Where have the groves gone?

  • 14/06/1996

Where have the groves gone? ABO Tanithe first humanthe father of us allreceivedthree gifts from the goddess Anedone - pinea cabbage-likevegetable called gyia hama and bamboo. At firstAboTani could not find ihe tiny seeds of bamboo hidden in thegroundtill another friendly goddessAyarm Yarm Bunyiopened his eyes."

Squatting by the hearth of his quaint bamboo huteldertribesperson Nani Ch4lla concluded the narration and drainedhis cup of warm rice beer. The air that drifted down theHimalayan foothills tdZiro had a distinct chill to it. In Ziro -Nani"s Apathani tribal homeland in Lower Subansaridistrict of Arunachal Pradesh - the slender and flexibleApathani bamboo (Rkyllostachys assamicus)which the tribalstraditionally cultivate along with blue pine (Pinus wallichiane)has been a way of life for ages. For the Apathanis and their tribal counterparts elsewhere in the worldbamboo is everything- toolweaponshelterfoodvesselpipemusic and idol.

Dark clouds arehoweverhovering over this scenario.Tribal lands are not pristine anymore; voracious market forceshave been gulping down bamboo reservesmost of it formanufacturing paper pulp. Bamboo-dependent communitiesall over India are being gradually edged out in the process byhard-nosed industrialists.

Todayin places like Arunachal Pradesh which still boastof virgin tractslocal governments are faced with clear choices:whether to open up their precious reservoirs of bamboo atabysmally low rates to paper millsor to use them imaginatively for the sustainable profit of local communities.Bamboo is precious to an Apathani. But when governmentsdole it out to the industryit carries a low price tag - onerupee a culm (stem) as forest royaltyone-twentieth of theplant"s real value. Worse stillit is often seen as a weedto beslashedburnt and disposed off.

Hope for bamboohoweverhas dawned in the formof innovations - new technologiesprocesses and products- promoted by a section of dedicated scientists and development workersand new marketing mechanisms.It is an effort to discover bamboo anew as a sustainableresource - a replay of the eye-opener miracle performed bythe goddess Bunyi.
Use and overuse Bamboo - around 10 million tormes (t) of which is producedannually in the world - is cheapfibre-richeasy to transportand thereforeideal for pulp-making. Forty-four per cent ofIndian paper mills still depends on forest materials like wood.Of the installed capacity of 3.3 million t1.4million t comesfrom forest material-based mills; of this forest material60percent is bamboo. Estimates of total global revenue generatedfrom bamboo and its products - including the value of bamboo used by traditional communities and employment generated by it - range between us $4.5 billion and us $7 billion.The dispute hereenvironmentalists point outlies in the waybamboo forests are being utilised - rathervandalised - bycareless extraction and low prices.

For any6ne of the 2.5 billion people worldwide who usebamboothe plant is invaluable. An Apathani hutforinstancemeans bamboo in multiple roles.On bamboo platformsbamboo poles laidside by side make the floor;plaited bamboo slivers are the walls; splitbamboo shields that resemble corrugatediron sheets make the roof On crop festivalsthe entire village dances on bambooplatformswhile the priest offers prayers togod Doni-polo (literallysun-moon)before bamboo alters called kharun andagyang. "That is how our ancestors taughtus to liveChalla explains.

The ecological advantages offered by bamboo are immense. As bamboo roots spread along the top soil, they prevent soil erosion. Says I V Ramanuja Rao, principal R scientist at the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), New Delhi,. Even a 100-m high bamboo culm willhave roots spread in two feet (ft@ depthstitching the top soil together." Bambooalso provides the highest biomass per unitarea. Growing mostly as a secondary speciesit is the firstamong vegetation to take roots wherever degradation hascrept in. Even the fallow land after shift cultivation canharbour bamboozNBAR scientists point out.

The Apathani have kept their bamboo away from marauding "outsiders". But right where the Ziro highland slopes intothe plainstruck tracks leadinto the forests. At the state borderpoint with Bhogpur Chariali of Assam"s North Lakhimpurdistrictthere is buzzing commercial activity. Observing localvillagers cutting kako (D hamiltonii) bamboo poles from theadjoining Drupang range of Arunachal and huddling theminto a truckforest department scientist Asham BoranglamentsThere is no way out. This is government- sponsored exploitation of our resources.

Borang"s indignatiqR flares up more when he sees buyersmake a killing. Cost caltulations are flawed. An official fromthe Drupang range office "at Sade Bazar explainsEach truck can carry 300 16-ft (three m) bamboo poles. But in official reCords the count remains 200. His efforts to raise the issuewith higher authorities have been unsuccessful. The stateforest department earns Rs 114 per truck: roughly60paise for every pole of bamboo officiallybut only 40 paise actually. About 20 trucks cross the Bhogpur checkpoint every monthand the cumulative loss is huge.

The truckers say they sell the bamboo to paper mills at ahigher premium. Compared to internationally accepted ratesthe Bhogpur rates are cheap. A paper prepared by Jules J AJanssen of the Eindhoven Institute of Technologythe NetherlandssaysA fair mean is us $1 (about Rs 30) for a culm of eight-m length. The price is valid for many local markets all over the world.Going by that ratebamboo crossing theBhogp .ur border should fetch 20 times more revenue. Thiskind of underselling is rampant in the country. In 1986theCentre for Science and Environment (CSE) had pointed out tothe Union council of ministers that local artisans in Karnatakaand Maharashtra had been denied easy access to bambooforests while the state forest departments let the paper industry devour them.

Forest policies have changed in certain states for the betterbut user communities have not yet received their full rights.The industry is still pushing the idea of its own plantationswhile opponents argue that it should buy bamboo from farmers or grow it in wastelands. In Indiabamboo forests occupyabout 10 million haroughly 13 per cent of the total forest areaof the country. Average yield of bamboo is 10 - 15 t per ha.With a production of 3.23 million t of bamboo a yearIndia issecond only to China. But despite the tremendous scope fordevelopmentour record has remained dismal.

Mammen Chundamannil of the Kerala Forest ResearchInstitutePeechihad pointed out in the 1988 InternationalBamboo Workshop held in CochinIn the last couple of decades, bamboo, which was an abundant resource and was considered inexhaustible, has become a scarce item.In themid-80sthe paper mills of the southafter having wiped clearlocal bamboo resourcesshifted their focus to the north-eastespecially Assam. Extensive tracts of northern Assam"s bamboo forests were decimated. TodayArunachal (where a suicidal timber trade already flourishes) offers rich hunting grounds.

The doling out continues. According to INBAR literatureBamboo is a non-timber forest product (NFTP). NFTPS generally, and especially commodities such as bamboo and rattan, are disproportionately important to poor people. The raw materials are widely available at low costs. Indeed, part of the problem is that these resources are treated as free goods and so, overexploited.Says Brian BelcherINBAR"S principal economistThe critical issue is subsidies (on the raw material). The industry gets bamboo at a subsidised rate.

Bamboo resources are not even commercially accountedfor. The Arunachal forest departmentfor instancehas no up-to-date bamboo inventory or revenue figures. Going by thelate 1980s figuresthe departmental revenue from bamboo haslacked punch:

Species Revenue (Rs / 100 poles)
B vulgaris
B tulda
B balcoa
D hamiltonii
D strictus
Source: Arunachal Pradesh state forest department

In Arunachalthe first signs of depletion are showing up inpockets of uncontrolled extraction. Says Soumen Dey fromcapital Itanagar"s World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF-1)office: "Earlieryou could get bamboo for household needseven from roadside groves. Nowone has to go into interiorforests." Dey points out that WWF has a conservation programme to protect the rare bamboo biodiversity (at least 25species) of the state. Howeverhe ruefully notesIt cannot go on forever - with this kind of extraction.

But extraction is justified because bamboo needs to beutilised. The bamboo has a short life-cycle coupled with a highgrowth rate. Some species of bamboo culms can mature fully within two years. They attain full height (three ft to 120 ft) inthree monthswhile certain species grow upto 48 inches within 24 hours. Left alonebamboo culms die off after floweringwhich occurs from cycles varying between five to 60 yearsdepending on the species. Once the bamboo diesthe wholeclump dries upmaking it an ideal fuel for forest fires.

Foresters haNe not been kind to bamboohaving oftendestroyed bamboo forests to prevent fires. Says state chief conservator of forests (CCF) K Nanchoom: "There is no completeinventory of bamboo. We have seen bamboo forests gettingreduced in area as well as density." Nanchoom blames theunscientific collection by humansgrazing (which destroystender shoots)forest fires and clearfelling by the forestdepartment as main causes for degradation.

In Arunachalthe possibility of value-added bamboo production has remained by and large ignored. Handicraft promotional activities are limited. Says M Pertincommissionerof induslriesPeople use bamboo for everything, but they are not interested in making money out of it.There have beenefforts - largely futilethough - at procuring financial assistance for promoting bamboo crafts. Says K K Bakshiassistantdirectorhandicrafts: "Last yearI forwarded Rs 2 lakh asgrand-in-aid."Of itonly Rs 500was used; the rest lapsed."

Driven by the spirit of liberalisationthe state forestdepartment is keen to opt for income -generating measures.An "80s feasibility study had shown the possibility of a 100 tper day capacity paper millwhich was shelved due to lack ofinfrastructure. S S PatnaikCCFoffers the pragmatic viewprevalent in the forest department: "Bamboo as of now isgoing waste in several places. It can be utilised and incomegenerated." He points out that by imposing strict control andregularising extraction cyclqsbamboo forests can bemanagedsaying that "paper mills have shown interest".

Economic compulsions have also lent justification to thepaper industry"s move to capiialise on unutilised bambooreserves. Pulp import remains"a costly propositionand softwood availability is fast depleting. The Indian PaperManufacturers" Association has also mooted the idea of settingup captive plantations by the industry. Howeverthe industry"s tardy record has led grassroots activists to expressingreservations about such moves. The Arunachal Pradeshdepartment of industries is enthusiastic about the ingress ofthe paper industry in the state. Says PertinWe welcome any such move. In fact, we are looking forward to an industry willing to set up plant here.

Scientistshoweverplead for caution. Says Haridasanabamboo expert with the State Forest Research Institute (SFRI)ItanagarWe have adequate resources. A paper mill can be started here, but bamboo exploitation should be strictly regularised.He also points out that there can be any number ofotherwise profitable business ventures that can be sustainedwithout adversely affecting the bamboo reserves.

Foresters have recommended the following managementpractices for judicious extraction:
Cutting during October to February in four-year cycles

Retention of six old culms for every new culm present in the clump

Regular removal of malformed culms

Leaving aside natural groves and letting the industry have their own plantation

Meanwhile NGO activists have pointed out that the industry can buy from farmers who have of late started cultivatingbamboo in their fields. In Assam and Keralabamboo homesteads provide additional income to farmers.

A section of scientists supports the viewpointing out thata witch-hunt of the paper industry is unwarranted. Moreoverwithout a policy changesetting up of an alternate value-addedproduction network is only expected to add to the competition for the resources.

The grass of plenty
The Vietnamese call it My brotherthe ChineseFriend of thepeople. Haridasan points out that "there are hundreds of waysof using bamboo". Thomas Alva Edisonthe brain behind theelectric lamphad used carbonised filament of bamboo for hisearly invention. Razor-sharp bamboo peel has occasionallyreplaced surgical knives. The Japanese reportedly know 1500ways of using the plant.

Traditional engineering innovationslike the suspensionbridges built by the Monpa tribals of Arunachalalso abound.In Biharbamboo is replacing steel in tubewell pipes because itis cheaperrust-free and more durable. The Allahabad-basedViklang Kendraa rehabilitation centre for the handicappedmakes artificial limbs from bamboo. In Bangladeshbamboois used *a 70 per cent of the rural housing. Besidessays RaoBamboo can be a high quality activated carbon absorbant. Right now, the best activated carbon is obtained from coconut shell; bamboo is next in line.

With tensile strength comparable to steelbamboo standsout as an excellent engineering material. Bamboo fibres havethe potential to replace glass fibres in manufacturing fibre-glass. Bamboo panel boards are becoming an interior decorators" delight. Water-proof concrete shuttering is yet another innovative way of using the plant.

In Costa Ricaa major housing project is utilising local-bamboo. Bamboo houses are also being considered as anoption for disaster housing and refugee housing. While inKenyabamboo is vital for soil stabilisation and constructionit is used in wine-making in Tanzania. In the late"70s and early"80sthe Tanzanian government had provided drinking waterto 1060villagers through bamboo pipes; a 63-mm diameterbamboo pipe proved to be four times cheaper than plasticpipes. Thanks to these movesin Africathe cost of bamboohas increased 10-fold over the last few years.

To give them creditIndian scientists too have initiatedseveral technological advancements. The Dehradun-basedForest Research Institute has come up with a mode of treatingbamboocalled the baucherie methodin which the bamboosap is pressurised out and replaced with boron-based preservatives. Rao"s labotatory in the University of Delhi hasdeveloped a method of producing bamboo through tissueculture. The Nationa "I Chemical LaboratoryPunehitinternational headlines some time ago when they chemicallyinduced flowering il@ bamboo. The SFRIItanagarhasdeveloped vegetative propagation methods of the plant.

Bamboo could be the answer to some of our traumas. SaysRaoEven if five per cent of wood can be substituted by bamboo, it will be a good achievement.But as Haridasan pointsouta lot needs to be done. The experience in severalSoutheast Asian nations show howwith innovative usagebamboo has given shape to vibrantsustainable localeconomies. India has the potential of emulating that featbutit needs first to overcome the huge gap marked by researchand its applicationbesides the red tape hurdle between thecommunity and the forest bureaucracy.

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