Q&A: Creating an African Bamboo Industry as Large as China’s

Hans Friederich at a Chinese bamboo plantation. Photo Courtesy of INBAR

By Jamila Akweley Okertchiri
ACCRA, Dec 5 2018 (IPS)

The bamboo industry in China currently comprises up to 10 million people who make a living out of production of the grass. But while the Asian nation has significant resources of bamboo — three million hectares of plantation and three million hectares of natural forests — the continent of Africa is recorded to have an estimated three and a half million hectares of plantations, excluding conservation areas.

This means that there is a possibility of creating a similar size industry in Africa, according to International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) director general Dr. Hans Friederich.

“In China, where the industry is developed, we have eight to 10 million people who make a living out of bamboo. They grow bamboo, manufacture things out of bamboo and sell bamboo poles. That has given them a livelihood and a way to build a local economy to create a future for themselves and their children,” he tells IPS.

INBAR is the only international organisation championing the development of environmentally sustainable bamboo and rattan. It has 44 member states — 43 of which are in the global south — with the secretariat headquarters based in China, and with regional offices in India, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Ecuador. Over the years, the multilateral development organisation has trained up to 25,000 people across the value chain – from farmers and foresters to entrepreneurs and policymakers.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Africa is estimated to have three and a half million hectares of bamboo. While China has about six million hectares of natural forests, almost double the size of Africa’s, experts say there is potential for developing the industry on the continent. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Inter Press Service (IPS): What has been INBAR’s Role in the South-South Cooperation agenda?

Dr. Hans Friederich (DHF): In fact, a lot of our work over the last 21 years is to link our headquarters in China with our regional offices and our members around the world to help develop policies, put in place appropriate legislation and regulations to build capacity, train local people, provide information, and carry out real field research to test new approaches to manage resources in the most efficient way.

I think we [have been] able to help our members more effectively and do more in the way of training and capacity building. I also hope we can develop bamboo and rattan as vehicles for sustainable development with our member countries around the world, especially in the Global South.

IPS: What are the prospects for Africa’s bamboo and rattan industry?

DHF: The recorded statistics say that Africa has about three and half million hectares of bamboo, which excludes conservation [areas].

So, if I were to make a guess, Africa has as much bamboo as China [excluding China’s natural forests] and that means theoretically, we should have the possibility of creating an industry as large as China’s in Africa. That means an industry of 30 billion dollars per a year employing 10 million people.

IPS: How is INBAR helping to develop such a huge potential in Africa?

DHF: The returns we are seeing in China may not happen overnight in Africa, China has had 30 to 40 years to develop this industry.

But what we are doing is working with our members in Africa to kick off the bamboo value chain to start businesses and help members make the most out of these plants.

IPS: Working with countries from the global south means replication of best practices and knowledge sharing among member states. Are there any good examples worth mentioning?

DHF: China is the world’s leading country when it comes to the production and management of bamboo so we have a lot to learn from China. Fortunately China has the financial resources that makes it easy to share that information and knowledge with our members …Looking at land management activities in Ghana, as an example, I think bamboo can really help in restoring lands that have been damaged through illegal mining activities.

Maybe that is actually where we can learn from other African countries because we are already looking at how bamboo can help with the restoration of degraded lands in Ethiopia.

Also, when we had a training workshop in Cameroon last year and we looked at architecture, we brought an architect from Peru who shared his experience of working with bamboo in Latin America, which was quite applicable to Cameroon. So we are using experience from different parts of the world to help others develop what they think is important.

IPS: What is the most important thing in the development of the bamboo and rattan value chain for an African country like Ghana?

DHF: There are a number of things that we can do. One area that Ghana is already working on with regards to bamboo and rattan, is furniture production. I know that there is fantastic work being done with skills development.

The value chain of furniture production is an area where Ghana already has a lot to offer. But if we can improve quality, if we can make the furniture more interesting for consumers, through skills training [of artisans], then that is an area where we can really help.

IPS: Which other opportunity can Ghana look at exploring in the area of Bamboo and Rattan value chain?

DHF: Another area of opportunity is to use bamboo as a source of charcoal for household energy. People depend on charcoal, especially in rural areas in Ghana, but most of the charcoal comes from often illegally-cut trees.

Instead of cutting trees we can simply harvest bamboo and make charcoal from this, which is a legally produced source.

The great thing about Bamboo is that it re-grows the following growing season after harvesting, so it is a very sustainable source of charcoal production.

IPS: What does the future look like for INBAR?

DHF: Two months ago Beijing hosted the China Africa Forum and we were very, very pleased to have read that the draft programme of work actually includes the development of Africa’s bamboo industry. There is a paragraph that says China and Africa will work together to establish an African training centre.

We understand this will most likely be in Ethiopia and it will happen hopefully in the coming years.

Another thing is that China and Africa will work closely together to develop the bamboo and rattan industry. They will also develop specific activities on how to use bamboo for land restoration and climate change mitigation and to see how bamboo can help with livelihood development in Africa in partnership with China.

This is a very exciting development, a new window of opportunity has opened for us to work together to develop bamboo and rattan in Africa.


The ball is now in Myanmar’s court

By Porimol Palma
Dec 5 2018 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

The November 15 attempt to repatriate Rohingyas to Myanmar has failed. And that was destined too, despite wholehearted efforts from Bangladesh. Although Myanmar officials were quick to blame their Bangladesh counterparts for the “failure”, the ground reality provided a different picture.

Not a single Rohingya, listed in the first batch of 2,251 verified refugees supposed to return to their country on November 15, volunteered to go home. On the contrary, many of them staged demonstrations against the move while some tried to flee the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.

The fear of brutality they were subjected to by the Myanmar military when they were displaced from their homes in the Rakhine state understandably gripped them. Interviewed, they asked some burning questions, “Why should we return? Do you want us to return to a death camp? Do you want us to commit suicide? Can you guarantee that we would survive once we return?”

The Rohingyas also demand that for a voluntary return, the Myanmar government should reinstate them in their original homes, guarantee citizenship, safety and basic rights, including health, education and freedom of movement.

Until now, Myanmar has done little to fulfil those demands or made a sincere effort to remove the fears through a reconciliation campaign between people of different faiths. Therefore, the tactic of blaming Bangladesh now is as baseless as it was when the repatriation did not start on January 23 under a bilateral agreement, when there was no arrangement for determining the voluntariness.

This time the UN Refugee Agency, through individual interviews, concluded that the refugees are not volunteering to return. It is an essential procedure for refugee repatriation. The agency, which is also assessing the situation in Rakhine state, said the conditions there were not conducive for the return of the refugees.

Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali, after a meeting with foreign diplomats in Dhaka on November 15, confirmed that Bangladesh in no way wants forced repatriation. Japan, meanwhile, proposed that a group of Rohingya be allowed to visit the arrangements in Rakhine—a proposal that goes in line with that of UNHCR—to see for themselves the conditions there and decide if they would return. Bangladesh is likely to take up the issue with Myanmar soon.

But how fruitful that attempt from Bangladesh—sincere in all its efforts for voluntary, sustainable and dignified Rohingya repatriation—would be with a country in complete denial is a big question.

The world has lauded Bangladesh’s efforts in accommodating over a million Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh is also braving immense socio-economic, environmental and diplomatic challenges because of a problem created by Myanmar since 1982 when it curtailed citizenship of the Rohingya and many basic rights though they have been living there for generations.

Myanmar argues that the Rohingya militant attack triggered the military campaign in August last year, but its argument is weak as there is a greater question why Myanmar’s military junta curtailed Rohingya citizenship in 1982. That’s the root of all the subsequent problems—communal tension between the Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine and low level of development works in Rakhine state. It left the population there in sheer poverty. If militancy grows out of that deprivation, it is the Myanmar government that has to take the responsibility for that.

UN investigators and other independent researchers have concluded that citizenship, basic rights, including education, health and movement of freedom, recognising the Muslims there as Rohingya, repatriating them in their original places of homes and returning their properties are the fundamentals for a sustainable repatriation.

Myanmar, however, is only assuring them of providing national verification cards (NVC), which it says, is a pathway to citizenship. It says the refugees would be sheltered in transit camps and eventually taken to their original homes. Rohingyas, however, disbelieve the proposition.

They say accepting NVCs means they are migrants from Bangladesh. Rohingyas also argue that the 124,000 Rohingyas displaced in a communal violence in 2012 are still living in the camps. They too would be put in similar camps if they return to Rakhine under present conditions.

The Rohingya crisis has become a major global issue, which prompted big powers including the US, EU, and Australia, to impose sanctions against several high-ranking army officials. They are also weighing trade sanctions. The International Criminal Court has issued ruling that it can prosecute Myanmar for its “genocidal intent”.

These actions mean Myanmar is being isolated in the global arena. Also, the Association of South East Asian Nations, which maintains the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, is speaking louder against Myanmar now.

Myanmar now has only one option—accept the demands of the Rohingyas and take them back to their homes where they can live a life without any discrimination.

The ball is now in Myanmar’s court.

Porimol Palma is senior reporter, The Daily Star.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh