What bamboo forests do for nature and human well-being

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Kiran Paudyal is an ecosystems services specialist at Forest Action Nepal. Chun Bahadur Gurung, is a development communication specialist and Ph.D. candidate at Tribhuvan University in Nepal.

Bamboo, which belongs to the grass family, is one of the fastest growing species of the plant kingdom. Its herculean attributes are not at first obvious when encountered in the forest. Although its hollow stems that bend in the wind may make it appear weak, its provision of a wide variety of ecosystem services — defined as “the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being,” makes this an invaluable plant.

Found in tropical and alpine climatic zones of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, scientists have so far recorded more than 1,600 bamboo species, which combined cover more than 31 million hectares of land.

With myriad potential uses, bamboo is an essential material for people living in poverty in developing countries. It is widely used as a raw material in industry, in handicrafts, its fibers are used to weave clothes and make paper, and its shoots and sprouts are used for food.

It may be no surprise then, that bamboo features heavily in cultural traditions. In Indonesia, it is used in ceremonies and in the construction of such instruments as the Balinese rindik. In China, its symbolism of modest character and longevity is heralded; in rural Nepal, babies sleep in beautiful bamboo cradles and the dead are buried in bamboo coffins.

From floods to good fortune in Nepal

Nepal – a landlocked country – is blessed with bamboo diversity. The country has more than 53 species covering an estimated area of 63,000 hectares of land.

Nepal has a tale to tell, a story of 70 households from Gauringar village, Chitwan, in the center of the country. In 2010, incessant rain caused flash floods. Homes and buildings near the Rui river in Gauringar were destroyed. When the river banks were washed away, tons of silt and sand flooded the land, rendering it infertile.

The resilient residents worked hard to reverse their fortunes: in their efforts, they planted 10,000 native bamboo seedlings. In less than a decade, the flood-ravaged land turned into a beautiful bamboo forest. Some 700 hectares of land were rehabilitated, allowing local communities to enjoy bamboo shoots for food and all of the benefits the bamboo forest provides. The new forest has even become instrumental in mitigating human-wildlife conflict, as Gauringar sits in the buffer zone of Chitwan National Park, home to the rhino, sloth bear, tiger, elephant, wild boar and leopard.

Bamboo for water and energy in Indonesia

Across the Indonesian archipelago, bamboo can be found in 30 provinces, covering 2.1 million hectares of land. By selling bamboo shoots, a farmer on Java can earn $420–700 per hectare, while others have recognized it for its incredible restoration properties. Scientist Yusuf Samsudin at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) reports how payments for environmental services (PES) have been awarded to communities living up-stream of Mount Batur and its lake in Bali, where the main water source for coastal communities flows. While many trees store around 35 to 40 percent of rainfall, bamboo can store up to 90 percent of rainfall.

Bamboo can provide sustainable supplies of biomass for energy production without compromising food security or unduly affecting the wider landscape. One of CIFOR’s partners Clean Power Indonesia successfully developed a community-based power plant that uses biomass from bamboo in rural Indonesia. CIFOR Senior Scientist Himlal Baral says that CIFOR and partners are currently looking for opportunities to scale this up in several locations in Indonesia.

Untapped green good in Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, two main bamboo species (Arundinaria alpine and Oxytenanthera abyssinica) grow naturally in six regions on a million hectares of land, making up 8.2 percent of the total forest area of the country.

However, bamboo was close to extinction in natural forests due to agriculture-related deforestation and forest degradation, and demand for fuelwood and timber in the villages. In the 1990s, more than 100 innovative smallholders planted savanna bamboo within agroforestry systems using a rhizome offset method from the natural forest, developing bamboo forests in the villages for multiple benefits.

Although bamboo coverage has been high in Ethiopia in recent years, uses have been traditional, and its full export market potential has yet to be realized.

Because bamboo is a fast-growing species and adapts to harsh environments, people in Ethiopia are likely to pay more attention to it for rehabilitating degraded areas.

The missing link – an ecosystem services framework built from bamboo

According to Sisay Nune et al. (2013) the capacity to provide regulating services such as soil conservation, environmental rehabilitation and carbon sequestration of forestland and other forest types, were assumed to be 99 and 93 percent respectively as compared with bare land. Thanks to a complex network of rhizome-root systems underground.

A recent study has shown that the ecosystem services a bambooforest can provide support natural, plantations, grasslands, and farmlands. Additionally, bamboo forests have proven more effective in slope stabilization and soil erosion control compared to other land use practices such as forests and grasslands.

It has an incredible ability to restore land, making it an important contributor in reaching such global restoration agreements as the Bonn Challenge and the New York Declaration on Forests. Experts engaged in bamboo research agree that a good framework is key to improve assessment of bamboo ecosystem services and to further strengthen bamboo forests for landscape restoration globally. During this research, the experts agreed that the lack of an appropriate framework, tools and methods means that the true ecosystem services of bamboo forests have not been properly assessed.

The best ecosystem service assessment framework accounts for the significance of bamboo forests to people and policymakers. Recently, Kiran Paudyal et al. (2019) designed a framework and tested it in Nepal, Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Contributions received from local communities and government further refined it, which facilitates limited resources while offering new opportunities to connect bamboo forests with ecosystem service markets from local to global scales such as PES including payment for carbon through REDD+ programs. The recently developed framework can now be replicated in other parts of the world.

Scientists are deeply concerned that the benefits of bamboo often go unnoticed. In view of the plant’s important but under-appreciated benefits, Paudyal, a bamboo expert said: “Bamboo recharges groundwater and it significantly absorbs carbon, but it is hardly acknowledged.”

An ecosystem framework can help significantly in the promotion of bamboo forests through effective management. Case studies conducted in three countries with different contexts confirmed that bamboo forests become increasingly important, and the study also validates that bamboo’s benefits have been found quite common globally.

Bamboo forests in different countries and context, have proven to be the best option for both landscape restoration and the supply of various ecosystem services. These forests supply more ecosystem services than any other type of planted forests. Restoration of degraded and abandoned land with bamboo could be an effective solution to cope with poverty, hunger and climate change in many parts of the world especially in developing countries.

This research was funded by CIFOR as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR), China.

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