By Dr. U P de S Waidyanatha
Giant bamboo, found locally, has an economic potential surpassing that of tea, but its cultivation has not expanded because it cannot be propagated by conventional methods. However, technology developed by our scientists for mass propagation of this plant, now enabling its largescale cultivation, could eventually lead to a massive paper pulp industry and many others. Political will and modest resources are required to make things happen.
Bamboo is one of the most prolific and fast growing giant tropical grasses with multiple uses. It is endemic across the world except in Europe where, however, some 400 species had been introduced after 1827. It provides livelihood to some 2.2 billion people in Asia where the total area under nature bamboo is some 18 million hectares with 3 million in China and 8 million in India. Its cultivation is expanding across the world, particularly in south Asia. In the U.S, its economic viability as are alternative to tobacco is being investigated consequent on the decreasing demand for tobacco. The multiple uses of bamboo and its economic potential have earned it many epithets such as: ‘poor man’s wood’, ‘cradle to coffin plant’ and ‘green gold’.
Bamboo for paper pulp
Its main industrial use is for paper pulp making; a ton of good quality pulp fetches about $ 500. Bamboo yet contributes only about 10% to the world’s paper industry but its demand as a source of raw material is increasing.
The demand for paper both in China and India, has outstripped supply, and both countries are seriously threatened with closure of paper factories due to a shortage of raw material. China imported 5.6 million MT of waste paper (17.6% of its requirement) to feed its factories last year.
The Planning Commission of India has proposed a Rs. 2,608 crore National Mission on Bamboa Technology and Trade Development of which Rs. 2000 crore is for planting bamboo in 2 million hectares and Rs. 139 crore is for technology intervention on processing and product development.
It is estimated that the bamboo industry there could grow by 10-fold by year 2015 from the current level. Sri Lanka is exporting its waste paper to starving paper factories in India, and already at least one Indian factory has been dismantled and re-assembled here to make paper out of waste paper and straw.
There are more Indian entrepreneurs willing to establish paper factories, should bamboo or other suitable raw material be available in sufficient quantities.
Being more lucrative, family-owned farms (typically 3 hectares in size) are switching over to bamboo in place of traditional crops in Thailand, for making paper pulp, amongst other things.
The Phoenix Pulp and Paper Corporation located in Thailand, a major exporter of bamboo pulp, supplies pulp to Rubicon, a well-known company in the U.S for quality paper. A ton of paper pulp had, in the last few years, risen from US $ 450 to 700.
ses such as for making attractive furniture, bamboo flooring, MDF board, venetian blinds etc, manufacture of corrugated roofing sheets is a more recent innovation. In Vietnam, for example, bamboo is split and woven into mats by the villagers to be moulded into corrugated sheets in nearby factories. It is a fine example of integrating the rural poor and an industry. These sheets are reported to be weather proof, of high tensile length and do not heat the houses unlike metal sheets and asbestos.
Edible bamboo shoot production is a thriving industry, and there are over 17,000 ha of edible bamboo plantations in Thailand. India is to commence a Rs. 105 crore industry by 2005. Thaiwan’s annual bamboo shoot exports already exceed $ 50 million. Dendrocalamus asper, a species that provides edible shoots, is found in Sri Lanka, and it is left for any local entrepreneurs to engage in this industry.
Much interest has evinced, in recent years, on the use of biomass fuel for power generation. Gliricidia is at present the commonly preferred species, but species of bamboo such as Dendrocalamus srtictus (a solid bamboo) is widely used in
India for this purpose. Reported biomass yields show that it can substantially outyield Gliricidia under many soil and climatic conditions. Bamboo is also good material for the production of charcoal, the mass yield (33%) being higher than that of wood (29%).
The production of non-condensable gasses is also higher (26% vs 18% to 20%), while the tar content is lower (42% vs. 50%).
There are over a hundred species of ornamental bamboo species fetching from US $ 10 to 100 in the international market, as potted plants. Interestingly, a potted giant bamboo plant sells at 80 Australian dollars in an Australian bamboo nursery. The same nursery sells a variety of Dendrocalamus with green culms, yellow striations and drooping tops at a price of 200 Australian Dollars per plant!
Information on productivity of different varieties of bamboo under varying harvesting regimes is limited as such research did not receive much attention of scientists because exploitation has, hitherto, been largely from natural forests. However, being prolific growers, most bamboo species are able to reach maturity in about 4 years. About 25% of the stems (culms) can be harvested annually over its life span of 70 to 80 years. Rapid regeneration of culms makes it possible to produce 4 - 5 times the biomass of the fastest growing tree species. The reported above- ground biomass figures vary from 7 to 180 tons per hectare depending on the species. Leaves (10 - 15%) and the subterranean portion (30 - 35%) constitute about 50% of the total biomass. An estimate of giant bamboo by the Institute of Fundamental Studies, of a well - below - average clump from Suduhumpola, Kandy, reveals that it had a skewed circumference of over 20 metres, 116 culms, each weighing 46 kg (without leaves and lateral branches) and over 15 metres tall. The total clump weight should exceed 5 metric tons. The IFS scientists, based on the above data, have calculated that if the banks of the Mahaweli were to be planted with giant bamboo on a 25 metre width strip (2250 ha) on either bank (eventually forming a solid bamboo wall protecting the banks from collapse/erosion), the theoretical clum mass should exceed 3.6 million metric tons! The theoretical biomass (considering that the Suduhumpola clump is of below average size) should in fact be 17 million MT! India, the world’s leader, produces annually only 13 MT of bamboo as against a demand of double this amount.
Unfortunately, the cultivation of giant bamboo has not expanded, as it cannot be mass propagated by conventional methods (from stem cuttings). The IFS scientists have, however, perfected technology for its mass propagation by tissue culture technique, several years ago, which yet remains to be utilized. Giant bamboo is not endemic to Sri Lanka, and has been introduced from Burma by the British in 1856. There are several other countries that have this species but have not been able to exploit it commercially because of the difficulty in propagation. We thus have a piece of technology offering us competitive advantage over other countries for a massive bamboo industry, but left in abeyance for want of political will.
The price of commercial bamboo, for most purposes other than pulp making, depends on the length and basal girth of culms. The Bamboo Trade Bulletin of India (1998) quotes figures varying from Rs. 15 per culm of 3 metres length and 20 cm girth to Rs. 60 per stick of 6 metres and a girth of 40 cm. A small farmer in Nawalapitiya receives a farmgate price of Rs. 175 per 30 foot culm (stem) of yellow bamboo which is sold by the collector at Rs. 200 per 10 foot piece! Giant bamboo should fetch more. On the basis of the Suduhumpola clump data, and assuming that giant bamboo is planted 7 metres apart (200 clumps per ha), that a quarter of the clump (25 culms) is harvested annually, and the paper pulp yield is a third of the biomass, the potential gross income, at US $ 500/MT of paper pulp, is a staggering US $ 4000 per hectare per year. A net income exceeding US$ 1500 per annum, for a less productive species of bamboo, is reported from Thailand from the 5th year of planting.
Bamboo can be grown virtually anywhere in Sri Lanka - on wastelands, watersheds and along banks of rivers. It can, ideally, be grown on eroded tea lands for long-term rehabilitation and provision of fuel wood for the tea factories. Low productive paddy fields in the wet zone should also be ideal for commercial cultivation of bamboo.
I would like to invite all interested in bamboo growing and processing to enlist for forming a ‘Bamboo Producers and Processors Association’ so that collectively we could make things happen. Those interested, please telephone (01 2323646 or 074 715855 or 074 715572), fax (01 2348969), E mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or write (c/o National Agribusiness Council - NAC ), 103/7 Galle Road, P.O. Box 389, Colombo 3.
Research & Development
Finally, there is the undoubted need for a research and development institute for fostering production and processing of not only bamboo but also rattan, another plant/crop with tremendous potential, little of which has, hitherto, been realized. Both these plants offer tremendous potential for expanded industries in Sri Lanka. The Forest Department, over the years, had done some preliminary work but much more that remains to be achieved could best be done through a separate institutional setting. Already the International Network on Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) is supporting R & D efforts on these crops in other countries, and it is up to us through an appropriate institutional setting to obtain assistance from this international initiative.
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