Bamboo for Plantations




Bamboo has a promising future in a world where environmental enhancement and forest protection have become priority concerns.


Bamboo is the fastest growing wood resource on earth and it is a viable substitute for timber and tropical hardwoods. There is a great industrial demand for it and interest in bamboo production is increasing throughout Asia, Africa, and America.


The global demand for bamboo is however already growing faster than supply can allow. The need for man-made bamboo plantations opens great possibilities for business in the agricultural and forestry sectors.


From time immemorial bamboo has proven to be a reliable material with numerous practical applications. In the 21st century it will be an increasingly valuable commodity that will be cultivated and industrially processed. We can therefore expect to find more bamboo products on the market and more bamboo materials and furniture in our homes.


Bamboo: the woody grass


Although most bamboos are woody plants, they technically belong to the gramineae family that is comprised of 75 genera and 1250 species of bamboo. Bamboos range from herbaceous varieties that are about 20 cm tall to giant tropical varieties reaching 30 metres in height and 30 cm in diameter near the base. The diversity of bamboo species makes it adaptable to many environments. They inhabit tropical and subtropical areas, with a few varieties reaching into temperate areas.

The growth of bamboo is very different from trees which have a central growing axis with secondary growth and thickening. Bamboo poles or culms emerge from a network of underground rhizomes and have no secondary growth, i.e., they do not increase in diameter and become thicker with age. The growth of the plant from youth to maturity shows a pattern of new shoots developing with increasing culm diameter and height. New culms emerge from the rhizome system and they usually attain their full height in 3 to 4 months.


Rapid Growth and High Yield


Bamboo is a self-regenerating natural resource. When bamboo culms are harvested, new shoots emerge and replace them in a matter of months. Compared to trees that can only be harvested in rotations of several years, bamboo can be harvested annually. The rapid growth of bamboo means more harvests to ensure sustainable supplies.

Depending on the species, bamboo plantations can remain productive for more than 50 years. Harvesting in new bamboo plantations usually begins after 5 to 7 years. Harvesting can be accomplished with low cost equipment; a machete or hacksaw is usually all that is needed. Harvesting systems range from manually harvesting 3 year old culms to semi-mechanical harvesting methods.


In a bamboo plantation, biomass can be sustained to maintain a green environment while maximizing the yield of raw material per hectare. A bamboo plantation of 1000 hectares can provide about 30,000 tons of wood resources, and thus renders unnecessary the cutting of over 50 thousand hardwood trees per year. This means an increase in total output and greater cost efficiency while enhancing the environment.


Traditional and Industrial Uses of Bamboo


Bamboo is a versatile material. Each species has its own set of physical, chemical, and mechanical properties that are ideally suited for specific end-uses. Bamboo species with (1) high cellulose content, (2) long fibres, (3) low lignin, silica, and extractive contents, (4) vigorous growth and maximum biomass production, and which are (5) easy to chip, are ideal for pulp production. Such species include Bambusa arundinacea, Dendrocalamus strictus, B. vulgaris, B. tulda, D. hamiltonii, D. longispathus, and Melocanna baccifera. These species can effectively be used as a principal raw material for the production of paper and rayon pulp. Other species, for instance,

Dendrocalamus asper, produce excellent wood as well as juicy and delicious shoots.


1700 years ago, the Chinese invented a process of making paper from bamboo. To this day, paper pulp remains a main bamboo product, with millions of tons of bamboo used annually for that specific purpose. Some species of long fibre bamboos have also traditionally been used for rope making.


Bamboo has also been traditionally used for housing, bridges, scaffolding, woven mats, and handicrafts. It is still used for low cost housing, and it has proven to be highly effective as a flexible reinforcement of mud/clay walls capable of withstanding higher earthquake intensities than any other building material.


From an industrial perspective, bamboo is fascinating because it is a strong flexible material with a host of modern construction applications. The density of bamboo is comparable to hardwood, and its fibrous tensile strength outmatches steel.


New ways of processing bamboo fibre into products are being developed to meet modern building standards. More technologically advanced applications, include veneer and bamboo plywood, medium density fibreboard (MDF), bamboo reinforced concrete, laminated bamboo lumber (LBL), oriented strand board (OSB) made from bamboo, and bamboo-reinforced OSB beams.

Bamboo veneer and plywood are used more and more for housing and furniture material. Bamboo parquet is another major product with great prospects since it offers an aesthetic and ecological substitute to tropical hardwoods. Due to their strength, bamboo particleboards and fibreboards are interesting too, and they are commonly used for applications such as container flooring.


Young bamboo shoots are a delicious source of high fibre food. A high demand for fresh bamboo shoots is found in Asian cuisine. Bamboo is a nutritious fodder plant too. Though it is well known to be the main fare of Pandas, it is also consumed by cattle and livestock.


The Bamboo Market


The market for bamboo is enormous and it is rapidly growing. The spread of environmental awareness coupled with stricter regulations governing the exploitation of timber resources underlie the development of the bamboo market. Bamboo is demanded more than ever before because it is at once a good timber substitute and a rainforest saver. Europe and USA import vast quantities of bamboo products from Asia, including items such as toothpicks, sate sticks, brooms, poles for viniculture and arboriculture, small bamboo sticks for the production of Azalea, Begonia and tomatoes. Products with greater added value such as bamboo parquet, bamboo laminated lumber, paper, textiles, finely crafted furniture, handicraft items and other construction industry products have gradually made their entrance in international retail markets. In the food industry, young bamboo shoots constitute a multimillion-dollar business. Bamboo shoots are produced for export in China, Thailand and Taiwan. They are sold fresh and tinned, sometimes in combination with sauces or spicy foods.


Resource Development


The development of bamboo industries requires adequate and regular supplies of raw material. Sustainable bamboo management is needed to guarantee the resources for future production. So far, the main source of raw material for industrial applications are natural bamboo forests that are, in most cases, not managed at all. Natural forests normally yield between 2 to 6 tons of heterogeneous bamboo per hectare, which is only about 20% of the yield of a well-managed bamboo plantation.


The absence of sustainable bamboo management prevails throughout the tropics. This is evident in the indiscriminate harvesting methods ordinarily employed in tropical bamboo forests. Harvesting is commonly achieved by clear-felling all species of bamboo in a heterogeneous forest area. This practice is not ecological and wasteful because a large amount of bamboo that is harvested is not put to its best use. The erroneous practice of clear-felling also involves chopping the whole bamboo clump, including young culms and shoots which are, in fact, the base of enduring resources. Usually, the whole clump, consisting of culms of different ages, is only of partial value for an intended application. For handicraft making, for instance, one to two year old culms are ideal; however, clear felling is often employed and thus older culms of minor value to that application are not used efficiently. When bamboo is intended for specific industries, sustainable management is therefore essential to avoid unnecessary waste and prevent environmental damage.


Mixed natural forests with bamboo are however not easy to manage. Whilst the management of bamboo resources can be achieved by means of selective harvesting, in practice this requires more time and effort than clear felling. Management undoubtedly implies extra costs. But the cost factor is very relative considering that excessive pressure on bamboo forests is having detrimental effects which range from forest degradation to material shortages for some industries.


Due to a lack of bamboo forest management, countries like India and Bangladesh needs to plant millions of hectares to cover industrial demand, mainly by the pulp and paper industry. The main reason for this is the indiscriminate felling of bamboo which is unaccompanied by appropriate and necessary reforestation. China is experiencing a similar problem due to the over-exploitation of its bamboo resources. Some factories of bamboo products in various parts of Asia have shut down due to inadequate supplies of the basic raw materials in the proximity of the production area.


The solution to the problem lies in setting up efficiently managed bamboo plantations. A great advantage of bamboo is that it can grow in a wide variety of climates and soils, both in lowland and highland areas. Setting up new plantations is therefore feasible in many areas.

Bamboo Plantations


The yield of bamboo forests is extremely low compared to well-managed bamboo plantations. Managed plantations can yield many times more bamboo than heterogeneous forest environments. The average yield of bamboo in tropical forests is about 4 tonnes per hectare per year. In the same countries plantations have an annual yield ranging from 20 to 36 tonnes per hectare. Bamboo production can be greatly increased when a systematic silvicultural approach is applied. But this is seldom the case throughout the tropical regions where bamboo thrives. When planting with our superior clones’ yields can be further enhanced to between 40 and 60 tonnes.


Well-managed bamboo plantations can ensure a regular and sustainable supply of homogenous products that are suitable for specific end uses. Good management implies planting the species of bamboo with the desired characteristics. The numerous alternatives in the use of bamboo depend on the unique properties of its culm. The choice of the right species with the anatomical, chemical, mechanical properties is an important first step in setting up a plantation. Once the plantation is set up the best results will be achieved by monitoring soil and humidity, weeding and clearing, and selective harvesting of culms and shoots.


The Business of Growing Bamboo


Bamboo is the wood of the future. The increasing demand for raw material by developing bamboo industries is a sign that money can be made from growing bamboo.


The cost of setting up a new plantation undoubtedly depends on inputs such as labour, land preparation, fertiliser, irrigation, and plants. Costs are therefore similar to those incurred in timber forestation projects. The big difference is that the payback period of a bamboo plantation is much shorter than that of a timber forest. Investments can be fully recovered within 10 years. The reason for this is that profits are generated faster with bamboo than with wood. A bamboo plantation becomes profitable after five years. In addition, for the same initial investment, profits can be made over a longer period of time.


One only needs to consider that mature bamboo clumps can be annually harvested. Moreover, bamboo only needs to be planted once and it can be selectively harvested for over 50 years. With timber, replanting usually has to be done after every rotation. Some fast growing trees like eucalypts can be harvested 3 to 5 times in a period of 15 to 20 years. Their fast growth usually has a heavy toll on the environment since they have a high water uptake. Bamboo on the other hand uses ground water very efficiently. So not only is bamboo more economical than eucalypts and trees, it is also more ecological.


Another very important point is that the high biomass production of bamboo makes it extremely efficient as a source of pulp. Up to seven times more pulp can be produced per hectare of bamboo compared to softwoods. This means that a significantly higher turnover can be made from bamboo than from even the fastest growing softwoods.


The overall yield and profitability of bamboo plantations can be increased by means of intercropping with timber (e.g., teak). Intercropping with other fast growing cash crops (e.g., corn, maize, tea, etc.) can also be interesting, especially as an incentive for plantation caretakers.


This makes bamboo an interesting crop for rural people as well as industrialists with large estates. A small plantation of one hectare can provide work and income for a whole family. Medium sized plantations of several hundred hectares could provide sufficient bamboo for local cottage industries and furniture makers. Larger plantations of several thousand hectares can indefinitely supply high quality raw material to a pulp mill or plywood factory. In general, bamboo provides a good investment opportunity for anyone with an interest in the agricultural and forestry sectors. So long as there is a demand for wood, bamboo farming will prove to be a lucrative business.

For additional info also read Agroforestry World Blog: - Could bamboo be the bioenergy of the future? - by Kate Langford.