connecticut (1.5 million hectares). It’s a good chunk or terrain, but a pretty thin slice of the pie when you consider the 90 million acres of Indonesian land degraded by decades of irresponsible farming and unsustainable logging. To think of it differently, it’s a little less than half the acreage of corn growing in the state of Iowa (4.8 million hectares). Either way, it’s a lot of bamboo we’re talking about.

Based on the EBF’s estimates, each of these 1,000 prospective villages has about 200 to 250 households. The project, therefore, would be directly impacting the lives of over half a million people in Indonesia. Even in a country of 270 million, this is something akin to a national mobilization. A non-profit group can’t organize something like this on its own. Nor can the federal government. So the EBF is calling for a quadruple P, or a People Public Private Partnership.

Creating opportunity with bamboo

As the 1,000 Bamboo Villages Project moves forward, the Indonesians will come to recognize this ubiquitous grass as a cash crop that they can monetize in a wide range of ways. And as they begin to reap the economic benefits, they will have reasons to maintain their forests responsibly. This in turn will confer great ecological benefits, locally and globally.

Most of these rural communities already depend on various methods of farming to support themselves. So the goal of Rabik and the EBF is to promote a reforestation effort that restores the landscape and creates an economic opportunity, incentivizing local populations to protect their forests and sensitive habitats. It’s more than just a bamboo farm. They’re proposing a systemic polyculture of native forestry.

Bamboo and agroforestry in Indonesia

Many varieties of bamboo are native to the tropical islands of Indonesia, including some of the largest and strongest species of Dendrocalamus. The locals have always recognized the strength and utility of this giant timber grass, but few of them think of it as a cash crop.

Given its natural abundance, Indonesians have tended to take their bamboo for granted. But with the international demand for bamboo furniture, flooring and building materials escalating, the nation could be sitting on a tropical gold mine.

With forest and jungle stretching as far as the eye can see, these rural farmers have never thought of sustainable farming as a top priority. For many, slash and burn agriculture has been the norm. But it has left a real and palpable legacy in Indonesia, reducing great swaths of native habitat to ashes. Eager to see the highest short-term returns, farmers wouldn’t hesitate to replace their indigenous ecosystem with commercially cultivated coffee, cocoa, palm oil, rubber, and other cash crops.

Genuine sustainability for the bamboo villages

Now at last, the 1,000 Bamboo Villages Project is inviting islanders to look at bamboo, farming and forestry differently. Rather than treating them as competing interests, the Environmental Bamboo Foundation is demonstrating the importance of understanding the big picture.

In order to be truly sustainable for the long term, both economically and ecologically, farmers and villagers need to recognize the trees, the crops and the whole forest as one great ecosystem. When they learn to preserve and maintain the forest responsibly, it will reward them in kind.

Indonesia has some of the most diverse tropical habitats in all the world. These systems are rich but delicate. It’s easier to grow one crop at a time, but the soil cannot sustain these mono-cropping methods for long. Even bamboo, according to Rabik, will grow itself to death within 80 or 90 years, if it is cultivated in isolation, as a monocrop.

Instead, what Rabik and his colleagues are promoting is a rich and diverse agroforestry system that includes a mix of higher canopy trees, creeping ground covers, and native bamboo, namely Dendrocalamus asper. Their plan for planting 2,000 hectares of bamboo around each village may seem overly ambitious, but it’s actually necessary when we understand the greater goal of regenerating the native ecosystem. Rabik explains this as the difference between extensive (diverse) and intensive (monoculture) systems.

The economics of bamboo farming in Indonesia

Is sustainable agroforestry easy to maintain?

Not really. Genuine, long-term sustainability requires more than just planting a single paragon of renewable resources. We have seen the impact of monocropping, and it’s devastating. To get the greatest benefits from bamboo, it needs to be harvested selectively and responsibly.

And for the long-term health of the soil, bamboo should be growing alongside a full range of native trees, shrubs, vines and ground covers. According to Rabik, the overall mix should include no more than 35% bamboo by area. Bamboo is a giant grass with shallow roots, but for long-term sustainability, the forest needs a wide variety of vegetation and a strategy for thoughtful, fastidious harvesting.

What are the financial realities for an Indonesian villager who chooses to farm bamboo?

Bamboo is remarkably fast-growing and renewable, but it takes about six or seven years for the plants to reach maturity. That means there a several years of waiting on the front end. But when bamboo grows in a mixed agroforestry setting, the farmers can simultaneously cultivate other plants like coffee, tea and rubber. And once the bamboo is well established, the largest and most mature culms can be harvested.

Organizers of the 1,000 Bamboo Villages also make a high priority of giving the local people control of the land. This not only offers direct benefits to the local villagers, but decentralizing more massive plantations also makes it easier to manage the remote corners of the forest in a sustainable way.

And of course, the farmers are highly incentivized when they know they will reap the financial rewards of the harvest. They have the choice of selling the raw poles at a lower price. Or if they have the time and the energy, they can add value to their crop by processing the bamboo in their local factories. That could involve something as simple as making bamboo strips, or something more elaborate like cross-laminated bamboo boards and beams.

Current progress on the 1,000 Bamboo Villages Project

At its inception in 2017, the EBF projected a timeline of about 15 years to bring a total of 1,000 villages on board and have a couple million acres in the works.

So far, progress has been steady, and as of 2020, a few hundred villages were already participating. But Rabik and his colleagues agree that the first few hundred villages will be the most difficult to recruit and train. Once they are on track and the model has proven itself, the final two-thirds of the villages should fall in line quickly and easily. It’s a bit like the 100th monkey phenomenon. Currently they’re getting the format dialed in and refining their systems.

As they plant thousands and thousands of acres of bamboo, they’re also establishing the industry where farmers can process their raw material and add value. Indobamboo, in partnership with the EBF, is processing the woody grass into engineered bamboo, producing strand-woven and flattened bamboo products. Unlike irregular bamboo poles, these engineered building materials are standardized and suitable for conventional construction.

Further reading

If you’re interested in the 1,000 Bamboo Villages Project and want to know more about bamboo projects around the world, take a look at some of theme other popular articles.