Southeast Asia is sitting on a bamboo bounty, it just doesn’t know it yet
By Charlie Lancaster
From sunglasses to bras, design creativity is spawning a ‘bamboo revolution’ that holds much promise for Southeast Asian economies.
When US-based ethical fashion company Panda unveiled its sunglasses range made from handcrafted sustainable bamboo earlier this year, it did more than add style to conscientious consumerism; it gave a resounding nod to the green resource many are tipping to be the ‘timber of the future’.
Deeply rooted in the cultures of China and Southeast Asia, bamboo has long been a staple of life in Asia. From scaffolding in Hong Kong to red curry in Thailand, bamboo is said to have around 1,500 different uses. A long-overdue recognition of its value in the West in recent years has prompted a modern discovery of an age-old material, spelling good news for Southeast Asian economies and the environment.
With global forest cover dwindling as demand for wood rises, bamboo is being touted as a high-potential substitute for timber. Producers are expanding production to meet the growing demand for bamboo in textiles (it is often seen as an alternative to cotton), wood products (flooring, beams, poles, pulp, charcoal), soil stabilisation and reforestation in an industry tipped to be worth $20 billion by 2015, according to EcoPlanet Bamboo, the company behind the 2010 launch of asset-backed ‘bamboo bonds’.
“There are more global opportunities for the export of bamboo products, especially more modern applications rather than traditional craft products,” said Susanne Lucas, executive director of the World Bamboo Organisation.
The world’s largest bamboo products producer and exporter, with more than 50% of the total global trade value, China has long dominated the bamboo industry, with the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan estimating China’s domestic bamboo industry turnover last year at $10 billion.
Home to some 500 of the 1,200 different varieties of bamboo, Southeast Asia is in a prime position to capitalise on China’s increasing need of raw bamboo, as well as growing demand for bamboo products in the West.
Beloved by progressive designers – who have spun out products such as the bamboo bicycle and bamboo keyboard – and earth-conscious consumers, bamboo is the fastest-growing plant on earth, grows free from pesticides and fertilisers in low water conditions, and is good for carbon sequestration. In the age of conscientious capitalism, bamboo companies stand to win big.
“Investing in bamboo saves companies money and requires less land than traditional timber forestry while producing significantly greater volumes of biomass,” said Jackie Heinricher, CEO of Booshoot, a world leader in the development of bamboo tissue culture based in the US, the world’s largest importer of bamboo products, which are lauded for being sustainable, durable and environmentally friendly. “Bamboo is a plant that is good for the economy and the environment – and one with enormous untapped potential to dramatically transform regional economies everywhere from Asia to Alabama.”
Bamboo and rattan are the most important non-timber forest products in Southeast Asia, with exports steadily increasing in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, where bamboo-based furniture exports are estimated to grow at a 15% annual rate. However, to date, bamboo in Southeast Asia remains a relatively little-explored or developed resource.
Compared to China, where bamboo value chains have reached optimisation – deriving value from every part and by-product of the plant, achieving high cost efficiency and raising competition standards – Southeast Asia has been sluggish off the starting block.
“Politically, the development has been slow,” said Lucas. Not considered a high priority product in many regional countries and often referred to as ‘poor man’s timber’, bamboo has taken a back seat to lumber, long considered a high value commodity.
“Many governments have yet to recognise the potential of bamboo and there is a shortage of management expertise, processing know-how, financing and marketing information on bamboo,” wrote Xiaoli Wang in an analysis and recommendations paper on bamboo resource tenure in Asia and Africa. “This perception of bamboo means that there is far less data on bamboo volume, production, sales and tenure in most countries.”
Lovingly called green gold by producers, bamboo’s economic potential is “obvious”, according to Eric Mousset, president of the French-Cambodian Chamber of Commerce. “It is probably just a matter of time before Southeast Asian countries integrate it into their respective national strategic development plans,” he said.
China is now reaping the rewards of planting bamboo on a mass scale 20 to 25 years ago, and if Southeast Asia wishes to position itself as a leader of bamboo exports, “it must plant lots and lots of bamboo”, said Marc Peeters from Indonesia-based Bambu Nusa Verde. “If China can employ 35 million people in bamboo or bamboo-related industries, then Southeast Asia can easily earn billions of dollars from bamboo.”
For Peeters, the Panda sunglasses are indicative of bamboo’s future as a staple material, making it a wise man’s investment today. “Bamboo will become the wood of the future; there is no other choice in today’s world, or the world of the future.”
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