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GROWING GREEN GOLD
“You can eat bamboo shoots from your bamboo bowl with bamboo chopsticks in your bamboo house. Bamboo is an amazing resource.”
On 19th September - a wet and muggy morning in Yangon - a young man appears at the grand entrance of the city’s oldest university. In this urban environment, wearing smart trousers and a crisp long-sleeved white top, he is unrecognisable as Saw Demo, the village leader and farmer we met with last year to plant cardamom seedlings.
Saw has made the 13-hour journey through the night to arrive in time for this year’s World Bamboo Day event. It’s his first time attending, and the first time he has ever visited this densely packed city of over five million people.
He is among the 800 or so others representing government departments, small enterprises, businesses, architectural firms, NGOs, farmers and communities who have all come to together to learn and share knowledge on the benefits that bamboo could provide to Myanmar’s economy, people and nature.
This is Myanmar’s third World Bamboo Day, organised by the Myanmar Rattan and Bamboo Association (MRBEA) together with the Business Innovation Facility (BIF), an organisation that provides technical assistance and services to Myanmar’s bamboo, garment and tourism industries with funding provided by UKAid. The event is supported by NGOs including WWF. This year is the biggest one so far.
MONEY GROWS ON BAMBOO, NOT TREES
“After China and India, Myanmar is the world’s third most bamboo-enriched country, but at the moment GDP from bamboo is very low in comparison with China and Thailand,” said the Director of Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation during is speech inside the building’s bustling function hall.
With the global bamboo market expected to grow 10% by 2020, making it worth over 10 billion dollars, “Myanmar has huge potential to become a key player in the story”, said Tom Fort from the Department for International Development in Myanmar (DFID). As the population surges, the country is in desperate need of economic growth – but equally important is the protection of its natural resources. Bamboo is unique in its ability to tick both boxes. Profitable? Check. Sustainable? Check.
A MISSED TRICK
Yet despite having over 100 species of bamboo growing in abundance across Myanmar (many of which have commercial viability) so far bamboo has been under-utilised. Typically small villages like Saw’s in the southern Tanintharyi region only use it in construction and to produce daily essentials like bamboo matts and bowls.
Part of the issue is low quality yield and product. “We need to take this into consideration, making sure to cultivate and maintain bamboo in a systematic way,” said U Kyaw Thu, chairman of MRBEA.
“Though there is a lot of bamboo surrounding the village, we only use it for household needs,” he said. Now having seen the range of bamboo products at the event’s exhibition, Saw is excited at the prospects this readily available plant can bring to his village.
This incredible grass (yes, grass!) occupies 3% of the world’s forests. As well as being strong, flexible and abundant, bamboo holds the world record for being the world’s fastest growing plant, sometimes reaching a whopping 1.2 meters per day. Not only does this make it incredibly efficient to grow and harvest, it also contributes to bamboo’s amazing ability to store large quantities of CO2. Even bamboo roots have an important job! Grabbing tightly onto soil they stabilise steep banks and prevent erosion.
THE FUTURE IS BAMBOO
In 2017 BIF introduced sustainable bamboo practices to Myanmar, and since have been working with farmers to educate them on proper propagation, as well as facilitating connections between buyers and suppliers to plant the seeds of a sustainable bamboo supply chain. This will open up the doors to domestic and international trade, boosting Myanmar’s economic growth. What’s more, small rural communities will cash in on the green gold. Equipped with information and technical capacity to grow and prepare high quality fibres, farmers can expect a profitable return.
“Propagation has been very successful here. In just two weeks, one farmer earned $1000 for the harvest of his small bamboo nursery,” said Sebastien Moineau, BIF’s country manager.
In Saw’s village, Kyaik Pi Lan, where the community forest is already sustainably producing betelnut, bananas, cadarmom and rubber, bamboo is another opportunity to improve livelihood resilience. BIF and WWF-Myanmar have recently begun training the community in sustainable bamboo forestry, as well as bamboo construction. With success, the latest addition to their community forest will not only boost income but also protect the surrounding landscape from further deforestation, as well as enhancing climate mitigation thanks to its CO2 absorbing properties.
MORE FROM THE FIELD
"Electricity is like magic": a Q&A with Shoon So Oo
Shoon So Oo is the energy programme manager at WWF-Myanmar. He’s one of the people behind ‘The Renewable Energy Vision’ – one of the most ambitious programmes of its kind. The Vision aims for 100% renewable energy by 2050 for Myanmar. Shoon believes it can happen, and he’s convinced that what the energy programme does is as close to magic as you’ll get in the real world.
All over the world there are ordinary people doing extraordinary things for our planet.