Latin America puts Bamboo's climate virtues to the test

By Emilio Godoy – Tierramérica 

CANCÚN, Mexico, December 8, 2010 – While a global agreement to fight the climate crisis may be off the table for now, many activists and experts are focusing on options for mitigating climate-changing gas emissions and the impacts of increasingly extreme weather. One such alternative is bamboo.

Bamboo grows quickly, needs little water, absorbs carbon dioxide, protects estuaries and can withstand storms. This is the list that Dutch activist Coosje Hoogendoorn, head of the Beijing-based International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), enumerated for Tierramérica. 

There are more than 1,000 species of bamboo, and 34 percent of them grow in Latin America. Mexico alone has 36 species, but they have gone unstudied and under-utilised. 

The fibre from bamboo stalks is a good raw material for utensils, furniture and crafts, and has proven effective in the construction of hurricane-resistant housing. 

“In Latin America, bamboo’s potential is being developed little by little. There is not much known about its use,” Ecuadorian Álvaro Cabrera, INBAR’s regional coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean, told Tierramérica. 

The 16th Conference of Parties (COP 16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, under way in the Mexican resort city of Cancún until Dec. 10, is immersed in discussions aimed at technical options for protecting and restoring ecosystems and adapting to the effects of global warming, including more frequent and intense weather disasters. 

Bamboo is already used to build houses in the southern Mexican states of Puebla and Veracruz, although it is not a widespread technique. Mexico is not among INBAR’s 35 member countries. 

The limited use of the native bamboo species in Mexico has “historic, cultural and economic reasons,” according to the report “Bamboo: Study of the Global Market,” by Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture. 

People scorn the plant, and it is considered a pest, particularly in areas where coffee, banana, tobacco and cocoa are grown, or where there is extensive cattle production, according to the report. 

In 10 years, one hectare of moso bamboo (Phyllostachys pubescens) in China captures 30 tonnes more carbon dioxide – – the leading greenhouse gas — than one hectare of China fir trees (Cunninghamia lanceolata), according to a comparative model from INBAR. 

“Sustainable management and the appropriate use of bamboo can increase the quantity of sequestered carbon through changes in management that increase the storage capacity within the ecosystem in the short term,” says the study. 

Bamboo forestry has gained ground in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, and more recently in Argentina — all members of INBAR, along with Cuba, Panama and Venezuela. 

Stephen Crooks, of the U.S.-based environmental management firm ESA-PWA, said in a Tierramérica interview that while development of innovative protection projects is essential, they need to be properly evaluated. Co-author of an analysis of carbon sequestering in the planet’s coastal zones, Crooks said the potential effects of massive introduction of bamboo must be analysed. 

In Ecuador, more than 100,000 bamboo homes were built to restore areas devastated by heavy rains and flooding that resulted from El Niño/Southern Oscillation, a cyclical climate phenomenon that warms the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean along the Equator, affecting weather patterns in the region. 

In the southern Peruvian city of Ica, more than 40,000 bamboo poles were used to build the Paracas Hotel. In the northwestern Ecuadorian province of Esmeraldas, the U.S. hotel chain Royal Decameron also used bamboo as a construction material. 

INBAR is planning 15 prototypes of bamboo houses in Ecuador, and will launch a similar initiative in Peru in January, with 200,000 dollars in financing from the World Bank. 

The aim is that the governments of the two countries will each finance the construction of 1,500 homes. “We are developing a technology to manufacture roofing from bamboo instead of zinc,” said Hoogendoorn in Cancún. 

Ecuadorian and Peruvian bamboo growers obtained raw material certification from the Forest Stewardship Council, which guarantees that it was sustainably produced. 

According to the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, “Commercial bamboo crops are one of the options that could more efficiently compensate and correct environmental deterioration in territories with warm, humid climates and with year-round rains.” 

The Mexican Congress has asked President Felipe Calderón to join INBAR and establish a bamboo development programme. 

“In Mexico there is great interest in promoting the use of bamboo,” said Cabrera. On the international level, the bamboo trade already reaches 7 billion dollars annually. (IPS)

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