The thin, hollow, woody poles seen standing tall in numerous places to protect and support, in villages and cities, are of the ubiquitous bamboo, a plant that is far deeply entrenched into the common man’s life in Myanmar, literally from cradle to grave and at every step in-between. This is to be expected in a country that has the third highest proportion of bamboo forest cover globally, after China and India. Though classified as a minor forest product in the non wood category, the bamboo industry is estimated to be worth 25 billion USD globally, as it gradually replaces various wood varieties at every level.
Called ‘waa’ in the local language, bamboo is actually a wild grass belonging to the gramineae family and bambusoideae sub-family. Growing wild in tropical and subtropical forests over 1200 different species of bamboo are found worldwide covering 18 million hectares, and 96 of these species are found in Myanmar’s vast forest lands. Bamboos grow freely mixed with other plants and have been seen to form the under storey in high wild forests, besides being planted for multiple uses as well.
Bamboo is one of the easiest plants to grow, not requiring highly fertile soil or ample amounts of water, though it thrives more in soil that is slightly acidic with a reasonable amount of water. As one of the fastest growing plants, most bamboo varieties add a few inches of height every day, with some tropical large varieties growing as much as 35 inches in the span of a day at the rate of 3 cm per hour. Thus, in the growing season, a bamboo plant reaches its full height within three to four months. In the first year the bamboo grows vertically, and nodes develop branches and leaves in the second year as the culm (the pulp-like wall) dries and hardens, though it reaches its full hardness in the third year. Growth of bamboo takes place during the rainy season and the culms are ready to be harvested after 2-3 years and ideally between 5-7 years. A single bamboo clump, in its lifetime, can produce approximately 15 km of usable pole with a diameter upto 30 cm. This is because new shoots keep emerging and the plant regenerates.
Myanmar’s bamboo resources
Myanmar has forests covering over half its land area, of which 3% is covered with bamboo, as part of its evergreen and deciduous forests, and as pure bamboo stands in the state of Rakhine and Taninthayi Division.
Myanmar is famous for some very superior bamboo species like Kalway-Wa (dendrocalamus asper) and Wani ( dendrocalamus lotiflorus), both used for commercial production of bamboo shoots. It is one of the largest exporters of young bamboo shoots, an exotic delicacy in neighboring China. Other common bamboo species include wagok, waphyu, wabo, wabo-myetsangye, thana, myin, kayin, tin, thaik, and kyathaung. Fourteen species are commercially significant for the economy.
Besides natural forests, bamboo plantations have been expanding in various parts of Myanmar. It is also seen growing along stream banks and on lower hill slopes, while also being planted in zoological gardens, urban landscapes, gardens, parks and monasteries to meet local demand.
Bamboo for sustainable development and environment protection
Bamboo is one the fastest growing, extremely versatile and the highest productivity multipurpose plant in the world. As a high yielding forestry crop, it is a renewable environmentally sustainable resource that continuously spreads vegetatively. This implies that bamboo helps in creating thick forests much faster than an assortment of other tree species together. Also, its mature stems can be harvested while the plant continues to grow and extend its younger stems.
It is being increasingly acknowledged as a substitute for wood that will protect the environment and ensure development that is sustainable. Many countries use bamboo for environmental protection, soil conservation, prevention of erosion on hill slopes and other ecological purposes.
Bamboo absorbs huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which it converts into oxygen. Interestingly the carbon dioxide it absorbs, stays trapped inside and is never released even after it has been harvested and transformed into value added products that are useful domestically and commercially. Thus it serves as a carbon sink.
While maintaining fresh water resources, one hectare of tropical bamboo forest area can store more than 30,000 liters of water in its culms during the rainy season. This water is gradually deposited back into the soil during dry periods thus regulating water supply.
Bamboo forests also help in sediment control by forming a wall that prevents loss of flow in rivers. Their forest cover, like a canopy prevents evaporation of water from streams. With its complex woven root system and thick plantation it is recommended in areas prone to landslides.
Bamboo as a substitute for wood
Some of the larger bamboos like the Phyllostachys species has been named ‘timber bamboo’, and is being used as a substitute for wood for decades, without reducing the size of the forests it grows in.
Bamboo has a higher compressive strength compared to wood and concrete, and its tensile strength is comparable to that of steel. This makes it hard and durable, and ideal for use in construction as posts, roofing, walls, floors and beams. Its pulp is as good for making paper as wood pulp. Straightened out, bamboo laminates make the perfect flooring in high quality constructions at very reasonable rates. It is good for making sturdy furniture, household products, boats and makeshift bridges across narrow streams and canals.
Bamboo is actually a perfect timber substitute that can preserve the dwindling timber supply and further cutting of trees to procure wood for its numerous uses to fulfill the needs of increasing populations.
Bamboo’s multitude uses
There are a phenomenal 1500 uses of bamboo worldwide, and its true worth is only gradually coming to the fore as a multimillion dollar trade product. Its lightness in weight, strength, straight length and elasticity makes it a versatile product that is easily available at very reasonable rates.
In rural areas, stacked together it provides protection and shelter, dug into the ground it gives support, straightened out, it serves as a wooden plank.
Cut and dried, it is the perfect material for kitchenware, toys, chin-lone balls, walking sticks, fishing rods, parasols etc. Musical instruments like clappers and xylophones are made out of bamboo, with its hollow insides rendering perfect sound.
It is possible to construct full bamboo houses complete with bamboo floor, cross beams, partitions, fences, staircases and walls. Parquet floors, blinds and panels, furniture and fences, gates and sheds of superior quality can be made out of this material. Handicrafts can adorn homes and interiors, and in the kitchen a whole range of cooking utensils and dishes have become common. The bamboo chopsticks industry is growing to meet global demand for the same.
Bamboo charcoal is used as fuel and made from small pieces and residue of bamboo that are compressed and carbonized. It is also being innovatively used to purify water since it helps to eliminate odors and impurities.
Preserved edible bamboo shoots – the cone shaped sprouts emerging from the soil are tasty and tender when harvested very young. It has 90% water, is a rich source of vitamins and amino acids, high in fiber and cellulose, besides being a low calorie source of potassium.
Bamboo plants have become a favorite for decoration indoors and in gardens and parks. Considered lucky and a symbol of longevity, various decorative varieties of bamboo are found on sale.
In Chinese medicine bamboo is believed to cure infections and aid healing. In Ayurveda, it is used to treat respiratory diseases.
Bamboo pulp is being increasingly used for making paper to save other hard woods that take decades to grow to their full height. Myanmar is emerging as a big source of bamboo pulp that can be used for writing and printing paper. The most common species used for paper pulp are dendrocalamus asper and bamboo bluemanea.
Myanmar’s famed lacquer ware uses bamboo as the base, and the bamboo from forests of Chin state is considered ideal for this purpose.
Boats used in the countless waterways and water bodies are often made out of bamboo due to its properties.
Bamboo as a money spinner for Myanmar
Bamboo is deeply embedded in the lifestyle of Myanmar folk, and historical evidence points to a culture of using bamboo in numerous ways.
Bamboo is a renewable, self generating natural resource unlike timber. New shoots appear annually, after mature culms have been harvested. Interestingly, shoots appear in burnt plants, something unheard of in the world of wood. Bamboo plantations see re-growth even after being burnt down which means no new investment nor sources of irrigation or soil improvement is required.
Quick to grow, bamboo is unlike teak and other premium wood varieties where trees take 20-25 years to mature and grow to their full height. This translates into quicker cash returns after planting bamboo with a very short gestation period. For a country like Myanmar, vast expanses of idle land can be lucratively utilized for bamboo cultivation.
Myanmar’s numerous waterways are the ideal way to transport bamboo, and also the cheapest, and far more convenient than timber.
Environmentalists are convinced about the earning potential of Myanmar’s huge bamboo forests that can produce sustainable crops to be sold globally to meet the spiraling demand for bamboo. The current neglect and uncared for bamboo produce has meant loss of its earning potential both domestically where bamboo is used in every walk of life, and internationally, with many countries opting for bamboo instead of wood. Some technical help and investment in this field can make bamboo the next big export product from the country.
The International Tropical Timber Organization initiated a Bamboo project in 2005, to conserve some Myanmar specific bamboo species through the setting up of bamboo demonstration plots in Kawhmu, Pyinmana and Paukkhaung bamboo plantations.
Beyond these efforts, it is important to not allow the nation’s bamboo resources to be depleted, and the locals must be educated about its value. Till now, the country’s bamboo plantations have been virtually unprotected and not well cared for. Bamboo is harvested as and when needed and sold cheap, and only a small tax is levied on the harvested bamboo. Little wonder then, that where other countries earn over 500 billion USD from bamboo sales, the revenue generated in Myanmar is just USD 1 billion.
Bamboo’s ability to regenerate is threatened by its destructive harvesting and indiscriminate chopping methods. This has affected output and productivity adversely, and quality is deteriorating gradually. The bamboo supply base been seen shrinking in the last few years. The only way out is to step up bamboo silvi-culture to protect tropical forests and ensuring a sustained supply of this wood substitute.
Vast vacant lands to the tune of 178,000 acres in Pegu and Tenasserim Yomas mountain ranges are said to be lying vacant. Their geographic conditions are highly suitable for bamboo plantations, which can generate a lot of revenue, reduce the pressure on teak and other hard woods, and ensure that Myanmar’s rich forest resources stay intact.