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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 159 | Octubre 1994
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Nicaragua

The Thousand and One Uses of Bamboo

With bamboo you can build a whole house: roof, walls, drains and doors. With bamboo you can make furniture, cloth and paper. You can also eat it, and it’s delicious. And it sells well. It produces the best wood at the least environmental cost. There are a thousand and one reasons while the millennial bamboo should be developed in Nicaragua.

Raquel Fernández

The world demand for wood for both construction and the manufacture of cellulose, paper, resins, charcoal and a thousand other uses climbs daily. The demand is so high that forests can no longer regenerate without help. Even in the few countries with an effective reforestation policy, expectations are small. Trees seem to be losing the battle.

To resolve such a serious problem, which also affects human beings, a substitute must be found for wood, one that could be used massively without damaging the environment. This material exists, is known and has been used by humanity for thousands of years already. It's bamboo.

Although its size and appearance leads one to think of it as a tree, it isn't. It's a woody grass, fast growing and spontaneously cultivated. Bamboo differs from the majority of grasses in its size and life span. It can grow over 100 feet in height and 45 60 centimeters in diameter, and can live up to a century. As for the rest the way it is born, the way it lives and grows it's like any other gramineous plant. And just like rice, wheat, barley or our sacred maize, it dies when it flowers and bears fruit.

When one speaks of bamboo, the first image that comes to mind is a tropical forest inhabited by ferocious animals and human beings who adapt to the steamy heat by wearing very little. But some varieties of bamboo are native to zones so cold that they can survive several months of the year buried in snow, like those in northern Japan, or those growing in the Andes, 4,000 meters above sea level. Bamboo is native to all continents except Europe, where not only are there no bamboo forests, but attempts to acclimate them have had limited success or been outright failures.

The South Sea Islands have extensive bamboo forests, and Africa also has a native strain. In the Americas, bamboo forests extend from the southern United States to northern Argentina.

Asia is where bamboo began to be used, over 6,000 years ago. Since then, Asians have been experimenting with uses and possibilities. They have found more than 500 applications: human and animal food, construction, furniture, clothing, jewelry and medicines, to say nothing of various industrial and even aeronautical uses.

It Flowers, then Dies

Although human beings have used bamboo for millennia, they still know little about this plant, which has succeeded in hiding many of its intimate secrets from the scrutiny of observers and scientists. For example, it is not known for sure how many genera and species of bamboo exist in the world, although it is estimated that there are more than 50 genera and somewhere between 600 and double that number of species. It is imperative to know the characteristics of the flower and fruit of a vegetable to precisely define its genus and species. But bamboo can go up to a century or more without flowering, and thus, without giving fruit. Many people have lived long lives in a landscape full of bamboo, and died without ever seeing even one flower.

Perhaps it's better that way because the entire bamboo outcropping dies after producing its fruit. That's because the whole forest, even though it may extend over a hundred miles, is all one root system, like any grass. And when its original source dries out and dies, it all dries out and dies.

In Asia, the flowering of the bamboo is considered a sign of prolonged misfortune and famine. And not without reason: after blooming and dying, bamboo requires some 10 to 12 years to regenerate, and these years are very difficult for populations that live in, off of and with bamboo.

Not Sown from Seed

Bamboo is not easily or frequently reproduced from seeds, since it rarely produces them. It is done from the subterranean rhizomes. The bamboo roots, full of these small buds, extend out beneath the soil, and every so often send up a new shoot. The roots of some species are thick and short, which causes the shoots to grow grouped together, in very compact clusters. Or they are long and thin, and advance long distances below the surface. This is very important information when defining what kind of bamboo is best for each use.

From time immemorial, the different cultures that have lived off of bamboo learned how to cultivate it. It is not difficult to plant, and the method is similar in all species. A meter long cutting of a young bamboo shoot, with a bud on at least one of its nodes, is buried in the ground at a slant, with one end peaking through the dirt. It is a good idea to plant it with the first rains, and make sure it gets abundant water until it is well rooted.

When the new shoot breaks through the ground, it comes with its full bore; it will never get any thicker. That makes it easy to know what each stalk will be used for, well ahead of time, even though it may take years to get tall enough to be ready for its destiny.

Bamboo is the fastest growing plant in all of nature. A new shoot grows an average 8 15 centimeters a day in its natural environment. In experimental cultivations under optimal conditions, it can grow more than a meter a day. No other species, even other grasses, can approach this record.

At this speed, the shoot reaches its maximum height in an average of three months. From then on, the stalk begins its long maturation process, which can take from three to six years, depending on the species and on the use that will be made of it. During this time, the stalk which is relatively soft at first goes through a structural transformation known as lignification, in which it becomes woody.

It Must Be Cut at Sunset

At approximately six years, the bamboo gets as hard as it will ever get. That is the time to harvest it, because old age sets in rapidly after that, which could affect the health and even the existence of the whole outcropping, should it flower and die.

Once it has rooted, bamboo generally required very little care. But care must be lavished on it at harvest time if one wants healthy stalks, appropriate for their different uses, and hopes to maintain the health of the whole forest.

Given bamboo's growth system, the stalks ready for cutting are at the center of the outcropping. Cutters must move around that area, among the firm, tall trunks, selectively harvesting only the mature ones. An experienced cutter easily recognizes trunks that are ready by the quantity, consistency and form of their leaves and branches. Unlike trees, which get more branches the older they get, bamboo gets balder as the years pass.

A mix of custom, superstition or mystery which science has been unable to debunk due to lack of information counsels that the bamboo stalks to be used in construction or furniture should be cut three or four days after a full moon. It is also recommended that they be cut in late afternoon, a few hours after the sun has crossed the zenith, when the sap has begun its return to the roots.

The characteristics of bamboo wood require cutting it at 30 50 centimeters above the ground and with a fine tooth power saw or very sharp machete to avoid splintering it. If the wood is to be used in carpentry or construction, it is recommended that it be left to cure for a week, propped up at an angle against a rock so ants don't attack it.

Bamboo stalks are very light, making it easy to haul the cut trunks out of the forest depths. Two or three men are enough for the stalks of the thickest species, and one can carry those of other varieties. Heavy tractors or tow trucks are neither needed nor recommended, since they chew up the smaller vegetable life and could even run over a newly budding rhizome, appointed to extend the outcropping further. Nor are enormous investments in access roads necessary, since these roads only serve to damage the root extensions. In sum, the extraction of such valuable wood is both cheap and easy.

Appropriately harvested, bamboo can produce new stalks each year without need of reforesting, and without exhausting the forest. It can provide an entire century of constant extraction.

You Can Have Your Bamboo and Eat It, Too

One of the great challenges of cultivating bamboo is keeping the cattle a respectful distance from its leaves. The bark and leaves of bamboo make appetizing and protein rich forage for cattle, goats and sheep, but animals tramping through the outcropping can do a lot of damage. In countries with a long tradition of cultivating and using bamboo, ranchers prune the leaves without damaging the stalk, and give them to their cattle elsewhere.

Human beings can also eat bamboo. The new shoots that have just pushed through the soil are tender and edible. As with asparagus, it is necessary to keep building up the soil around them, or they become fibrous and lose their quality.

After the shoot first emerges, it should be continually covered with dirt for about 10 15 days, until it reaches a height of some 30 centimeters. Then it can be cut. It is then boiled for a long time, like beans. It is as tasty as potatoes, and much more nutritious.

The international demand for canned bamboo shoots has expanded at the same speed that Japan and the "Asian tigers" has moved into the world economy, which suggests a bright future for this nontraditional product.

Medicines, Charcoal, Cloth, Paper...

Bamboo is used in many products that we are not even aware of. Rayon, so in vogue in recent years for bold fashions with great sweeps of fabric, is made with bamboo fiber. During World War II the use of woven bamboo panels was experimented with in airplane construction. Components obtained from bamboo are used in cosmetics to keep skin and hair beautiful. The pharmaceutical industry has discovered that certain substances extracted from bamboo have anti carcinogenic effects. Charcoal made from bamboo has more advantages than any other charcoal in making electric batteries. And, on a more historic note, the carbon filaments that Edison used in his experiments to create an incandescent light bulb were made from bamboo.

Among bamboo's thousand and one uses, one is particularly key: paper manufacturing. Each year, thousands of acres of forest are sacrificed to make paper. Often these forests are never replaced. Sometimes this is because it is impossible: human beings don't know how to imitate the complexity and variety of a natural forest. Other times, the shortsighted criteria of the exploiting defoliating lumber companies do not include investing in reforestation. On still other occasions, the decision is made to use the tree razed forest lands for theoretically more profitable ends: extensive cattle grazing or frontier agriculture, or suburbanized small town sprawl. One way or another, our planet is rapidly turning into a desert.

Bamboo is an alternative. Its advantage over a forest is that it can be managed over unlimited periods without much difficulty. In addition, bamboo fiber is much better than wood or any other fiber for paper manufacturing. A fiber's utility is calculated on the basis of its length thickness ratio. The longer and thinner the fiber, the better the paper produced. Precise calculations already exist about how much bamboo is needed to produce paper: a hectare of bamboo outcroppings produces approximately a ton of paper pulp.

Elegant and Inexpensive Housing

Virtually the only houses made of bamboo that come to mind in many parts of the world are the fragile huts in which the natives in Tarzan movies lived. One sweep of a lion's paw or a strong gust of wind, and the hut was no more.

It was necessary for the martial arts movies protagonized by Asians to break onto the scene for us to be able to admire the elegant, three story mansions constructed of pure bamboo, in which the wealthy in those economically powerful countries live. Bamboo housing, which in the Americas is considered a manifestation of poverty bordering on indigence, is in the Asian countries a sign of opulence.

Bamboo has multiple uses in construction, from exterior rafters and walls, to interior partitions, water pipes and roofing tiles. Anything can be built with bamboo: the inside walls with braided bamboo; the exterior ones with fatter trunks; piping with the finer ones; roof tiles with split bamboo. Bamboo can be plastered over to give it greater consistency, and the final appearance would be that of any house raised with conventional materials.

Bamboo has several advantages. Its flexibility makes it anti seismic, as experience has shown. In Puerto Limón, Costa Rica, the only homes to withstand the 1991 earthquake were made of bamboo. Before that, Costa Ricans viewed bamboo houses with mistrust, but, since then, their interest has been growing significantly.

Yet another advantage: bamboo houses isolate their inhabitants from cold, heat and noise, because of the air chambers in the bamboo trunks. Bamboo is also used to make prefabricated panels, which are more resistant and flexible as well as lighter than conventional ones. They are very advisable in guabe zones, because a house with bamboo walls is very unlikely to come down in an earthquake, now matter how strong. And should it happen, the lightness of the materials will avoid loss of lives.

Perhaps the most decisive advantage is its cost. To look presentable, conventional construction in Nicaragua requires an investment of between US$250 and $350 per square meter. To achieve the same finished look, bamboo only requires $75 100.

Visionary Nicaraguans Believe in Bamboo

Bamboo has a bad press in Nicaragua. Housing of cane or bamboo is fine for the humble house of the indigenous multitudes, or for the patio construction of a rustic bar. But no one "decent" would live in one of "those." In Monimbó, an indigenous neighborhood of Masaya, houses were traditionally built of cane. When the Sandinista government decided to financing new housing there in the first years of the revolution, the first thing the local population insisted on was that the new houses not be made of bamboo. They would only accept concrete.

The Nicaraguan population's resistance to bamboo was such that some successful research being developed by the Ministry of Housing and Human Settlements had to be shelved and was later forgotten. Only one visionary, expelled time and again for his ability to think with his own head, continued working with bamboo on a farm in Matagalpa that was free of prejudice.

Alan Bolt, the creative and crazy visionary, together with the other creative and crazy members of the theater troupe Nixtayolero, planted bamboo, bought bamboo, experimented with bamboo, built with bamboo and energetically withstood the ridiculing of all those know it alls who opposed bamboo. When Alan got a chance to continue his professional development in Chile and went off to that country, the bamboo stayed in the hands of the Association for the Promotion of Bamboo and Local Materials, made up of several of his old theater mates. Among them is Iván Castellón, a man as tall and thin as a bamboo rod and in love with the plant.

A History of Efforts and Ridicule

The association has had a difficult life. Supported by the mayor, a woman, its members found a spot in the indigenous town of Catarina to demonstrate bamboo's excellent construction properties. In 1990 they built a kiosk of bamboo in the town's main square, where they sold drinks. It had a covered patio to protect customers from the rain and sun. They proposed to put up bamboo constructions all over the park, with children's games, rest areas and other details, turning the area into an enchanted space.

One municipal councilor opposed the project from the outset. "I give them six months before that whole hut falls down around them," he repeated to anyone who would listen. Since it was still standing after six months, he extended his deadline.

Four years passed and the kiosk didn't fall down, but then, for one political reason or other, the councilor became mayor. His first act of government was to pull down the kiosk and replace it with a lean to made of leftover sheets of zinc, all in the name of progress. Meanwhile, the association's spacious and elegantly designed headquarters, with its multiple levels, staircases, windows, storage rooms and every last piece of furniture made entirely of bamboo, is still standing.

"A whole house and all its furnishings can be made of pure bamboo," says Iván Castellón. "The whole house, the furniture, the plates, the spoons, even the knives and glasses. Only the pots and pans and anything else that has to be in direct contact with fire would have to be of metal. All the rest could be of bamboo, and at better prices."

Nicaragua Needs Bamboo

According to conservative estimates, Nicaragua has a housing deficit of half a million units. This means that at least 2.5 million Nicaraguans over half the population live in someone else's house and/or in overcrowded conditions. Building that many houses would mean the almost inevitable destruction of the forests still standing. Or it would mean using bamboo.

Bamboo is not unknown in the country. When the banana transnationals came to the country, they already knew that the land where a particular type of bamboo grew extensively was good for growing bananas. They didn't hesitate in razing the bamboo. It was hard, because outcroppings of bamboo are hard to eliminate. Not even fire gets rid of them completely. They may look gone, but a few new shoots always appear when the rains come.

There are still enormous extensions of bamboo in Chinandega, where entire communities live from it. But technology is so scant that it doesn't help them escape from their poverty. "In Nicaragua," says Castellón, "bamboo is seen as a sign of poverty, or of exoticism. This mentality must be changed, because bamboo could solve a number of problems for Nicaragua and many other countries." With this criterion, his association has already organized several courses to train artisans to manage and work with bamboo.

Castellón believes that bamboo should be planted massively, particularly in places like Carazo, where several rivers have recently dried up due to the chaotic management or non management of the forests. Some varieties of bamboo attract rain and enrich the topsoil.

A Symbol of Persistence

When the poisonous vapors finally dissipated over Hiroshima, after the atomic bomb was dropped there in 1945, the brigades that ventured into the epicenter found only death and destruction. Everything had been wiped out, nothing remained. But there, in the middle of the crater of death, firmly stood a stalk of bamboo. It was totally burned, lifeless, but it stood erect, like a proud symbol of hope.

Bamboo is an extraordinarily resistant vegetable. Nicaragua has an almost unlimited potential for its cultivation, since bamboo likes hilly terrain. The nude slopes of the deforested mountains could well turn into bamboo groves to resolve some of Nicaragua's many huge problems, such as housing. Why not?
A bamboo promotion policy is needed, with ample information about its possibilities, the quantity and quality of solutions that it could contribute to the country's daily life, so that its use will be generalized. Nothing prevents this being done, other than deeply rooted cultural prejudices. Let's hope that the roots of these prejudices are less persistent than those of the age old bamboo.

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