Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Rooting for bamboo

India has the world's largest natural base of bamboo, yet China controls the world market in this natural resource

Like the soft swishing from a bamboo grove, last December in Paris, on the side-lines of the UN’s Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP 21), a relatively new undercurrent of movement began displaying itself.

This movement headed by INBAR (International Network for Bamboo and Rattan) is infusing bamboo into five of the Paris Agreement’s 29 clauses through Articles 5, 7, 10, 11 and 12, all dealing in sustainable forestry and renewable energy. INBAR, the only inter-governmental organization headquartered in China with 41-member countries, is also working with the UN Forum on Forests to fulfil at least six of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Bamboo’s benefits are immense—it restores degraded soils, is good for afforestation and water conservation and thereby in climate change mitigation. It has myriad uses ranging from high-end construction materials to producing biomass fuel with potential for further products, thereby enhancing not just rural livelihoods but an industry, all contributing to the overall economy. 

INBAR has proposed bamboo as mitigation tool through carbon sinks in Article 5, and through innovative usage in climate-smart agriculture, disaster resilience and livelihoods in Article 7. 

The help needed by countries for actual work on bamboo is to come from the technology-transfer component in Article 10. INBAR mentions China specifically as having a “wealth of expertise" in both marketing and technology. The organization has initiated, with China’s help, the new South-South Co-operation on Climate Change (SSCCC) that, while transferring Chinese technology, has expanded China’s business into countries in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere. In September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping set up a fund of $3.1 billion for SSCCC. 

China is thus at the forefront of using bamboo to promote its commercial interests through the climate change arena, a factor that now becomes even more important because it has ratified the Paris Agreement, thus allowing all interventions through this agreement to move forward. 

China’s innovations in bamboo have certainly been manifold. It controls over 83% of the world market, and has seen its industry grow from $10 billion to a $30 billion turnover industry employing 7.7 million people and reforesting over 3 million hectares of degraded land. 

“Much of this work has happened through INBAR," says director Hans Friederich. “Bamboo should now become a South-South-North dynamic for climate change initiatives using China’s expertise in managing this sector." 

The India connection

Interestingly, INBAR was founded by an Indian-origin Canadian scientist, Cherla Sastry, in 1983 through Canada’s IDRC (international development research), then having several other Indian “bamboo scientists". The initiative set up some centres within forestry institutes in India, but got bogged down by “all kinds of parliamentary questions", said Sastry over the phone, when it came to establishing INBAR in India. 

“There is continuity in China," says Sastry, along with cooperation, foresight and their own money.

What is significant though, is that India, not China, is the world’s largest natural repository of bamboo: approximately 11,361 sq.km of it, compared to China’s area of 5,444 sq.km. Most of India’s bamboo is in the north-east, some in Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and in the Western Ghats.

But the dithering on bamboo has left India out of harvesting any benefits from this huge resource nationally, in the global market and in harnessing bamboo for climate policy negotiations. Sastry is succinct: “There’s money to be had in this sector; money that could be good for national impact too". Yet India holds a mere 4% of the world market on bamboo. 

There is a tussle in India currently over whether bamboo is a “tree" or a “grass". The Forest Act of 1927 said it was a tree, thus excluding local communities from harvesting bamboo inside protected areas as non-timber forest produce (NTFP). The clause remained unaltered in the 1980 Forest Act, but one which is now controversial because of the Forest Rights Act of 2006 which allows access to NTFPs but still restricts it as an industry. 

Kamesh Salam, managing director at South Asia Bamboo Foundation, Guwahati, explains the tussle over control by the government as a “colonial hangover".

Bamboo is also controlled by the rural development and the agriculture ministries. None of these ministries have as yet a policy that is cohesive to all. Unless we get out of this policy paralysis with numerous administrative players, we cannot move ahead, says Amit Chandra, director of policy at Centre for Civil Society, New Delhi. 

Though there has been an environment ministry directive urging states to consider bamboo as an NTFP and a Supreme Court order categorizing bamboo as such, the ambiguity of our current laws has left it to the political will of states to decide. The result of this is a few discrete pockets of success in communities in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Odisha mainly. 

Rama Rao, managing director at the Centre for Bamboo and Resources Technology in Gujarat, believes bamboo could be promoted with great effect in the 10 million hectare afforestation scheme under India’s climate change mitigation plans, while the compensatory afforestation management's current funds of Rs42,000 crore offer even more potential. 

With India now having ratified the Paris Agreement, bamboo stalwarts say there is time to mend matters. Anil Dave, India’s new environment minister, agrees, saying, “The past is the past." 

But will bygones really be bygones?

Keya Acharya is president, Forum of Environmental Journalists in India (FEJI).

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