The Bamboo Solution
By Mike Jarrett
One of the ‘perks’ of political independence for previous colonies was the opportunity to determine what images would adorn the new currency and postage stamps. The stamps and bank notes of the ex-colonies then became a gallery of images that celebrated the of pride the newly independent.
Jamaica’s new currency carried etchings of its newly canonised National Heroes (on the obverse) and island scenery (on the reverse).
There were relatively few currency note denominations, not enough reverse sides to showcase all the island’s breath-taking beauty and rich historical heritage. Postage stamps proudly displayed vistas and panoramas of famous and ‘must-see’ Jamaican places. Two sections of arterial roadway made the cut. Depicted on early postage stamps were Fern Gully on the North, and Holland Bamboo (a.k.a. ‘Bamboo Avenue’, or simply ‘The Bamboo’ to locals) on the South.
A mere four-kilometre stretch of arterial road totally canopied by bamboo, Bamboo Avenue on the coastal plains of the parish of St. Elizabeth was among the images chosen to depict the sheer beauty of Jamaica.
To be sure, the millions of photographs taken by visitors and tourists, particularly since colour film became commercially available, go a far way in capturing its scenic beauty. Film and digital devices cannot, however, capture the pleasant, relaxing ambience and enchantment of the brief (two-minute, tops) drive through The Bamboo.
The bamboo canopy creates an oasis of cool gentle breezes and a sanctuary for a diversity of wildlife. It is the ‘life’ that the bamboo protects and supports that makes the drive-through pleasant. A sanctuary in otherwise flat and exposed sugar cane land, Bamboo Avenue in Jamaica, is perhaps the perfect example of what is possible with the tallest grasses on the planet. Towering bamboo made a park out of a major inter-parish roadway, while creating a haven for birds and butterflies and a host of other species.
The accumulation of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has raised discussion about solutions that have plants ‘mopping up’ CO2 trapped in the planet’s atmosphere. The conversion of CO2 to oxygen by way of photosynthesis remains the subject of much investigation. And the strategy of planting of trees and foliage to protect surface and groundwater assets, while mopping up CO2 during daylight hours is increasingly being included in initiatives to combat climate change.
January 2020 was the warmest first month on record. This followed similar records set every January since 2016. Earth is getting hotter and hotter. And indications now are that the point at which irreversible damage to Earth’s ecology begins is fast approaching… 10 years, according to Sir David Attenborough, natural historian and famous BBC broadcaster.
If repairing, regenerating and restoring forests dramatically reducing greenhouse gases; reversing the effects of forest denudation; halting erosion and restoring sanctuaries…if these are imperatives to be addressed in mankind’s 120-month rush to respond, then bamboo must be considered.
With some species growing at the amazing rate of 30 cm in 24 hours; growing to towering maturity in 60 months and less, the bamboo family is among the fastest-growing leaf plants with the potential to permanently cover and protect vast expanses of land. And it is amazingly convenient that this massive grass has myriad economic uses and applications; and, is a direct source of raw materials for many wealth-generating manufactured and artisanal items. With tensile strength and hardness sufficient to make scaffolding for building skyscrapers, yet soft enough to bend and form, bamboo provides a treasure trove of options and opportunities. For reforestation and regeneration, it is admired for its low cost to propagate (cuttings root in water or soil); its hardiness and low-maintenance characteristics during the growth cycle; and, the speed and efficiency of growth.
For its industrial and economic applications, it is demanded for its low cost of harvesting and preparation; its hardness yet low density; its eco-friendliness; and, the fact that it is biodegradable.
Bamboo, as raw material, is many in one. It is strong, yet with qualities that make it flexible and springy. It is a soft wood and lightweight, yet adequate for hardwood applications, for use in the manufacture of counter tops, flooring and chopping blocks. And, it is water-resistant. All this explains why bamboo is presently one of the largest and fastest-growing agro-industrial subsectors in China (worth $27 billion in 2016, now expected to top $48 billion this year) and elsewhere. And in Jamaica, the Bamboo Industry Association of Jamaica chair, Robert Rainford, has been in dialogue with investors in Canada, China and Central America discussing plans for projects including production of paper products from bamboo.
And because its woody stem can also be used as fuel for fire, bamboo can be an effective defence for protecting and saving hardwood forests, which are systematically being destroyed for fuel and other economic gain.
Its economic benefits and wealth-generating possibilities
are apparently immeasurable.
In Thailand, substantial research has been produced in weighing the effectiveness of bamboo as fuel for generating electricity. Research carried out by Charcrit Sritong, Annop Kunavongkrit, and Chotihirun Piumsombun (published in 2012) sought ‘to determine the specific properties of bamboo as a raw material for electricity production of biomass power plants n Thailand’; and, to ‘compare the characteristics of bamboo and other raw materials used in electricity production of biomass power plants (in Thailand)’. Their findings satisfied them that “… the energy gained from Gimsung and Tong bamboo, with their specific properties and growth rate, is appropriate for producing electricity.”
In addition, they argued, bamboo has more benefits than other raw materials such as greater CO2absorption.
“The rate of CO2 absorption and O2 production of one bamboo tree per year is as follows:
Year 1 to Year 5: 41, 165, 413, 495 and 578 kgs of CO2 respectively. After the 5th year onwards, the rate of CO2 absorption and O2 production of bamboo remains the same over the next 200 years.”
With CO2 identified as a ringleader in the gang of greenhouse gases, any strategy to arrest and possibly redress damage already done is worthy of investigation and consideration. In this regard, the effectiveness of bamboo for mopping up CO2 was questioned by at least one group. That research team opined that bamboo (like rice) may be producing rather than storing CO2.
These findings were vigorously challenged by the wider scientific community for extremely limited sampling. Experiments were completed using only two specimen samples from just one (of a possible 1,500) species of bamboo. Comments from the scientific community included phrases like: “problematic”, “too small of a sample size for any reasonable conclusions”, “twenty-four hours also isn’t long enough”, and “extrapolating over eight years introduces too much uncertainty”.
“Our work suggests bamboo behaves more like rice (which is said to release carbon dioxide during its life cycle) than woody plants (which store CO2),” said study leader, E.J. Zachariah, a researcher at the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, based in India, who himself admitted to National Geographic’s Brian Howard (March 2016) that more research was needed.
Bamboo is evidently one of the solutions. Indeed, it is a basket full of solutions, economic and environmental, to be applied at this time of Climate Change.
The vast economic potential of bamboo has been known and exploited for decades. Bamboo parquet flooring came onto the market more than half a century ago. And bamboo cultivation and production offer real income and economic solutions for local populations and investors alike.
However, as mankind stands on the brink of a new and possibly catastrophic epoch; with little time to prepare and relatively few scientific options from which to choose, it’s the environmental solutions that the fast-growing, eco-friendly, sanctuary-protecting, CO2-absorbing, oxygen-generating, wealth-creating bamboo offers that may be critical in the moment. 
- First published March 31, 2020
BAMBOO ATTRIBUTES X 7
- Composition: The Gimsung and Tong species tested in Thailand (with 6% to 15% moisture, 3+% Ash, 65% to 70% volatile matter, 20% fixed carbon) have relatively high heating values.
- Absorption (CO2): At one year, some bamboo species can absorb up to 50kg of CO2, (approximately equal to burning 21 litres of petrol). Absorption capacity increases as the shoot matures. At five years, a single bamboo shoot can potentially absorb up to 600 kg of CO2… which equates to burning 250 litres of petrol in an engine. Think therefore of a bamboo forest.
- Producer of oxygen: A process directly related to its CO2 absorption characteristic, bamboo releases (up to 35%) more oxygen into the atmosphere than hardwood trees.
- Rapid growth: Some large bamboo species can grow as much as 30cm in a day during the dry season. Growth rate is faster during rainy periods, or wherever there is nearby surface water or near-surface groundwater resources. And depending on the species, it comes to maturity in 40 to 60 months.
- Preserves forests: Bamboo makes good charcoal and therefore presents an alternative to hardwood obtained by destroying forests. Destruction of forests is a major contributor to climate change.
- Sustainability: Requiring no agricultural chemicals or labour-intensive care, bamboo springs from its own roots and replenishes its own stands. If it is not disturbed by human intervention, bamboo forests, like the canopy at Bamboo Avenue in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, will stand for centuries. It grows on the mountains and on the plains; in dry or wet atmospheric conditions; on a vast variety of soils.
- Wealth-creation: Bamboo produces raw materials for dozens of industrial, engineering, chemical and artisanal applications. It is lightweight and cost-effective to reap, store, handle and transport.