Bamboo can address climate and social issues, says Indonesian bamboo forestry advocate

The ‘mama mama bambu’ in Ngada, Flores Island, East Nusa Tenggara province in Indonesia who create and nurture seedlings that will be used to restore degraded land under the Bamboo Village Initiative project by the Environmental Bamboo Foundation. Photos: Ulet Ifansasti/EBF

By the time he was 10, Arief Rabik could name 1,000 species of bamboo.

After all, his late mother Linda Garland was widely known as the “Queen of Bamboo”. Garland, an Irish-born interior designer, was highly regarded for her sustainable and ecological works, having designed luxury abodes for celebrities and personalities like Mick Jagger, Richard Branson and David Bowie.

But beyond her creative projects, the Bali-based Garland was a passionate advocate of using bamboo as a solution to environmental and social issues.

She founded the non-profit organisation Environmental Bamboo Foundation (EBF) in 1993 to establish bamboo as a viable substitute for timber as a building material globally to prevent tropical deforestation and boost the income of rural communities while promoting gender and social inclusion.

Garland died from pancreatic cancer in 2017 in Australia at the age of 70.Rabik says the Bamboo Village Initiative directly targets 12 of the 17 UN SDGs. Photo: Suki ZoeRabik says the Bamboo Village Initiative directly targets 12 of the 17 UN SDGs. Photo: Suki Zoe

After completing his degree in environmental studies in Australia, Rabik took over EBF as its director, carrying on his mother’s legacy.

Under EBF, Rabik started the Bamboo Village Initiative (BVI) in 2014, an international agroforestry movement for women’s empowerment, carbon sequestration and rural livelihoods.

“Land degradation has caused Indonesia to become the fifth largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world,” said Rabik, one of the speakers at the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival’s (KLAF) Datum: KL conference held earlier this month.

“And the people who suffer the most are the rural communities, smallholder farmers and the very poor,” added Rabik, who also sits on the Advisory Board of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.

Rabik firmly believes that bamboo can effectively provide a solution, with its host of beneficial properties and potential.

Firstly, the plant is rapidly renewable. Bamboo can be harvested indefinitely after it’s established and bamboo shoots can grow up to 1m a day. A full cycle of sustainably harvested bamboo, which is actually not a tree but grass, can be attained in four years, compared to 10-20 years for most other softwood trees.

A bamboo village in Flores under the Bamboo Village Initiative project.A bamboo village in Flores under the Bamboo Village Initiative project.

One hectare of bamboo absorbs 50 tonnes of CO2 per year and generates over 30% more oxygen than trees.

“One clump of bamboo is able to retain 5,000l of water (in the topsoil) for six to nine months,” added Rabik, who turns 40 this year.

Bamboo plants also stabilise slopes and prevent landslides and floods. Its net-like root system is an effective mechanism to protect watersheds and also binds the soil along river banks, deforested areas, and places prone to earthquakes and mudslides.

Bamboo strips are the raw materials for bamboo planks, a sustainable wood alternative for the woodworking industries that can be turned into furniture, structures and even high-rise buildings.

The byproducts of strip production are known as pellets, which is a source of carbon-neutral bioenergy used as general electricity and a safe fuel for cooking.

Bamboo waste from the production chain can also be pressed into pellets to make renewable energy. In addition, old bamboo buildings can be recycled into pellets to give it a second life.

Bamboo baskets made by villagers in Ngada, under the Bamboo Village Initiative project.Bamboo baskets made by villagers in Ngada, under the Bamboo Village Initiative project.

The initiative explained

The BVI works with farmers to plant bamboo only on completely unused land. It also builds village-based factories to cut out the middleman factor.

This forest-to-factory production system allows farmer cooperatives to produce bamboo products at the village level and sell them at a fair price. This targets four key issues the world faces today – climate change, degraded lands, rural poverty and gender equality.

“As a whole, the initiative directly targets 12 of the 17 UN (United Nations) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” said Rabik.

The overarching objective of the initiative is to create a restoration economy that rejuvenates 8% of Indonesia’s degraded land and its ecosystems (two million hectares); absorbs 16% of Indonesia’s CO2 emissions per year (100 million tonnes); generates US$6-9bil (RM27-40bil) of income a year; and creates over one million jobs.

A 'mama bambu' carrying her child while watering young bamboo plants in Ngada.A 'mama bambu' carrying her child while watering young bamboo plants in Ngada.

“This initiative increases a family income fourfold while empowering women in agroforestry. The system will employ 210,000 women who will have key roles in the management system,” explained Rabik.

EBF is currently working with over 350 women, also known as “mama bambu”, in Ngada, Flores Island in East Nusa Tenggara province to create and nurture seedlings that will be used to replant degraded land. The women have created over two million bamboo seedlings to date.

Rabik pointed out that women are key to the project.

“We work with the women because it’s very pragmatic and cost-effective if we have the right incentive structures and business case for these women, where their decison-making power and their equity in the future of these systems is guaranteed,” he said.

One village at a time

The BVI plans to create 1,000 bamboo villages across Indonesia eventually.

“We have initiated 40 bamboo villages in the East Nusa Tenggara province alone, planting over 100,000ha. By 2024, we plan to establish 200 bamboo villages, covering 400,000ha with 28 million bamboo babies in the province.

“We are scaling there first, but we are writing a national strategy with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, and several other ministries, for the whole of Indonesia,” said Rabik.

Two villagers in Ngada tending to young bamboo plants.Two villagers in Ngada tending to young bamboo plants.

The BVI has also caught the attention of Indonesian President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo, who has instructed follow-ups for the development of a National Strategy for Bamboo.

“We need to work with this material and unlock its potential,” emphasised Rabik.

“The 200 bamboo villages here in Indonesia is really the first, big step that we believe will unlock a huge amount of data and knowledge in the social, economical and ecological context.

“And that’s where we are really appreciative of the President’s support.”

Each bamboo village is capable of restoring 2,000ha of degraded land, empowering 210 farmer households, absorbing 100 kilotonnes of CO2 per year and generating US$1-2mil (RM4.5-8.9mil) in revenue a year.

“Our dream is to create 1,000 bamboo villages by 2029, which will absorb 100 megatonnes of CO2 a year, restore two million hectares of degraded land, empower 210,000 households and generate a revenue of US$2-4bil (RM8.9-17.8bil) a year.”

By 2036, EBF plans to establish 10,000 villages in 10 countries across the equatorial belt in South-East Asia, South America and Africa, namely the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, India, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Mexico, Peru and Brazil or Colombia.

“This will absorb one gigatonne of CO2 (equivalent to 3% of global emission), restore 20 million hectares of degraded land (1% of world’s degraded land), empower 2.1 million households, and generate a yearly revenue of US$20-40bil (RM89-178bil),” he said.

“There are two billion hectares of degraded land out there (globally) that we have to activate.

“That’s two billion hectares of opportunity that is right now a two billion hectare giant problem that could cause the demise of humanity.

“Let’s flip that and make it the most exciting restoration economy opportunity for the future,” he said.

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