“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” - Bruce Lee
Bamboo is an evocative word. For many in the west, it conjures up exotic snapshots of Asia – tall groves gently swaying and clacking in torrential rain, elaborate Japanese water features in calm Zen gardens, giant pandas lying on their backs happily chewing, simple beach huts with impossibly beautiful sunset views, and so on.
But for most people in Asia, bamboo has always been an indispensable functional material – as big a part of daily life as bricks, steel and wood. Used in flooring, walls, scaffolding, kitchen implements, clothing, furniture and even as an ingredient in regional cuisine – bamboo has been ever-present and eternally useful for centuries.
Now, finally, bamboo is gaining in popularity around the world. Industries, from construction to clothing to culinary, are getting on board with its many benefits – its flexibility, its implausible growth rate (up to 30 cm per day!), its hardiness and its lower levels of dependency on fertilizers or pesticides. This versatile, low-cost, easily renewable raw material is a boon to bean counters and bottom lines everywhere.
Presently, much of the world’s bamboo supply comes from China, with an increasing proportion coming from Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam. According to the dense but informative China Ninth National Forest Inventory, in 2019, there were around 6.4 million hectares of bamboo forest in the country ¬– almost three per cent of China’s forested area and a significant portion of the total global bamboo cover. The country also has the highest bamboo exports in the world – unsurprising, as the sector was worth over USD 30M and employed over eight million people in 2018. Vietnam currently has 1.4 million ha of bamboo forest, with around 732,000 ha being production forests that provide a livelihood to tens of thousands of people.
Still, despite its near-miraculous abilities, bamboo is often harvested unsustainably, with forest conversion, pesticide use, over-exploitation and a general lack of coordinated farming and harvesting techniques all being serious issues. The production is also often disorganised, with a lack of strategic planning and antiquated processing facilities leading to products with uneven quality standards, affecting the prices they can command on the market.
In FSC’s national forest stewardship standard for China, published in 2018, bamboo is called “an essential natural resource,” with product groups including building materials, charcoal, furniture, and bamboo shoots for consumption purposes. In particular, “woody and tall bamboo species have functions and utilities similar to those of tree species” and are treated as such in terms of forest management and certification.
As with “regular” forests, FSC certification is gaining ground in the bamboo sector. Today, around 240,000 ha of bamboo forests in China are FSC certified, the majority of them owned by smallholders. This has fuelled an explosion in the number of FSC chain of custody certificates in Asia Pacific – rising from just over 400 in 2018 to 1,200 in early 2021.
These figures are good news for the people who depend on bamboo the most – individuals and smallholders who often use bamboo forests as “…automated teller machines; when they need money, they go to the forest, cut down some bamboo and sell it to a trader.” In both China and Vietnam, bamboo is typically harvested and processed by such small-scale operators. While obtaining FSC certification can be expensive and time consuming, it can also bring a significant income boost.
One flexible approach used in Asia Pacific is group certification, as in the case of the BWG Joint Stock Company, which represents a group of smallholders in Vietnam’s Thanh Hoa province. They successfully obtained FSC certification for 2,370 ha of bamboo forest, which will supply the company with bamboo for FSC-certified flooring and bamboo houseware items. The Ngoc Son Thanh Hoa Joint Stock Company, representing another smallholder group in Thanh Hoa Province, has had 3,045 ha of mixed natural forest certified since 2019. Their harvests are used to produce furniture and handicrafts.
Then there is the Non-Timber Forest Product Research Center, representing yet another group of bamboo smallholders. The Center has gained group certification for 800 ha of natural mixed bamboo forest, and plans to connect companies and promote FSC-certified bamboo from both natural and plantation forests. Group certification is also used in China, with counties or towns helping organise the certification and providing training, and the smallholders doing the actual forest management.
The path ahead for bamboo looks extremely promising, but only if supply and quality can keep up with demand. FSC certification can be instrumental in keeping the pipeline open – by creating and strengthening linkages within the sustainable supply chain, and by ensuring that everyone adheres to quality and sustainability targets.
By promoting responsible and sustainable forest management and production practices all along the value chain, FSC can help the bamboo industry achieve robust growth, while adapting to changing times and remaining resilient. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Article written by FSC Asia Pacific.
- Oxfam in Vietnam
- National Forestry and Grassland Administration - Forest Resources in China
- FSC Asia Pacific
1. © Yanyan Wang. Yong'An City Tengfei Zhuxiangzin Co Ltd. (BV-FMCOC-121530)
2. Ngoc Son Thanh Hoa Joint Stock Company. Certificate code - GFA-FM/COC-004685, license code FSC-C158139.