Bamboo can be a powerful ally for land restoration. This strategic resource thrives on problem soils and steep slopes, helps to conserve soil and water, and improves land quality. Its potential is significant – if its benefits are recognized by decision makers and planners.
Bamboo is an asset to any landscape in which it appears. When strategically placed, the plant forms part of an ‘ecological infrastructure’ that is increasingly acknowledged as a cost-effective way to restore degraded landscapes and adapt to risks posed by climate change.
It grows rapidly, slowing degradation and repairing damaged ecosystems, and its long, fibrous and shallow roots effectively stabilize soil – a bamboo plant typically binds up to 6cm3 of soil, and its efficiency as a soil binder has been reported in China, Costa Rica, India, Nepal, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.
Soils benefit in another way: studies show that bamboo helps to conserve water, boost nutrients and organic matter, increase carbon content, and add humus to soil through leaf fall.
The plant’s robustness and ability to thrive on problem soils also means it will grow where others cannot – making it perfect for rehabilitating land damaged by erosion and industrial activity, or areas scarred by deforestation.
In short, bamboo offers hope and a new lease of life in areas that continue to suffer from severe land degradation – that’s one quarter of the world’s land surface, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and huge swathes of deforested lands: the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimate that 30 percent of global forest cover has been completely cleared and a further 20 percent degraded over the last century.
Growing awareness means that the plant is now being adopted as a resource for rehabilitating marginal or damaged land across Asia, Africa and Latin America. INBAR’s 41 member countries have collectively agreed to the restoration of five million hectares using bamboo – part of the Bonn Challenge, a global movement launched in 2011 to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020.
A recently-documented case in Allahabad, India, tells of the rebuilding of rural livelihoods where 80,000 hectares of degraded land were brought back into productivity using bamboo as a pioneer species. The initiative changed the fortunes of an area deeply scarred by decades of brick-making activities.
WATCH NOW: The story of how bamboo helps restore devastated lands
Ethiopia has also recognized bamboo’s potential as a ‘pioneer species’ for land restoration: it has been included in the second phase of the country’s ambitious 95 million USD Sustainable Land Management Project, which will use the plant to restore 1000 hectares of natural bamboo stands over the next five years.
But, adoption elsewhere remains slow. Despite these commitments, bamboo continues to be an untapped resource in most countries, overlooked in national development strategies. One of the major obstacles holding back its more rapid development is the current lack of appreciation among policymakers, who continue to ignore the plant’s multiple benefits.
Challenging this requires concerted efforts to raise awareness about the role bamboo can play to rapidly rejuvenate degraded lands and return soil fertility – targeting decision makers, environment planners and development programs.
Events like COP 21 and the 2015 Global Landscapes Forum will undoubtedly help, providing a platform on which to engage in policy debates and demonstrate the positive restoration properties of bamboo. But, this needs to be sustained over the long term.
Bamboo alone will not solve the world’s climate change problems. But it is a perfect complement to land restoration and forestry strategies in the planet’s subtropical belt. Countries that fail to harness this potential will miss a golden opportunity to bring fertility back to their soils and reverse the fortunes of rural communities struggling to make a living on poor, degraded lands. It is time that this versatile and strategic plant had a place at the table.
About the author
Hans Friederich was appointed as Director General of the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) in 2014. Prior to joining INBAR, he served as the European Regional Director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and in the global fundraising unit of IUCN. He is now based in Beijing, China as the head of the only international Inter-Governmental Organization that deals with bamboo and rattan. INBAR has 41 Member States from around the world, mainly from bamboo producing countries. Read more.