The bamboo is Filipino, the Filipino is bamboo

Marvin A. Tort-125


Seven years ago, Typhoon Yolanda wreaked havoc particularly in Eastern Visayas. Typhoon Rolly just recently did the same to Eastern Luzon. Soon after Yolanda hit in November 2013, I wrote about how I believed that wide-scale bamboo production could help typhoon-damaged Samar and Leyte get back on their feet. I suggest the same now for the Bicol and Cagayan regions.

Bamboo should be considered particularly for denuded watershed areas, and not only for its ability to mitigate flooding and soil erosion. Bamboo has also been categorized as a high-value crop given its many uses that include subsistence and commercial food, and material for building and furniture. Without doubt, bamboo has plenty of economic and ecological benefits.

One newspaper reported recently about an initiative to plant the Philippine Giant Bamboo species along the banks of the Marikina River and its tributaries in the Marikina Watershed. About 600 hectares in the Marikina Watershed is being eyed for reforestation with bamboo. I am sure scientists and experts will soon chime in whether or not this will be a worthwhile undertaking.

Bamboo seems more resilient than hardwood trees to withstand strong winds and rain. And in areas prone to flooding, bamboo can help against soil erosion as well as provide natural barriers to landslides. Bamboo is also easy to grow, even in the wild; does not require heavy irrigation; and can be harvested in three to five years. It is a good alternative to coconut trees.

Dr. Keith Laidler, director of the Panda Trust, noted in an article in The Guardian that “after the Hiroshima bomb in 1945, bamboo survived the atomic blast closer to ground zero better than any other flora or fauna.” He also noted that bamboo could be used to “‘repair soil’ damaged by overgrazing and poor agricultural techniques, while its complex network of roots is ideal for preventing soil erosion and flooding.”

And, unlike many tree species, “harvesting does not kill the bamboo, so topsoil erosion and other adverse effects of tree-felling are kept to a minimum,” he added. “Perhaps even more important, given the carbon dioxide emissions thought to be responsible for global warming and the threat to biodiversity, bamboo produces more than 35% more oxygen than trees. Research in Japan and elsewhere has demonstrated that bamboo can absorb as much as 12 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare per year, giving the plant a potentially crucial role in stabilizing our planet’s atmosphere. More bamboo would undoubtedly help the environment.”

Need we state more benefits? Dr. Laidler likewise noted that for more than 4,000 years, people have used bamboo in lots of ways: paper, construction, food, weaponry, medicine, and even as aphrodisiacs. What he finds ironic, however, is that most bamboo consumption is confined to South East Asia and Central America, “where the most economically valuable species flourish.”

And this, to me, raises the potential of export, if we can identify big market niches in North America and Europe. It is in this that I see potential in bamboo propagation, particularly for the Philippines. Other than helping address environmental or ecological concerns, and creating localized economic opportunities, developing new uses for bamboo can drastically boost the crop’s market potential abroad. And, perhaps, export income for the Philippines.

Some data available online indicate that bamboo can absorb up to 12 tons of carbon dioxide from the air per hectare; can lower light intensity and thus serve as protection against ultraviolet rays; is beneficial to soil conservation and serves as an effective soil erosion control; and, is a resilient windbreaker. And last but not least, bamboo is a “highly renewable material” that requires no replanting once a “clump” is already established.

In the Philippines, bamboo has long been a good construction material that can be made available in as early as three years from planting, faster than many wood species comparable in strength. And with added engineering, bamboo can be turned into sturdy and long-lasting construction materials such as floor and wall panels. Bamboo is also a source of healthy food, and is very popular in landscaping.

I recall having read somewhere that the Philippines have about 20 species that are endemic or are native to the country. Frankly, I am not in favor of “imported” or “introduced” species. Natural resiliency comes from species being endemic. Communities that grow bamboo should also become primary bases for bamboo manufacturing. Adding value to raw bamboo can be labor intensive, and can help generate local jobs.

Government research has also noted that bamboo “requires little and simple care,” and “can grow in a wide range of soils and produces a high amount of biomass.” It is also “a reforestation species very useful against soil erosion.” And, as I noted seven years ago, there are organizations like The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) in Beijing, China that promote innovative solutions to poverty and environmental sustainability using bamboo and rattan.

INBAR runs programs on Environmental Sustainability,Livelihood and Economic Development, Trade Development, and Global Bamboo Housing, among others. Its “Global Marketing Initiative” also helps in determining the marketability of new products to markets like North America and Europe as it links local producers with overseas designers.

In February, the Department of Trade and Industry said government agencies were aligning their various programs in the value chain of the bamboo industry. This, I believe, is a good start. I can only hope for better follow through, especially after how Typhoon Rolly brought flood waters down on Marikina and other parts of the country. The National Greening Program of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, for one, needs more support in planting bamboo in over 19,000 hectares nationwide.

I believe we should work to make bamboo one of our export champions. In this line, the government needs an industry roadmap and a unified program that will encourage and support bamboo production and social enterprises linked to bamboo propagation in all parts of the country. And while it may not be the best-suited crop for Eastern Luzon, given how things are now in Regions 2 and 5, I believe these areas have little to lose in considering a new crop “champion” that bends with the wind, and is unbreakable as the Filipino.

Crisis after crisis, natural disasters or otherwise, we have always survived. We were blessed with patience and mild temper, endurance and stamina, good humor and humility, and faith. And thus, we have always endured. We are resilient, just like bamboo. We bend with the strong wind, then we stand up again after it passes. The bamboo is Filipino and the Filipino is bamboo.

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council

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