Booming bamboo: The next super-material?

Bamboo used in construction

Bamboo is being hailed as a new super material, with uses ranging from textiles to construction. It also has the potential to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, the biggest greenhouse gas, and provide some of the world's poorest people with cash.

Bamboo's image is undergoing a transformation. Some now call it "the timber of the 21st Century".

Today you can buy a pair of bamboo socks or use it as a fully load-bearing structural beam in your house - and it is said that there are some 1,500 uses for it in between.

There is a rapidly growing recognition of the ways in which bamboo can serve us as consumers and also help to save the planet from the effects of climate change because of its unrivalled capacity to capture carbon.

"From the field and the forest to the factory and the merchant, from the design studio to the laboratory, from the universities to those in political power, people are more and more aware of this potentially renewable resource," says Michael Abadie, who took up the presidency of the World Bamboo Organisation last year.

"In the last decade, bamboo has become a major economic crop," Abadie continues.

Find out more

  • Mike Wooldridge reports on Green Gold: the Bamboo Boom on Tuesday 3 April at 20:00 BST on Radio 4
  • Listen again on iPlayer (UK only) via the link

New technologies and ways of industrially processing bamboo have made a big difference, enabling it to begin to compete effectively with wood products for Western markets.

It is estimated that the world bamboo market stands at around $10bn (£6.24bn) today, and the World Bamboo Organisation says it could double in five years.

The developing world is now embracing this potential growth.

In eastern Nicaragua, bamboo was until recently regarded by most of the local population as valueless - more as a nuisance to be cleared than a boon to them and their region.

But on land that was once under dense forest cover, then turned over to slash-and-burn agriculture and ranching, new bamboo plantations are rising.

Rio Kama plantation

"You can see the little holes where the bamboo has been planted. At this moment the bamboo is like the young girl with the pimples that has not overcome puberty," says Nicaraguan John Vogel, who runs the local operations of a British-based enterprise investing in bamboo.

This is the world's fastest growing plant, ready to be harvested annually and sustainably after four to five years in contrast to the typical tropical hardwood that takes many years longer to mature and can be harvested only once.

"This was once a tropical jungle full of trees through which you could not see the sunlight," Vogel says.

"But the egotism of man and short-sightedness made people believe that by depleting all this it would mean a quick income and they did not need to worry about tomorrow."

Fast-growing grass

Young bamboo plants
  • Bamboo is a perennial evergreen from the Poaceae grass family - it can grow up to 1m per day and reach its full height in a single season
  • China produces about 80% of the world's bamboo - it is estimated that up to 1.5bn people globally rely on bamboo-like plants for their livelihoods
  • Bamboo's rugged fibres can be cooked and made into a viscose solution before being turned into a weaving material
  • It can also provide energy - a bamboo-chip biomass power plant is working in the Philippines
  • There are as yet no international laws governing sustainability of bamboo plantations

Vogel is passionate about bamboo and the opportunities he believes it offers his country, as it tries to put behind it a past of civil war and political turbulence and a present of widespread poverty.

China has long been the big bamboo producer and has capitalised successfully on the growing demand for bamboo products.

But from this part of Nicaragua it is a short passage across the Caribbean for processed bamboo to the potentially huge market in the United States.

The investment in bamboo is having a positive effect on local plantation workers, providing paid employment for people, including women, many of whom were previously jobless, or for men who once had to travel to Costa Rica to find work.

Some of it is seasonal work and there is clearly a risk of over-high expectations.

It is an innovative combination of capitalism and conservation that has got the project under way at the Rio Kama plantation - the world's first Bamboo Bond, devised by British company EcoPlanet Bamboo.

For those who have purchased the biggest $50,000 (£31,000) bonds it promises a return of 500% on their investment, stretched over 15 years.

But lower priced bonds were offered as well, to bring smaller investors into this kind of project.

Should the potential earnings from bamboo become sufficiently alluring, there is the obvious risk for any smaller nation of a pendulum swing to over-dependence on it. A monoculture could develop.

Bamboo baskets and shoots on sale Bamboo can also be woven, and young shoots can be eaten

In Nicaragua's case, the government says its aim for its economy is very much in the opposite direction - diversification.

There are practical risks for the bamboo plants, too - such as flooding and pest damage.

By no means all green hopes have been fulfilled.

And for investors there are, of course, political risks associated with the producer countries.

But local producers say there are too many misconceptions about Nicaragua - and they insist that they have taken adequate measures to protect investors' interests.

There is long way to go before the grasses now being nurtured in Nicaragua - for technically bamboo is a member of the grass family - can safely be described as the timber of the 21st Century - and the key plank in a more sustainable future for forestry and therefore for the world.

But, for now at least, bamboo is definitely booming.

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