Developments in the bamboo industry

3 October 2012 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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by Dr. N.YOGARATNAM
A UNIDO-GOSL-GEF initiative on ‘Bamboo Processing for Sri Lanka’, was initiated recently. This project aims at developing a bamboo supply chain and process industry in the country, initially covering an extent of 10,000 ha, by year 2018. It remains as the first project of this nature on this very useful and traditional but neglected crop in the country.

This initiative involves a budget of $24 Mn (Rs 3.1 Bn) spread over a period of 7 years. About 10000 Ha area of bamboo cultivation is envisaged, focusing on degraded lands. This is expected to develop a new industrial bamboo sector in Sri Lanka to make it internationally competitive and also to be a provider for food, flooring, and alternative biomass energy, among others. The targeted beneficiaries are rural households which harvest bamboo from the countryside and river banks. More importantly, it is believed that bamboo can give livelihood at village levels by direct and indirect employment, and also act as feedstock for biomass—in that, it can also be able to address fuel wood demand for the domestic and industrial sectors which has shown a steady increase during the last few years.

In Sri Lanka, about 14 varieties of bamboo are grown in the country across all climatic zones, including in the arid areas. Kalutara has the highest bamboo growth. Currently, bamboo cultivation is done in the country on informal basis in small scale, except the cultivations under the Riverine Bamboo Project of Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka Forestry Master Plan of 1995 identified that protection of bamboos of the country ‘to be a priority.’

Sri Lanka’s current bamboo cultivation could be valued at Rs 220 million (US $ 1.99 million) with an estimated land extent of 5166 ha of which 2500 ha are grown by the Mahaweli Authority. This project, therefore, reinforces the opportunity to develop bamboo industry in Sri Lanka.


Indian industry
India has huge natural bamboo stocks that have been an integral part of Indian culture for many millennia. Bamboo in many ways is the mainstay of the rural Indian economy, sparking considerable social and ecological spin-offs. In the early part of the century, large tracts of bamboo occurred in many parts of the country but were treated by forestry sector (which was then cast in a production forestry mode) as a weed of little economic value and were used mostly by the rural communities for crafts, making implements and as housing material.

 It was the discovery of bamboo as a source of long-fibre by the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun that started the process of using bamboo in a variety of industrial applications, so far unexplored, with several paper mills and rayon mills being set up. But in the absence of a clear policy of husbanding of the resource there was rapid degradation and decimation of the resource in much of the country. Bamboo resources plummeted so alarmingly that at present the resource is limited to few pockets in the country. Two-thirds of the bamboo in the country is restricted to the North-Eastern Region (NER) while the remaining one-third is spread across the country.
But there is a possibility for the resurgence of bamboo, and this is based on evidence of significant new and contemporary economic opportunities that have emerged over the past decade. A bamboo revolution that holds the potential of reversing economic downturns and ensuring profitability, is very much possible.  Bamboo is an untapped avenue of economic growth and a burgeoning bamboo sector can rope in prosperity, profits, and sustainable livelihoods.

 Despite the severe degradation of the resource in the past, India still has a considerable growing stock of bamboo, and comparative annual harvest still place India at the top of the global league. They are beginning to realize the considerable latent potential that bamboo has to contribute to economic growth, poverty alleviation, generating employment, rehabilitating vast tracts of degraded land generated due to past agricultural and industrial practices and policies, and revitalizing the social, economic and ecological well-being of rural economies.

Efforts are also being made to increase the economic opportunity from the use of bamboo as an industrial raw material, to raise employment opportunities (especially for the educated and unemployed rural youth), and to rehabilitate the degraded lands across the country (making available and productive a natural resource which is increasingly becoming scarce and expensive).


Vietnam’s bamboo
Many Vietnamese people’s experience of bamboo products was limited to sitting on bamboo furniture and matting, using bamboo baskets or using bamboo chopsticks to eat some bamboo shoots. The last 15 to 20 years has, however, seen a dramatic growth in the variety of commercial bamboo products such as flooring, laminated furniture, building panels (similar to timber-based plywood, chipboard or MDF), high quality yarn and fabrics, activated carbon and bamboo extracts. The emergence of bamboo as a timber substitute has coincided with a growing demand for timber. Bamboo’s appearance, strength and hardness combined with its rapid growth cycle and capacity for sustainable harvesting make it an increasingly attractive wood substitute. The market outlook for bamboo appears to be strong in Vietnam.
These recent developments have created new opportunities for bamboo markets to be targeted for rural development and poverty reduction. In particular, the emergence of near-source value-adding in modern supply chains increases the sector’s potential economic impact on poor rural communities. A recent feasibility study shows that in Vietnam today, every ton of bamboo used for producing bamboo flooring has almost 5 times the pro-poor financial impact than if it were used to make paper.


 Sub-sectors
 The sector can be grouped into three stand-alone sub-sectors:

Handicrafts: characterized by manual processing and extremely high value-adding to relatively small volumes of raw bamboo.
Bamboo shoots: a high-value agricultural food crop that can also be grown in parallel with the production of culms.
Industrial processing: semi-mechanized and mechanized processing of large volumes of bamboo culms. The industrial processing sub-sector offers many opportunities for major growth and pro-poor impacts on rural farming communities. Industrial processing can be further divided according to the value of the processing and the grade of material used:
  •     Low value and bulk processing (eg. charcoal, paper & pulp)
  •     Premium processing (eg. flooring, laminated furniture)
  •     Medium value processing (eg. chopsticks, mat boards)
  •    Unprocessed culms (eg. scaffolding and traditional construction)
Premium processing requires the highest value parts of the bamboo, typically the middle lower part of large culms. Lower value products can be made with upper and residue parts. So modern bamboo supply chains now comprise different businesses producing a variety of products, with premium bamboo parts going for high value uses such as flooring, laminated furniture, mid quality parts going to medium value-added processing such as blinds, mats, and chopsticks, and the leftover or residue parts, such as the use of sawdust in paper, charcoal or chipboard.



 Pre-processing
The revolution in the industrial bamboo sub-sector began in China several years ago when it was forced to innovate in response to scarce timber resources. Previously, factories would purchase whole culms for production and were forced to deal with mountains of culm residue and waste. This led ultimately to technical and supply chain innovations which produced the critical supply chain step of pre-processing. At, or near-source, pre-processing workshops with specialized but simple machinery separate bamboo culms into various parts and direct these parts into different supply chains. This creates industry-wide efficiency and greater value-adding at the local level.

The revolution in industrial bamboo practices permitted transportation and waste handling savings, the potential for 100% utilization rates and zero wastes, in short, resulting in a model for achieving maximum resource utility. Business, research institutes and government all contributed to the technology development driving this innovation.

The new premium processing industries generate the highest rates of pro-poor development of all the industrial bamboo processing industries. However, they cannot exist in isolation and must operate within a diversified industry for maximum industry-wide value and value creation.



China’s bamboo industry
China’s flourishing bamboo industry is becoming one of the prime sectors in the country’s forestry industry and also a key in the country’s efforts to establish a low-carbon economy. With 5.38 million hectares of bamboo plantations and an annual increase of 100,000 hectares, China is leading the world’s bamboo industry in its number of varieties, amount of bamboo reserves, as well as production output, said Jiang Zehui, co-chair of the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR)’s board of trustees.

The Chinese government is also working to develop its bamboo industry to meet its goals in environmental protection and green economic development, as planting bamboo is both profitable and environmentally-friendly. It has been suggested that bamboo was proven environmentally-friendly since it draws in carbon dioxide and gives off oxygen as it grows, and grown bamboo can capture and hold more carbon dioxide than equivalent plantation trees.
To promote the development of the bamboo industry, China has encouraged technological innovations. Nearly 200 patents have been applied to develop more uses of bamboo, which has greatly assisted in the development of the industry.

Also, new processing techniques have led to a variety of new bamboo products, such as raw bamboo, daily-used goods, artifacts, plates, and bamboo charcoal, which are widely used in different sectors ranging from construction, packaging, transportation, medicine to tourism.
A further opening up of the international market also helped to boost the industry. Health-care products and artificial plates made of bamboo were well received in Southeast Asia, Europe and America.

(The writer can be contacted at treecrops@gmail.com)
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