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National Geographic - Bamboo - The Giant Grass

National Geographic - Bamboo - The Giant Grass
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Bamboo and Rattan Facts

A sixty foot tree cut for market takes 60 years to replace. A sixty foot bamboo cut for market takes 59 days to replace.

Over one billion people in the world live in bamboo houses.

The world trade in bamboo and rattan is currently estimated at 14 billion US dollars every year.

The majority of bamboo and rattan harvested for market is harvested by women and children, most of whom live at or below subsistence levels in developing countries.


Bamboos are giant, woody grasses which put out several full length, full diameter, naturally pre-finished, ready-to-use culms ("stems") each year. A single bamboo clump can produce up to 15 kilometres of usable pole (up to 30 cm in diameter) in its lifetime.

Bamboo is the most diverse group of plants in the grass family, and the most primitive sub-family. It is distinguished by a woody culm, complex branching, a generally robust rhizome system and infrequent flowering.

It has a tropical and subtropical (cosmopolitan) distribution, ranging from 46 N to 47S latitude, reaching elevations as high as 4,000 m in the Himalayas and parts of China. Bamboo is very adaptable, with some species being deciduous and others evergreen.

The taxonomy of the bamboo remains poorly understood, though the general consensus seems to be that bamboo numbers between 60 and 90 genera with 1,100 to 1,500 species.

Described as the 'wood of the poor' (India), 'friend of the people' (China) and 'brother' (Vietnam), bamboo is a wonder plant that grows over wide areas of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. Millions of people depend on this plant for their livelihood. It has become so much a part of the culture and memory of societies that the existence of a Bamboo Age has not been ruled out.

Its use in food and cooking goes far back in history. Exports of bamboo shoots from Taiwan alone amount to $50 million (US). Apart from traditional uses, bamboo has many new applications as a substitute for fast depleting wood and as an alternative to more expensive materials.

Modern paper industry has expanded to such an extent that 2.2 million tonnes of bamboo are used in India for this purpose.

Bamboo furniture is an expanding business. In the Philippines, between 1985-1994, exports rose from $625,000 to $1.2 million.

Bamboo's potential for checking soil erosion and for road embankment stabilization are now becoming known. It is equally important for providing fast vegetative cover to deforested areas.

Bamboo's role in the construction field is equally substantial. Hundreds of millions of people live in houses made from bamboo. In Bangladesh, 73% of the population live in bamboo houses. It provides pillars, walls, window frames, rafters, room separators, ceilings and roofs.

In Borneo and in the Naga Hills of India, large communal houses of 100 feet in length have been built of bamboo. Throughout rural Asia it is used for building bridges, from the sophisticated technology of suspension bridges to the simpler pontoon bridges. Bamboo scaffoldings are found throughout Asia, and they are employed on the high rise structures of Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Bamboo is also used for musical instruments of all three types: percussion or hammer instruments, wind instruments, and stringed instruments. In Java, 20 different musical instruments have been fashioned of bamboo. The flute may have been invented by cave people toying with a hollow bamboo stem.


Rattans are spiny climbing palms in the tropical forests that can attain lengths of over 185 metres. There are 13 rattan genera with 700 known species.

Growing in the tropics and sub-tropics, rattan, or cane as it is commonly known, is a ready source for the cane furniture industry. It is collected from the wild forests throughout Southeast Asia and is the most vital forest produce after timber. Its social significance is no less. It provides sustainable income to some of the most disadvantaged segments of people living in and on the fringes of forests.

Because of its strength and flexibility, the stem of rattan is used extensively in the manufacture of cane furniture and in matting. Other uses of rattan, mostly in the rural areas, are for cordage, in construction, basketry, thatching and matting. Long before the Portuguese discovered the trade route to the East and took back rattan (along with the other wonder, spices) it had been an invaluable part of the life of the rural folk throughout Southeast Asia.

Even at the beginning of the century, rattan trade had been considerable, with Singapore as the main clearinghouse. With practically no rattan resources, Singapore earned more than $21 million (US) from the processing and manufacture of semi-finished goods.

In the 1970s, Indonesia became the major supplier of rattan, accounting for nearly 70 percent of the entire global trade. Since then, the trade profile had undergone dramatic changes. The value of export has increased a stupendous 250-fold in just 17 years in Indonesia. The rise has been 75-fold in 15 years in the Philippines, 23-fold in 9 years in Thailand and 12-fold in 8 years in Malaysia. Indonesia, the market leader, has now set its target for exports at $700 million (US), while Singapore aims at a target of $60 million.

Trade in rattan has burgeoned into a multimillion-dollar industry. Trade in raw rattan worldwide was in the order of $50 million. By the time the finished product reaches the consumer, its value has increased to $1.2 billion. Overall, the global trade is worth $4 billion and domestic trade $2.5 million.

Rattan is increasing in popularity because it is easy to work with, requiring only simple tools and low-cost machines. It lends itself to uncomplicated labour-intensive processing and thus generates diverse employment, and its manufacturing costs are minimal. It is environmentally friendly and biodegradable: it "hugs" the trees and saves them from the logger's axe by providing equal or more benefit than the companion tree, without disturbing the natural habitat.

Rattan has a unique beauty in the finished goods form, reflecting the traditional skills and the unique allure of material fashioned by human hands. Rattan products have come to be cherished throughout the world for their elegance and simplicity.

Ecologically, rattan is very important. It grows in degraded forests and in marginal soil. It can also be introduced artificially in natural forests without disturbing the existing structure and balance.

Rattan Glossary - by Dennis V. Johnson - A publication on consistent terms and definitions on rattan and its products, based on the recommendations of the "FAO/INBAR Expert consultation on Rattan development".


(I interned here with Raphael Vasconcellos [] in Beijing, China for 2 Weeks. Interesting experience; I withhold my critique.)
Date: 2005-02-11 19:02:00

2005 bamboo bambu joaobambu National Geographic Scan picasa2 edited grass graminea grama zhu taka phylostachys chusquea bambusa picasa magazine cover

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i <3 this pic. definitely very inspirational.
lana42 2009-05-06 00:02:43

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