Whenever we think about food security, we think about grain crops, yields, and whatever ends up on your plate. However, as I already discussed in this post about efficient cooking stoves, we tend to forget that most food (specifically grains) has to be cooked before it can be consumed, so that cooking fuel becomes part of the central equation of households: if you don’t have access to firewood, you will have to buy it; the more people cut down trees, the more expensive firewood (or charcoal) will become; and the more money you spend on your fuel, the less you can spend on your actual food – increasing your household’s food insecurity.
Now, an IPS news article reported about an exciting new development in Ethiopia – according to the Ethiopian government, the country is at the forefront of Africa’s “bamboo industrial revolution“. The country has 1 million hectares of commercially untapped bamboo, the largest such area in East Africa. Policy makers hope that through a combination of foreign direct investment and political support of the rapidly developing manufacturing industry, it will be possible to establish a viable bamboo product supply chain (for example for flooring products to be exported to European and US markets). This is important for Ethiopia’s macroeconomic development and could create jobs that increase household income and thus increase food security through ensuring better economic access to food. But is there a closer link to be made?
The article argues that yes indeed, the increased use of bamboo could be critical to enhance food security and sustainability alike. As 90% of Sub-Saharan households rely on firewood or charcoal for their daily cooking, deforestation has become a serious problem in many countries, and fuel prices spiked accordingly. Ethiopia had been hit especially hard with some of the highest deforestation rates in Africa – from an original 40% of land surface, forest cover had decreased to barely 3% a decade ago (though it has since increased to 7% through a number of sustainability initiatives).
Here is where bamboo could make a huge difference: Unlike softwood trees, which require 30 years until maturity, bamboo is a fully mature resource in only three years! Thus, if bamboo forests are sustainably managed, they could offer great potential to be a highly yielding renewable resource.
The Ethiopian government has already prohibited the creation of charcoal from burnt wood for retail purposes as a reaction to the problems of deforestation, and now seems to move towards the second step of actively advocating for the use of bamboo as an alternative cooking fuel.
The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), an inter-governmental organization seeking to help governments and communities to “identify bamboo-based opportunities for human development“, just convened an African Bamboo Workshop in Addis Ababa with more than 100 participants, including senior government leaders from 12 African countries. The organization tries to share lessons learnt in Asia, where bamboo production was also connected to unsustainable forestry practices and illegal logging, and to present bamboo as one of the “most important fast-growing strategic intervention for afforestation and reforestation in the mountainous and degraded areas in the country“, as the Ethiopian State Minister and INBAR Council Chair Ato Sileshi Getahun was quoted as saying.
Despite the promising prospects, there still remain two huge “but..”s in my mind. The first one was taken up at the workshop by Denis Thieulin, Head of Cooperation for the European Union Delegation to Ethiopia. He noted that “well-defined and legally-recognised user rights and benefit sharing arrangements are preconditions for sustainable smallholder ￼bamboo production.”
This is a point we hear again and again when studying the theory of natural resource management – unless people feel ownership for a particular resource in question, they will try to exploit it individually to the largest extent possible, leading to the so-called Tragedy of the Commons and an overuse of the resource that brings about its degradation. Even if bamboo only has a three year growth period until maturity, you still have to manage it those three years and protect the young stalks from being prematurely harvested; such patience is only likely if you are certain you will reap the rewards later, and that certainty can only come from clear use rights.
My second “but..” is linked to the Ethiopian policy strategy, and to the point above. It seems their two-pronged approach aims to satisfy both the local agenda (food security) and the macro-economic development agenda (bamboo industry growth), but I feel it might be likely that those two will clash over the use of the resource if they are not coordinated very skillfully.
In Ethiopia, all land is state-owned, with communities given use rights and guaranteed “commensurate compensation” in case of expropriation. However, in practice it has been argued that this compensation is often a lot lower than market value. In the event of a boom of the Ethiopian bamboo industrial sector, the bamboo’s value would be much greater for the industry than what farmers could pay for it, though it might be essential for their survival. This poses both opportunities and risks:
On the one hand, it creates great opportunities for farmers’ incomes if their use rights are protected and industry has to buy the bamboo from them. On the other hand, it could also bring about threats that the government decides that the bamboo forests are essential for its macro-economic strategy and declares to redefine the land use or resource ownership, leading to the rural population losing out to the industrial development strategy. It will remain to be seen how these two important goals are coordinated without getting into conflict with one another.
Have you heard of the “bamboo revolution”? What are your thoughts?