How farming with bamboo can combat climate change

By the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation

Once harvested bamboo can be used in a wide variety of ways , from construction to handicrafts to furniture. Photo: INBAR

For people in many parts of the world, bamboo is already an everyday sight. But this tall, fast-growing woody perennial, which covers more than 35 million hectares of land across Africa, Asia and the Americas, can also be a key part of climate-smart farming practices.

Bamboo agroforestry meets the three goals of climate-smart agriculture. By integrating bamboo into their cropping systems, farmers can sustainably increase agricultural productivity, while also building resilience in a changing climate. On a national level, well-managed bamboo stocks can provide opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

The International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR) has worked for more than 20 years to promote rural development with bamboo across its 47 Member States, for a number of reasons:

More efficient land use

Bamboo is an evergreen plant which provides shade and constant leaf litter; its wide, shallow roots network binds soil and prevents water run-off. As such, it’s hardly surprising that introducing bamboo among crops can increase yields and improve soil health. A major seven-year study carried out in Uttar Pradesh, India, showed how bamboo-based agroforestry systems increased crop yields for chickpea and sesame: within three years, yields were 13% higher than when they were grown as sole crops. Over time, bamboo leaf litter and root decomposition also enhanced the fertility and nutrient quality of soil.

Intercropping with bamboo is already taking place in many countries in Africa. In 2021, INBAR published a manual for bamboo-based agroforestry in Ghana: the latest in a number of resources about planting and managing bamboo on farms and homesteads.

Additional income

Planting bamboo on a farm offers more than protection for crops: it also provides a unique opportunity for farmers to generate additional income. Bamboo poles can be processed and sold as wood fuel, charcoal, timber or as raw materials for furniture and handicrafts. In the Mbeya area of Tanzania, planting bamboo on farms and homesteads created almost 1000 extra jobs and generated an extra USD 200 income per household per month. Selling bamboo or making bamboo products can be a particularly important livelihood strategy in climate-insecure regions, making farmers more resilient to weather events.

For livestock farmers, bamboo can also cut costs by providing a year-round, nutritious source of fodder for goats, cows and chickens. INBAR is working to scale up the use of bamboo fodder across its Member States.

Bamboo provides an additional source of income to many households, as a material for making handicrafts and household products. Credit: Shiori Mukai.

An alternative to wood fuel

Bamboo charcoal is growing in popularity: in 2018, the international trade value reached USD 75 million, and in 2020, Uganda-based company Divine Bamboo won the prestigious Energy Access Booster Award for its work promoting bamboo as a renewable source of cooking fuel.

Part of this boost is due to bamboo charcoal’s potential to avoid deforestation. In many rural areas, reliance on wood as fuel for cooking and heating is still widespread. Aside from the health risks associated with wood burning in the home, this demand for wood fuel is a key driver of deforestation and environmental degradation, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Because it grows fast, bamboo can provide a more sustainable alternative than timber and other commonly used forms of biomass energy: a report in Ghana showed that charcoal from bamboo had a lower eco-cost and carbon footprint than teak and acacia, two other plants used to make charcoal. It is also easy to produce in the home, using cheap technologies. A number of INBAR projects have spread bamboo charcoal use across countries including China, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Madagascar, the Philippines, Viet Nam and more.

Bamboo provides a sustainable alternative to timber. Credit: INBAR

A carbon sink

By managing bamboo, farmers are also contributing to climate change mitigation.

Like other trees used in agroforestry, incorporating bamboo into cropping systems can provide a unique opportunity to store carbon. Although the amount of carbon stored varies depending on species, climate and management, some bamboos can store more carbon than certain species of tree over a 30-year period.

Planting bamboo is also an increasingly popular way to combat soil degradation and landslides. With their extensive root systems, bamboo plants bind soil; they can also be harvested above ground, thus avoiding any disturbance to the ground. For these reasons, bamboo is being used around the world to restore severely degraded landscapes to agricultural productivity,  and INBAR Member States alone are planning to restore more than 5 million hectares of degraded land with bamboo by 2030.

Bamboo: the forgotten solution for agriculture?

It is no secret that farmers are key players in global restoration efforts. Their innovations, experiments and stewardship have a profound effect on the productivity and health of the land. By integrating bamboo into farming practices, smallholder farmers can play an important role in tackling climate change, improving soil health, and creating more resilient rural communities.

About the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation

Established in 1997, the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR) is an intergovernmental development organisation that promotes environmentally sustainable development using bamboo and rattan. It is currently made up of 47 Member States. In addition to its Secretariat Headquarters in China, INBAR has five Regional Offices in Cameroon, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Ghana and India.  INBAR is a member of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation.

This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of our diverse network of partners who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food. Each month we will be showcasing stories related to a key theme in agri-food research and innovation. The theme for June is ‘Climate change’.  

Join the conversation in the comments below or share this article on social media using #GFARinAction.


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