What’s so fascinating about bamboo?

Well, just about everything! We take a look at the sheer versatility of bamboo from food, shelter and clothing to medicine.

By | Fri 1 Jun 2018

“Bamboo supports all four basic necessities of life,” said Nimitr Suchronesom, founder of Northern Bamboo Invention and a director of a bamboo research centre in Nakhon Ratchasima, referring to the Buddhist philosophy, which refers to food, shelter, clothing and medicine. Found across many continents including Asia, Africa, Australia, and Central and South America, this versatile giant grass is now finding itself sprouting amongst many sectors of the world’s innovative economies. One of the fastest growing and ubiquitous plants in the world, bamboo can grow up to 30 centimetres per day, and has been interwoven into the fabric of human society for millennia. According to Southwest Forestry College, China, bamboo utilisation in Asia dates back to second millennium BC’s Shang Dynasty, China’s second dynasty, when bamboo was used to make arrows. Today, with over a thousand species found across the world, bamboo is used across a bewildering number of industries and sectors from food to medicine to construction to textile and craft.

“In Thailand, bamboo is mostly found in the central and northern regions,” explained Nimitr. Like our Chinese neighbours, we Thais are also very familiar with bamboo: we cook its shoots and roots in a plethora of ways; weave it’s strips into numerous items for daily life from baskets to mats, use its resilient and durable stems, which are both termite resistant and harder than most hardwoods, in construction materials, furniture making, even vehicle manufacturing; and when in the jungle, we roast our rice in it over a fire. In the south of Thailand, it is even put into the sea to attract baby mussels in mussel farms. It seems as though it is only our imagination which limits our usage of bamboo. “In medical science, they are even eyeing its leaves for its antioxidant compounds,” said Nimitr.

The use of bamboo in construction, though widespread in our part of the world, is beginning to take off in the West, emerging as a popular material used by innovative designers and architects who are finding use and inspiration in its versatility and strength. “In engineering, the pipe is the sturdiest material,” said Markus Roselieb of Chiang Mai Life Construction who is known for his award winning Panyaden International School design which use bamboo as one of its main materials. “And its joints make it twice as strong. So, you’ve got naturally grown pipes with joints, plus the smooth skin, and on top of that it is lightweight, what more can you ask for,” asked Markus. And as it takes only three or four years to be fully grown, bamboo far exceeds hardwoods at reproduction. Another distinctive feature is the flexibility. In 1999, Colombia faced a devastating earthquake which led to nearly 500 deaths, mostly from falling rubble, according to The Guardian. Yet the poor’s bamboo housing mostly withstood the devastation.

“China is probably 30 years ahead of us in innovative utility of bamboo,” said Nimitr. China can now compress and manufacture bamboo laminated boards which architecturally expands its versatility. The Economist reported earlier this year that at a Chinese government’s forum, bamboo strong enough to build storm-drainage pipes and shock-resistant exteriors for bullet-train carriages was introduced.

Environmentally, bamboo can be used to rejuvenate exhausted land. “The extensive rhizomes (cluster of roots) can prevent soil erosion. It is capable of storing a large amount of water, producing more oxygen than many other trees and improving the soil quality of its surrounding area,” explained Nimitr.

Mae Chaem Model Plus, a project initiated in 2016 to rehabilitate and rejuvenate the district’s environment and economy, is implementing the planting of bamboo as an alternative pilot plant for crop farmers.

“With support from the National Farmers Council, we are now forming a community enterprise promoting and distributing bamboo saplings to farmers for free. If you take one sapling, you’ll have to return three, just to motivate farmers to take it more seriously,” said Deacho Chaitup, the project coordinator and the director of Sustainable Development Foundation (Northern Region). “This year’s goal is to cover 2,000 rai. We already have about 300 households participating, covering an area between 500 to 600 rai,” stated Deacho as he explained that the ultimate goal is to implement the project throughout the whole district. “With bamboo, farmers can easily generate 10,000 to 30,000 baht per rai per month from selling bamboo shoots, saplings, stalks and stems, not to mention processed bamboo charcoal,” explained Deacho. Prices for a stalk range from ten to nearly a hundred baht each and the charcoal can be sold at 700 baht per kilo, according to Nimitr. With support from the Bamboo Family Group, a Chiang Mai based network of architects, Mae Chaem has formed a bamboo learning centre to distribute knowledge and know-how to farmers.

“We have always valued the sleek, polished hardwood house more, so much so that we have, as a society, long abandoned the bamboo,” explained Decha Teingkate, founder of Bamboo Family Group. This isn’t just a Thailand issue as The Economist has also revealed that in China, this ‘green gold’ has also become perceived as ‘the poor man’s timber’. “The perception that bamboo construction is not stable is simply due to the lack of understanding that leads to it being improperly used. For example, a bamboo house is invaded by weevils simply because the bamboo used in that house was too young. Like any other resource, you have to understand its limits,” explained Markus.

“Bamboo is a second class plant, good as a starter; it’s grass after all,” said Somsak Thanomseang of Northern Bamboo Invention. “It is very important to know the origin of the bamboo you have in hand as well as its age. You see, bamboo can live as long as a century and when it finally flowers, it’ll die. That’s the thing. No matter how may clumps it spreads or how many plant cuttings you do, all of it will die once the original plant has lived its age,” explained Somsak who later referred to a catastrophe which happened in Prachinburi around 1994 when tens of thousands of bamboos died at once. “But to identify the bamboo is not an easy task as you have a century’s range of age and especially here in Thailand where there is no providence or accumulated knowledge on this matter, ” said Somsak.

“Growing bamboo is not difficult, as it has great endurance and requires no pesticide, but to grow from seed you will have to be patient,” explained Somsak. “There is no guarantee that the bamboo will grow to be like its parent. Let’s say if you have the seed from a straight, fat bamboo, the child might turn out to be a completely different thing. It takes seven to ten years for the bamboo to be fully grown and during that period all you can do is wait and see if it’ll work or not. Normally, only about 10% of the bamboo will grow like its parent,” explained Somsak while walking through his bamboo farm in Phrao where he aims to conduct a proper study of local bamboo which he received as seeds.

“Yes, we are aware of such limitations but it’s the risk we have to take. Otherwise, how long will Mae Chaem’s farmers have to wait to move forward,” said Deacho. “We have an incredible lack of knowledge and resources on this matter. As the poor people’s material, it has been completely overlooked by the government,” said Deacho pointing out a fundamental concern which mirrors other expert opinions interviewed for this article. The knowledge is there, he says, but is scattered amongst a number of groups of academics and entrepreneurs across Thailand, ‘rarely being distributed or implemented’, according to Roselieb.

The legal downside for bamboo is the Forest Plantation Act which has bamboo listed among 58 other ‘woods’ including teak, as a highly regulated plant. To chop, cut down, process, or trade any of the plants listed requires a permit from the forestry authorities, unless grown on a registered land. And that is a real big issue for Mae Chaem. “The agriculture plantation and resident areas in Mae Chaem covers nearly 400,000 rai of land while only about 20,000 rai are properly owned with legitimate title deeds. But with the Thai government, we have to be a little bit strong headed. We are also pushing for the adjustment of the law which has proven to be a frustration for many, not just concerning bamboo,” said Deacho. The fact that officials have complete control as to permission to plant or harvest bamboo on non-registered land leads to lengthy delays and bribery.

“But who knows how long it will take to adjust the act. Meanwhile, we are collecting tangible data and evidence to convince the government of the great potential of bamboo. Bamboo is the spearhead for a longer plan — since Mae Chaem has learned of the great damage which can be caused by monoculture the hard way, it is imperative that this previously rich ecosystem looks to other plants for its future.”

Mae Chaem’s farmers have been through a lot over the past few years with countless investors and initiatives promoting various monoculture crops, especially the corn crop which has left the area barren, resulting in little sustainable income and the degradation of the district’s rich natural forests. “They have suffered greatly from various marketing schemes,” added Deacho, “so they are not easily convinced of all these new agriculture promotions now.”

“There will always be demand for bamboo. Without noticing it, our everyday items are made from bamboo which are mostly imported: we import bamboo incense sticks from Vietnam and bamboo for the popular dessert khao lam from Cambodia along with chopsticks and many other bamboo items. There is no exact data for the number of bamboo farms in Thailand, but it is estimated to be around serveral hundred thousand. Though the vast majority of bamboo is sourced from the wild.”

“We are now negotiating with several businesses to set up a factory in Mae Chaem to reduce logistics costs which is a bit like the chicken and egg scenario. The farmers are hesitant to invest in bamboo, afraid that there will be no market, on the other hand, the investors are concerned that there are not enough suppliers to warrant an investment,” said Daecho who pointed out that this is one of the main obstructions to the advancement of the use of bamboo in Thailand.

“I see bamboo as a future solution to our growing construction needs. You’ll have to mine mountains to get cement for concrete and forests for hardwood, which is also expensive and hard to find. Every material has its limitations but don’t take that as a disadvantage, understand it and take it as an opportunity to grow,” said Decha.

Bamboo can one day become big business, but at this point obscure legal and technical conflicts, lack of knowledge and resources as well as stigma are holding back this potentially great resource.