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Africa, Deforestation, and the Benefits of Bamboo

March 14, 2012

Article extracted from The New York Times – Link to original article

In Africa’s Vanishing Forests, the Benefits of Bamboo

By TINA ROSENBERG

In the district of Asosa, the land is thick with bamboo. People plant it and manage the forests. They rely on its soil-grabbing roots to stabilize steep slopes and riverbanks, cutting erosion. They harvest it to burn for fuel, to make into charcoal sticks to sell to city dwellers and to build furniture.

Asosa is not in China, not even in Asia. It is a district in the west of Ethiopia, on the Sudanese border. To many people, bamboo means China. But it’s not just panda food — mountain gorillas in Rwanda also live on bamboo. About 4 percent of Africa’s forest cover is bamboo.

Soon it may be much more. Bamboo may provide a solution to a very serious problem: deforestation. In sub-Saharan Africa, 70 percent of the people cook their meals over wood fires. The very poorest cut down trees for cooking fuel; those slightly less poor buy charcoal made from wood in those same forests. Every year Africa loses forest cover equal to the size of Switzerland. Terence Sunderland, a senior scientist at the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, said that in southern Africa, even trees that can be used for fine carving, such as ebony and rosewood, are being cut down and made into charcoal.

Deforestation starts a vicious circle of drought and environmental decline. Burning wood releases the carbon stored inside. And deforestation accounts for at least a fifth of all carbon emissions globally. As tree cover vanishes, the land dries out and the soil erodes and becomes barren — a major reason for Ethiopia’s periodic famines.

Reliance on hardwood fuel poses more present dangers as well. It’s a woman’s job to collect firewood, and when trees are scarce, women must walk farther and farther to find it, an often dangerous journey.

Much cooking, moreover, is done indoors. The resulting air pollution kills some two million people a year. Almost half the deaths are from pneumonia in children under 5. Bamboo and charcoal made from bamboo burn more efficiently and cleanly than wood and wood charcoal

Sunderland is talking to several southern African governments about bamboo. Farther north, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, a membership organization of 38 countries based in Beijing, is providing technical support for growing and using bamboo in Ghana and Ethiopia.

How does bamboo improve on hardwood? Cut down a hardwood tree and it’s gone. It will take several decades for another to grow in its place; it can take a century for a forest to grow back after cutting. But bamboo is a grass, not a tree. Under the right conditions, it can grow a full meter a day — you can literally watch it grow. It is also fast maturing. A new bamboo plant is mature enough to harvest after three to six years, depending on the species. Most important, bamboo is renewable. Unlike hardwood trees, bamboo regrows after harvesting, just as grass regrows after cutting. After it is mature, bamboo can be harvested every single year for the life of the plant.

Bamboo has other advantages. Its roots grab onto soil and hold it fast. Plant bamboo on a steep slope or riverbank and it prevents mudslides and erosion. And bamboo is parsimonious with Africa’s most precious resource: water.

“In Africa you want everything,” said Dr. Chin Ong, a retired professor of environmental science at the University of Nottingham in England, who was formerly a senior scientist at the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi. “You want firewood, you want to reduce erosion, to maintain the water supply, generate cash and employment. Bamboo comes the closest — it gives you the most things.”

The need for firewood is now critical in Ethiopia; trees covered 35 percent of the country a century ago; by 2000 they covered just 3 percent. Ethiopia is trying to reverse deforestation by planting trees, and it lags behind only China and India in sheer numbers — in 2007 alone the country planted 700 million trees. But even a huge, continuing campaign may not be enough to reverse deforestation. It has been a problem wherever people settled in Ethiopia. The country’s capital had to be moved five times since the first century B.C., because any concentration of people quickly ran out of firewood. In the 1890s the problem was solved by importing eucalyptus from Australia — a tree that, like bamboo, is renewable. The first plantations were around Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s new capital, which at times has gone by the name Eucalyptopolis.

But while eucalyptus trees provide a renewable source of wood, they starve other trees and plants of water, and rob water from rivers and reservoirs. They gobble so much water that they are sometimes planted for the purpose of draining swamps. By 1913, the government issued a proclamation ordering the destruction of all eucalyptus trees. It was ignored.

In the last five years or so, Ong said, Ethiopia has realized that bamboo is a more profitable and greener solution. INBAR’s program is a four-year project financed by the European Commission and the Common Fund for Commodities, a United Nations organization. The technology comes from China. The project provides bamboo seedlings and trains people to manage bamboo plantations. It teaches villagers to build kilns to make charcoal, which they can sell to city dwellers (rural people in Ethiopia and Ghana can’t afford charcoal. They burn wood. ) The program also promotes bamboo as fuel, and has helped village women to set up businesses making and selling a stove with a closed chamber that uses half the fuel of an open fire. In Ethiopia, the stove, locally made of iron and clay, costs only $3.

Coosje Hoogendoorn, INBAR’s director-general, said that while people in Ghana are slower to embrace bamboo because they can still find firewood, Ethiopians need no convincing — there are hardly any trees left to cut down.

Bamboo is not the perfect plant. Although the kinds of bamboo that grow in Africa are not invasive — some varieties that grow in cooler climates are — it can be very difficult to get rid of the networks of roots when the plant is no longer wanted. While bamboo can tolerate dry conditions, like any plant it will grow more slowly with less water, and it cannot grow in desert climates — exactly where it is needed most. And most bamboo is hollow, which means it burns more quickly than hardwood. Fortunately, bamboo that grows in Africa’s lowlands is one of the few solid bamboo species.

Because bamboo requires few nutrients, it can grow in soil inhospitable to other plants — not only does it thrive there, it can reclaim the land so other plants can thrive, too. Its roots leach heavy metals from the soil, hold the soil together and draw water closer to the surface. One example is a project in Allahabad, India, to reclaim land whose topsoil had been depleted by the brick industry. In 1996, an INBAR project planted the land with bamboo. Five years later, villagers could farm the land again. Dust storms — a local scourge — were greatly reduced. The bamboo also helped raise the water table by seven meters. In 2007, the project won the global Alcan Prize for Sustainability.

Charcoal, of course, is not the only thing that can be made of bamboo. Its tensile strength makes it a good construction material, and it is also used for furniture, flooring and textiles, among other things. Paradoxically, harvesting bamboo to make durable goods is greener than not harvesting bamboo. Here’s why: bamboo culms — the poles — do not live as long as hardwood trees, usually up to a decade. When an old culm decays, it releases carbon into the atmosphere. (The root system, which hold 30 to 40 percent of its carbon, last much longer.) This means that an untouched bamboo forest is a poor carbon sink. Fortunately, the best way to turn bamboo into an excellent carbon sink is to make money with it — harvest the bamboo to make durable products before it starts its decay. Treated bamboo flooring or furniture will last as long as wood, storing its carbon the whole time.

In some ways, the challenge in Africa is not to introduce bamboo, but to persuade people and governments that it has commercial uses. “We’ve taken policymakers from Africa to China and India where bamboo used in everyday life — and there’s still very poor adoption,” said Ong. In some countries, for example, Kenya, making charcoal is illegal — a well-intentioned ban that seeks to prevent deforestation, but one that is impractical as long as people need to find their own cooking fuel. “It is not effective to ban charcoal production,” said Jolanda Jonkhart, the director of trade and development programs at INBAR. “It is more effective to promote charcoal production with renewable biomass sources such as bamboo.”

Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and now a contributing writer for the paper’s Sunday magazine. Her new book is “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 14, 2012 10:08:04 pm

    Cheers for that article, we are researching bamboo and its use in sustainable landscape design at the moment. Very interesting article especially the bit about eucalyptus. Apart from all of the negatives that you have already listed, the eucalyptus plantations are subject to regular aerial spraying which tends to drift and contaminate other crops and affects people living near the plantations. Bamboo is a fantastic alternative and again, cheers for this article.

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