Reforestation with bamboo, an ecological alternative for the production of materials

Reforestación con bambúAn intermediate evaluation was carried in Cuba in December of 2006 of a project which is a creative example of integrated solutions for a multitude of needs, whether social, environmental or financial. The evaluators were surprised at the diversity of the activities that although well-coordinated were accomplished in a decentralized manner. The following article summarizes this work. 

The project began toward the end of 2005 and the first phase is expected to finish in December 2007. Financed by COSUDE, it is implemented by a group of institutions under the leadership of the Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de Estructuras y Materiales, CIDEM. Through various activities, it seeks to organize an "Economy of Bamboo" in Cuba, beginning with a reforestation program and the search for ways to exploit the resources created in a sustainable manner, particularly in relation to production of materials and construction of houses.

Sustainability of the action

bambu_003Within the ecological aspects a solid base is being set. Reforestation with bamboo is more than a simple sum of hectares of forests (1,100 hectares have been planted in little over a year!), already bamboo is being used for the riverbanks where it contributes to soil conservation and disaster mitigation. As the majority of the bamboo products are produced and sold within a local economy, transportation is minimized and, in many cases, it subsititutes products with a greater quantity of embodied energy..

The economic aspects present enormous opportunities. Cultivation of bamboo is profitable in the short term. The demand at all levels for bamboo products such as furniture and household articles ensure a market for the producers and thereby contribute toward macro-economic development. Use of bamboo as support for roofs and other construction elements can speed up compliance of construction plans and, above all, renovation of the rural and semi-rural habitat.

The social acceptance of bamboo furniture and other elements such as mats, screens, baskets, and decorative elements is good and the few producers at this moment are not able to satisfy the existing demand. However, it must be emphasized that the project does not recommend construction of walls with bamboo nor does it seek to build entire houses of bamboo.

Impact of reforestation

bambu_004A sustainable base is being created for the bamboo harvest, the local impact reflected in the availability of prime material for a multitude of activities as much for governmental purposes as for individual efforts. The 1,200 to 1,400 hectares planned (including a likely over-compliance) will produce some 800,000 bamboo poles by the year 2010, gradually increasing to an annual harvest of approximately 1,400,000 poles by 2013. If the rhythm of reforestation can be maintained the impact would multiply.

The value of the poles harvested can be conservatively calculated at 5,000,000 pesos. The potential exists to create hundreds of jobs that conform to the three dimensions of sustainability (social, ecological and economical). A considerable number of these jobs are ideal for women. All these activities can be developed with little need for convertible currency, as they occur principally within the local production chain. Only some of the final product (furniture and crafts) would be transported to the larger centers, the great portion being used locally, including roof beams, fences, tobacco drying racks, agricultural sheds, storage boxes, etc.

The problems envisioned at this time are twofold, the unknown factors related to the curing and preserving the wood as well as the availability of the binders to make pressed wood. Thus, it is recommended that the applied investigation be intensified, and the production of materials concentrate on the areas where a good command of the technology already exists.

Bamboo as a construction material
Roof support is one of the most critical links in the construction chain, and bamboo is a good and accepted material for this purpose. When priority is given to its suitability as roofing beams, it becomes a considerable support not only for new constructions but above all for reconstruction after hurricanes and for regular house repair. In many cases, the presence of bamboo in the country allows citizens to make such repairs through their own efforts.

Bamboo panels for internal divisions, mats for ceilings, boards for interior doors and rustic elements for verandas are other appropriate uses. While the project is developing the fabrication of these types of elements in different workshops, to date the results have not been satisfactory.

It is to be stressed that the use of bamboo for external walls generally is not appropriate because of problems of durability, cost and social acceptance.

However, another element of great potential is the use of bamboo waste and other biomass to fabricate "Solid Fuel Blocks" that can substitute part of the firewood used in the production of ceramic bricks, which is the preferred product for walls. In various cooperatives these blocks are being used successfully to burn bricks.

Bamboo furniture

Muebles de bambúIt was observed that carpentry with bamboo furniture is an interesting activity as work with bamboo does not use nails or screws, and it is necessary to work in an exact manner and make unions with bamboo pins. Bamboo chairs and stools are strong, presentable and very economical. Popular designs exist, but there are also lines of more formal furniture, even with leather cushions. While shelves, tables, bookcases and night tables are the elements most produced at present, it is possible to make wardrobes or cupboards, and internal doors using mats woven into boards.

Noteworthy is the high demand for this furniture locally and that at present it is not necessary to invest in marketing. However, it would be wise to place more emphasis upon the curing of the bamboo in order to avoid the danger of insects destroying the furniture within a short time.

At the beginning the team of evaluators did not give much importance to crafts, but, upon becoming aware of the amplitude of the work, changed its appreciation and little by little arrived at a wider concept of a house: a home. A home consists only of walls and roof, but also needs furniture and decoration. Human beings have a desire to beautify their dwellings, they wish to decorate their rooms, and traditional decorations are slowly disappearing and being replaced by mass produced elements. Thus, work with bamboo could have considerable impact by injecting new life into the creativity of crafts, especially since these decorative elements are extremely economical while at the same time they bring a good income to the producers.

In summary
Reforestation with bamboo with a conscious plan for rational use of the wood is an extremely interesting project. Bamboo grows quickly, is environmentally beneficial, especially when used along the banks of rivers, and is a good primary material for furniture, crafts, and certain construction elements. But, be careful: bamboo has a limited life span, curing against insects is very problematic, and one should never use bamboo for load-bearing elements where it is not possible to supervise to ensure that the facility is not infected.

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