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Finally, a serious bamboo development plan (Part I)

There are so many opportunities to raise productivity in the countryside, create jobs and reduce poverty which are just waiting to be exploited. One such resource which remains under-rated and undervalued is the ubiquitous bamboo.

The Board of Investments (BOI) recently published a bamboo industry development road map which could just be the impetus needed to jump start the process.

Bamboo grows well all over the country and like the coconut adorns the rural landscape. Many an Amorsolo painting feature the graceful bamboo in the background. The bamboo plant which is actually a grass species symbolizes longevity, harmony and tranquility. It is appreciated for its durability, strength, flexibility and resilience.

The bamboo has myriad uses: Traditionally for light construction, for furniture and handicrafts, as outriggers for bancas of small fishermen, as fuelwood, as a prized vegetable (bamboo shoots), and more recently as props for bananas and as posts for fish cages and pens (aquaculture). Prospectively, bamboos can be grown as industrial source of paper and pulp, textile, activated charcoal, engineered bamboo and of chips/pellets to replace coal and diesel to run machines and generators (renewable energy source).

Although shallow-rooted bamboo has extensive, matted root systems which has great capacity to protect soil from erosion. It is suitable for rehabilitating degraded watersheds and protecting river banks.

Moreover, bamboo reportedly sequesters 400 percent more carbon dioxide and generates up to 35 percent more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees which traits are favorable as far as climate change is concerned.

Globally, the bamboo industry was worth US$11.21 billion in 2009. The Philippines was ranked as fifth exporter with US$54 million.

The exact contribution of the bamboo industry to the gross domestic product (GDP) is difficult to estimate because most of the activities from bamboo culm (pole) trading to small scale furniture and handicraft manufacturing are informal/underground and therefore the transactions are largely unrecorded. Nevertheless at an estimated production of 10 million culms each year with an average  value of P100 each, the raw material value of culms alone is P1 billion.

In terms of employment, a 1979 study estimated the number of workers in the bamboo value chain to be around 70,000. A recent consultation with the furniture industry placed the number at 190,000 or 10 percent of the total workers in the furniture and handicraft sectors.

Bamboos grow in natural stands in patches, rarely as solid stands, and therefore hectarage can only be grossly estimated from clump counts. To date, conservatively, we have about 49,000 hectares equivalent devoted to bamboo at an assumed planting density of 204 clumps per hectare.

The Board of Investments (BOI) estimates that the demand of the traditional (present) bamboo industry is 104,000 hectares. Should we go all out for developing bamboo as industrial source of paper and pulp, we will need 169,000 hectares more. And should we pursue growing bamboo in industrial scale as source of biomass for renewable energy, we will need an additional 251,000 hectares.

Therefore, from the current stand of 49,000 hectares we can aspire to multiply it eleven-fold to 525,000 hectares as outlined in the BOI bamboo industry road map.

Bamboos in the Philippines are very diverse botanically. We grow 70 bamboo species of which 53 are erect types and 17 are climbing (rattan is one of these). Of the total 70 species, 21 are native species, six of which we share with Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Fifteen (15) of the native species are unique/endemic, found only in the Philippines.

About 30 new bamboo species have been introduced in recent years, mainly from China.

However, of these numerous species only eight are highly commercial, namely, kawayan tinik, giant bamboo, laak, bolo, buho, bayog, kawayan kiling and kayali.


Need to establish plantations

If the bamboo industry were to be a significant source of income, employment and value-added, we have to grow bamboo in plantation scale to reduce production costs and logistics to bring them to the processing plants. Otherwise, farm gate prices of bamboo poles will be very low and the farmers will earn little.

For example a 100-ton per day capacity paper and pulp mill will require 4,307 hectares of bamboo plantings. Investors will be willing to put up the needed capital only if they can be assured of a steady supply of bamboo poles.

The immediate challenge therefore is availability of contiguous land. Feasibility studies by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD-DOST) show that returns on investments and pay back periods for bamboo are competitive with coffee and cacao. Thus, bamboo can be profitably grown on private lands in uplands and slope lands now planted to corn, upland rice, coconut and fruit crops.

However, the bigger opportunities are in the production forestlands now occupied by the tenure holders of community-based forest management agreements (CBFMAs) and with indigenous peoples with their ancestral domains claims.

Most of these large, contiguous tracts of lands are underutilized and devoting them to large scale bamboo plantations is one neat way to move forward.

But it takes about P123,000 to establish a hectare of bamboo and harvests of bamboo poles start four years later. The CBFMA tenure holders and the indigenous peoples with recognized ancestral domains claims would require long-term credit support as well as initial food support to tide them over while waiting for the bamboos to mature.

With assured marketing contracts with wood processors, extending credit to small bamboo growers should not be problematic.

Moreover, the prospective bamboo processing plant investors must have secure tenure to, say, a hundred or so hectares as site for their factory and as a nucleus plantation to multiply seedlings, to test, demonstrate modern bamboo growing technologies, and as base source of raw materials.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), the Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP), the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), and commercial banks and the relevant local governments must come together to broker these partnership arrangements between the small land owners/growers and the prospective private sector investors.

This could be the subject of refinements/adjustments to the agrarian reform law.


Sourcing of planting materials

The second immediate challenge is the source of planting materials. Most bamboo species rarely flower and produce seeds. For still unexplained reasons many bamboo species flower spontaneously only every 60 to 130 years in a biological phenomenon described as “gregarious flowering.” All plants of a particular species mysteriously flower all at once. The plants expend a tremendous amount of energy to flower and produce seeds, get exhausted and die out.

This was the phenomenon which led to the closure of a pioneer bamboo paper and pulp project in Bataan in the 1960s.

However, there are some exceptions. Some species flower sporadically every 10 years. A few species belonging to the genus Schizostachyums flower annually without any untoward consequences.

In the absence of seeds, bamboo is conventionally propagated by culm cuttings and branch cuttings which are first raised in seed beds and later planted out in the field. Both methods are slow, success rates low but acceptable at backyard scale.

In 1998, Alfinetta Zamora and her colleagues at the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) successfully grew explants from nodes of lateral shoots of Dendrocalamus latiflorus in the laboratory using the classic Murashige and Skoog growing medium supplemented with benzyl adenine.

Later in 1995 researchers at the DENR successfully grew seedlings of bolo, laak, buho and kayali species with the same technique.

However, the research were not followed up and to date we have not developed a commercial protocol for mass propagation of the commercially important bamboo species.

A biotechnology company in Indonesia, P.T. Bambu Nusa Verde (BNU), commercially micro propagates bamboo species. Oprins company in Belgium supplies bamboo plantlets worldwide.

We should therefore resume research where we left off and scale up the processes for commercial production of the eight most important bamboo species. We can learn from the experience of the tissue culture laboratory at the IPB which pioneered the now very successful tissue culture industry for bananas in Davao.

To be continued . . . Part II



Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP). For any feedback, email