South-South cooperation builds bamboo houses to shelter an urbanizing world

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By Adelia Saunders

22 April 2008 [MEDIAGLOBAL]: Bamboo, the world’s tallest grass, has been called the wood of the future. In fact, from China to Costa Rica, its minimal processing needs and rapid regeneration have made it the building material of the present, and bamboo manufacturers in developing nations are increasingly sharing their knowledge with other countries of the global South.


In an ambitious bid to create a new agricultural sector in countries with untapped bamboo resources, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), an inter-governmental organization headquartered in Beijing, and the Common Fund for Commodities (CFC), an Amsterdam-based UN-backed development fund active in commodity-dependent countries, are working together to build a market for environmentally-friendly, inexpensive pre-fabricated bamboo housing in the developing world.


“The technology has great potential in Asia, Africa and <!--?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" /--> Latin America  where housing demand is immense,” Shyam Paudel, coordinator of INBAR’s global bamboo housing program, told MediaGlobal.


A pre-fabricated bamboo house in   Nepal  . (Photo courtesy of Shyam


In fact, the world’s need for shelter has never been greater. As massive urban migration swells already-crowded slums, hundreds of millions of city dwellers live in homes that are unhygienic or unsafe. With building materials such as wood and cement increasingly expensive and environmentally taxing, many developing countries are finding a surprisingly abundant resource in their own backyard.


“This was a discovery for the government of   Ethiopia  ,” said Nianjun Shen, a bamboo expert at the CFC, in an interview with MediaGlobal. Bamboo grows naturally in many parts of   Ethiopia  , and has long been used for housing by the very poor. While at a conference in   Beijing ,  Ethiopia  ’s Minister of Trade and Industries was surprised to learn of bamboo’s market potential. The government quickly invested in bamboo processing technology from   China  , and the CFC/INBAR project will help connect Chinese bamboo experts and technicians to their Ethiopian counterparts.


With both domestic and export demand increasing, bamboo has become a commodity, “whichin 20 years’ time may become economically much more important than tropical timber,” Shen said.


Some bamboo species can grow upwards of a foot a day, and this quality has made the plant the Chinese call “poor man’s friend” economically attractive to environmentalists and entrepreneurs alike. While tropical timber takes 30 to 60 years to regenerate, bamboo forests mature within four years, and farmers can begin harvesting after just four months. Such rapid growth allows bamboo to convert more carbon dioxide into oxygen than most trees. Bamboo plantations require little pesticide or fertilizer and the harvest can be processed for about a tenth of the cost of tropical timber.


<!--?xml:namespace prefix = v ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:vml" /-->    
Over a thousand species of bamboo grow in tropical and temperate
zones around the world. (Photo by Patty Colmer)


“In   China   it has led to several districts and counties of the Chinese mainland being converted in the space of 20 years from very poor districts to very prosperous districts,” Shen said. “Farmers have become relatively big businessmen. You would be surprised that these people were real subsistence farmers 20 years ago. It is a Chinese success story.”


The CFC/INBAR project aims to replicate this success. Pilot projects in  Ethiopia  and  Nepal  will begin later this year, with plans to expand to  Tanzania ,  Bangladesh ,  Kenya  and   India  . Based on Chinese models, bamboo housing industries are being planned from the ground up, from species selection based on climate and strength, to the importing of equipment needed process bamboo poles into support beams, particle board panels, even bricks. Once the components have been produced, modular bamboo homes can be assembled in a matter of hours, at a fraction of the cost of those made from cement or wood.


“From the Chinese perspective, this is one of the best things that they can do in terms of South-South cooperation,” said Guy Sneyers, Chief Operations Officer of the CFC, in an interview with MediaGlobal.


“The market potential in terms of housing goes from poor man’s houses to rich man’s houses,” Sneyers said. Bamboo is increasingly popular among environmentally conscious consumers in Europe and the   United States  , where bamboo flooring and furniture, touted as earth-conscious trends in interior design, have become a multi-billion dollar industry.


CFC’s Nianjun Shen (left) inspecting pre-fabricated bamboo housing
at a demonstration center near   Beijing  . “You wouldn’t believe it’s
bamboo,” said Guy Sneyers. (Photo courtesy of Charles Jama/CFC)


Yet, while bamboo’s potential for environmental sustainability is immense, some scientists have been disturbed by reports that forests in  Latin America  are being cleared to make way for lucrative bamboo plantations. Despite the crop’s hardiness, unnecessary amounts of pesticides and fertilizers are sometimes used. Like any industry, bamboo’s environmental impact varies depending on the priorities those who grow, process and consume it. “There are many chemicals that have been used as glue and preservative for bamboo processing. Some of them are good and some of them are harmful,” Paudel said. “We strongly recommend [the use of] better chemicals.”


Bamboo houses can be built quickly in the wake of natural disasters, and they can serve as long-term living quarters. “We are not talking about bamboo houses for the life of 100 years,” Shen said, “but if properly maintained the average life of the houses will be 30 years.”


Based on the Chinese models, modular houses produced in  Ethiopia  and   Nepal   will be about 30 square meters, made of panels that can be reassembled and replaced as they wear. There are even possibilities multi-story structures, which, in ever-expanding cities, can increase residents’ access to services and help limit urban sprawl. “It’s a worldwide market,” Shen said. “There [are] 1 billion rural residents and 600 million urban residents who need houses.”


As more people look to bamboo for shelter, manufacturers are increasingly turning to   China   for expertise. “It’s a South-South cooperation exercise,” Sneyers said. “  China   has a very sophisticated laboratory. They know the species that are durable, good for the project you want to achieve. If you want to build a five story building, obviously you need very strong material.”