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The bamboo alternative

To take pressure off the forest, a study suggests the viable use of this tree in constructions  

INBAR: Bamboo could be an alternative to timber and save it from the pressure it’s under from increasing building and temple constructions within a few years, say forest officials.

A 2014 study by the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) stated that the bamboo construction sector is viable economically, socially, and technically in the country.

Using bamboos for constructions of houses or its parts could provide community forest management groups with new livelihood and income earning opportunities, and reduce the burden on timber for construction, the report said.

This could help bring long-term financial sustainability, as well as pave the way for expansion and replication of bamboo sector development across the country.

In Zhemgang, community groups earn annual incomes of about Nu 180,000 from selling bamboo shoots, culms and finished products.

The Social Forestry and Extension Division (SFED)’s bamboo and cane focal person, Tshewang Dorji, said, “Employing modern techniques, bamboo could make construction cheaper, more durable with stronger resistance to earthquakes.”

He said the idea of bamboo for housing emerged after the 2009 earthquake hit eastern Bhutan.

“Over the years, people have also realised that bamboo could become a potential source of income,” Tshewang Dorji said, citing the success of Radhi villagers in Trashigang.

Until 2006, Radhi villagers in Trashigang cultivated rice and wove raw silk textile for income, which has since then shifted to selling bamboos.

A pole now earns them Nu 100, a rhizome Nu 75.  Some even earned as high as Nu 10,000 a year from the sale.

However, the INBAR report points out that the scale of construction would be limited without significant improvements to resource base management and development, strengthened capacity to design and build with bamboo.

Tshewang Dorji said that, while the nurseries in the country were mandated to grow bamboo saplings, the SFED distributes imported seeds to the nurseries.  Farmers can also avail bamboo saplings for free.

The division planted six hectares of three varieties, suitable for house constructions, in Samtse in 2012, and will be ready for harvest in a year or two, forest officials said.

The use of bamboo for many generations and its applications has been mostly restricted to non-structural and lower-grade buildings.  Tshewang Dorji also said that there was a social stigma attached to building bamboo houses.

“We’re promoting bamboo structures in the country now to save timber, and the environment, because bamboo takes only three to four years to be ready for harvesting, while the trees take ages,” he said.

As part of the INBAR study, bamboo houses were constructed in Zhemgang, Samdrupjongkhar, Tsirang and Samtse dzongkhags, to set up demonstration value chains for bamboo construction.  The division built a gazebo in Thimphu and similar structures in other dzongkhags.

Officials said the bamboo prospect would only grow while timber availability would become scarce over the years. Balancing the constitutional mandate for forest conservation and the expected need for timber will become increasingly challenging, say forest managers.

In 2013 alone, the Forest Resources Management Division (FRMD) issued more than 200,469 cubic feet (cft) of timber permits for repair or construction of 53 temples, monasteries, dzongs and institutions.

Dzong renovation in Wangdue and Pemagatshel took 169,141cft of timber.  Another 169,691cft was given to build classroom in monasteries, schools, and residences for mostly religious institutions.

Roughly 10 percent of forest in the country is viable for commercial timber harvesting.  Current estimates show a total of about 3.8Mcft of standing timber available for harvest annually, which is higher than the useable timber for sawn boards and finished wood products.

The annual timber demand estimated over the next five years could be as high as 10Mcft, including close to six million cft for rural needs.  This amount is much higher than the available timber for harvest.

The forest department’s forest resources potential assessment last year, which assessed potential forest areas that could be utilised for sustainable commercial harvesting, showed 11.27 percent of the area has the potential to become production forests after removing forests on steep slopes.

The INBAR report also pointed out that there was a need for guidelines or codes of practice for using bamboo in construction, which could eventually form part of the country’s existing building code.

The only guideline in place is a chapter on bamboo in the works and human settlement ministry’s “Guidelines for Planning and Development of Human Settlements in Urban and Rural Areas of Bhutan to minimise environmental impacts”.

By Tshering Palden

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