Understanding how sophisticated plants are and valuing them is the biggest lesson for the 21st century, and will be the key to our future progress as a species
Bamboo: the fastest growing plant on the planet
Found all over the tropics, some species grow more than a meter a day. All the material needed to build and furnish a six-floor home such as Sharma Springs, the tallest bamboo building on the Indonesian island of Bali, took just four years to grow. «All you need is sunlight and rainwater», explains its architect, Elora Hardy. «If you can build a castle made from grass in four years, what else can you do?». Bamboo has been used as a building material for thousands of years—it has a stronger tensile strength than steel, which is why it is used as scaffolding throughout Asia. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when another Bali-based designer, Linda Garland—who designed the Caribbean hideaways of Richard Branson, Mick Jagger and David Bowie—pioneered a method of preserving it from the elements, and insects such as the dreaded Powderpost beetle, using boron, a naturally occurring salt.
Environmental Bamboo Foundation
Known as the ‘Queen of Bamboo’, Linda founded the Environmental Bamboo Foundation in the early 1990s as a means of advancing the material’s modern-day applications, and her legacy can be seen in the bamboo flooring, furniture and fabrics we use today. Having passed away in 2017, her work is continued by her son Arief Rabik, and his Bambu Village initiative to restore two million hectares of land degraded from illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculturalists through planting bamboo alongside food and cash crops to create a ‘restoration economy’ from processing giant grass into strips and sold to the likes of Ikea and other multinational timber groups. If Arief’s program reaches its target of rolling out 1000 villages across the tropical belt of Southeast Asia, Africa and the Americas, it will absorb 1billion of the 40billion tons of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere every year. Bamboo grows fast and sequesters carbon in the process—up to 50 tons per hectare per year—that Arief’s latest project, pitched at the 2019 COP conference in Madrid, is to repurpose the bamboo pellets that are a by-product of the process of creating strips as a source of renewable energy.
Bamboo pellets as a source for renewable energy
XERXES COOK: Let’s talk about your idea of using bamboo wood pellets as a renewable energy source; it comes across as a bit controversial to be burning anything for energy in this day and age. How did people react when you presented this idea at the last COP conference?
ARIEF RABIK: The biggest problem is seen in the Georgia-Louisiana situation, where one of the largest dedicated bio-pellet run power plants in the world, Drax, is based in the UK and runs off wood felled from Georgia and Louisiana primary forests, in addition to secondary forests and plantations in the U.S. They’re chipping some of the most beautiful trees in the world, and then sending them across the Atlantic. Secondly, we restore degraded lands through creating rapidly renewable bio-economies, which involves thinking about the sustainability of how the resources specific to that area are used; the carbon emissions and life-cycle-analysis of these resources. You don’t want these wood pellets, a by-product of processing bamboo into wood strips, to go around the world—you want them to be used as locally as possible. Thirdly: you want to get value. You want to get the main value out of the rapidly renewable—the bamboo strips, which are then used to make furniture or flooring etc. Pellets are a very low value product, but because it’s a by-product, they offer an alternative, and a very sustainable alternative to LPG [liquid petroleum gas], which is used as a cooking fuel all across Indonesia. In Flores, for example, LPG costs 12,000 rupiah per kilo (USD$0,84). Now, of course, the utilization of that kilo is efficient because it’s a gas, but bio-pellets can be 3000 rupiahs per kilo. You can use these efficient pellet cookstoves which will give you half the efficiency, so it’s the equivalent of 6,000 rupiahs per kilo, half the price of LPG. On top of that, bio-pellets are a local resource that promotes the local economy. It only works if you have that scale, this Bambu Village scale of 2000 hectares producing 10,000 tons per annum of pellets. Which most farmers can’t even fathom—I couldn’t even fathom until I learned it from the Chinese. There’s been incremental growth of this system created and developed over the last 50 years, a lot of which was done by our friends in China.
XC: What did you learn from the Chinese?
AR: The key step is that you have to do value addition at the village level—this was discovered by the Chinese—so they have enough cashflow to motivate and incentivize all of these 210 families to keep at it, to keep going with the business of working 288 days a year to supply 6,000 tons of bamboo strips and 10,000 tons of pellets per year. The levels of efficiency you get at this scale of 2,000 hectares, means that you can still give a very competitive price for the bamboo—or actually, the best way to say it is the right price—that allows the industries that buy this bamboo to still make the margins they need to run their businesses. Chinese approach is pragmatic, and it stops this age-old battle between the farmer and the industrialist. So that’s what we’re trying to create, this win-win solution for everyone involved, while restoring these degraded lands in the process.
XC: The thing that strikes me is how much electricity costs out in Indonesia, which is about twice what we pay here in the UK. Also, the electricity that supplies my place in London is all from renewables—wind, mainly—but Indonesia is mostly running off coal.
AR: The issue of why electricity is expensive in Indonesia is because they’re not dealing with densely populated areas like Bali and Java most of the time.
XC: The issue lies with getting grid infrastructure through rainforests and volcanic mountain ranges and so on?
AR: Exactly. Supplying electricity 250million people spread across an archipelago of 18,000 islands is a challenge. They don’t have the luxury of planned cities, counties, and planned provinces. It’s been an iterative process of pioneering entrepreneurs and conglomerates whose main strategy to grow the economy was based on commodities, and selling these commodities in the international markets. Which is what happened in the States 400 years ago, but here in Indonesia we’re only 100 years in. Are we doing it in the wrong way? Yes. Did Europe do it in the wrong way as well? Yes. It’s a tough one to judge the Indonesians, the decision makers around Indonesia have been on an exponentially quicker learning curve in comparison to the ‘developed’ countries of the West.
XC: Could the problem of installing electrical grids through jungles and these difficult terrains be solved by putting solar panels up in every village?
AR: Distributed generation—exactly. We need micro grids that don’t have to think about applying these huge expenses. Also, it is a craze how inefficient the system is: in the transmission and distribution of the energy that’s created in a coal power plant, 80 percent is lost in the buzzing of the giant wires and stepping it down, for safety reasons, from 50,000 volts to 17,000, and then down to 240 volts in the end.
XC: Is it possible to convert coal power stations to run off bamboo pellets?
AR: You can. It’s called blending and co-firing. They already do this in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. They do up to 20 per cent, and they pay a good price, as high as USD$160 per ton, which is more than three times the price of coal. Indonesia has 88 million hectares of degraded land, and nothing is happening on that land, yet—they’re in the middle of nowhere and have serious access issues, there’s a lot of work and investment from what we call people-public-private-partnerships that needs to happen in order to access these areas and create restoration economy-type thinking. No conglomerate is capable of managing these middle-of-nowhere, Timbuktu, degraded lands. I’ve been to a lot of them, and there is no one anywhere near these lands capable of fathoming what needs to happen. We talk to the villagers there, who are typically extremely poor—which is surprising for areas thought to be so rich in forests and forest-based products—and we say, «if you want these sustainable development industries to come in, we have to have a forest here, because then this land becomes more valuable. The forest is an ecological factory of many different food, fuel and fiber commodities. We can help you; we can train you with the technical skills of how to manage the forest, and how to process the timber and non-timber products—including the bamboo—that will generate significant incomes for the local communities».
I was just talking to a guy who is in charge of cattle ranching in east Indonesia. When one village burns their degraded lands in the height of the dry season, so their cows have fresh shoots to eat in November—as that’s the only nutrition they can get—the fires come up towards other villages. The only thing these other villages can do so their homes don’t burn down is to create another fire that goes back in that direction and battles the other fire. It’s a controlled burn nightmare that’s trying to avoid a fire catastrophe but is creating an ecological catastrophe in the process. There’s not much long-term logic; it’s all very day-to-day thinking. It’s hand-to-mouth. Building systems, creating basic infrastructure, capacity building, investing in systems that allow for village-level industry: this value addition at the village level will empower these people, these farmers in the middle of nowhere to restore their degraded lands. This is not just a reality in Indonesia, this is a reality around the world.
Bambu Villages in Bali
XC: Let’s talk about what you’re doing with 1000 Bambu Villages. How many villages have you rolled out to date?
AR: We have about 40 villages that are in the initiation stage. Because it’s a forest-to-factory system, we have a capacity building step, the first step of the village, where we train the communities on how to do bamboo agroforestry, as well as bamboo processing techniques. The key vision with the Bambu Village is that we take degraded lands and plant them, with the bamboo being the short root species that captures the rainwater during the rainy season. We then grow the medium root species that can access the water and nutrients the bamboo cannot, and they provide nutrients during the dry season to the whole system, including the bamboo. Then we plant the taproot species, which are crucial in getting to the minerals 30 meters down and bringing them up and cycling them. So, you get this bio-geo-chemical cycling going on, and that’s driven by these villages, these communities of 210 households or so that are working together. Through activating these bio-geo-chemical cycles, these farmers become the climate mitigation champions that the world has been looking for.
XC: When we talk about degraded lands, are we talking about palm oil plantations, or fields that have been stripped of nutrients from decades of GMO crops?
AR: Not necessarily. The palm oil plantations are the crème de la crème peatlands of Sumatra, Borneo and Papua. They drain the peat down so then all that peat becomes basically compost, and then they grow the oil palms in it—it’s a dream come true for the groups that were given this opportunity. Then that peat starts emitting CO2, like a giant heap of compost does, and the whole ecosystem that evolved around the wet, saturated peat starts degrading rapidly. It’s a time-bomb to its complete conversion to this mono-crop reality that the palm oil plantations become. Then if you light a match, and you’ve got a compost layer that’s eight meters thick—and sometimes in the dry season down to 10 meters thick—that fire doesn’t just go sideways, it goes all the way to the bottom. This is why you get these huge wildfires across the Indonesian archipelago every dry season. We don’t need to go to those lands for our 1000 Bambu Villages, but adjacent to those lands are mineral soils and shallow peats, less than a meter deep, where we work with their surrounding communities in Sumatra and Kalimantan. We haven’t dared to go to Papua yet for social reasons. We mainly are going to areas where shifting agriculturalists were coming in after logging; loggers basically open up access, and then the shifting agriculturists follow. And then they would say, «that’s a little plot of trees. If I burn it, I can reduce it to ash». Ash is very high in minerals, including potassium; it’s a free fertilizer where they can get at least three, four years of crops there. When that land is denuded, or it’s not being productive, they move. They shift and do it elsewhere, and the cycle continues. It’s a weird and alarming fact that shifting agriculturalists are actually many times more a cause of deforestation than logging—but they do get access into those areas because of the logging roads, so they’re tied at the hip in that way. It’s not necessarily the fault of the logging companies.
XC: You’re planting bamboo on lands that have been stripped of nutrients as a result of illegal logging?
AR: Of illegal logging mostly from shifting agriculturalists, who were most of the time put out there by government-mandated ‘trans-migration programs’. Because there are so many people in Java, the most densely populated island in the world, the government moved people around the country. These people had nothing, so they became shifting agriculturalists as that’s all they could do to feed their kids and send them to school. It is a systemic problem—it’s not really fair to point the finger at just the shifting agriculturalists. They need to be invested in, to build their capacity and to give them a sustainable livelihood—and that’s very doable. They would be the first people to be open to it, it just has to be a real program that has long-term durability to it. A lot of the programs to help these farmer folks have been very short lived; often, the plots of land that were given to them weren’t very productive to begin with, hence why they became shifting agriculturalists.
Ibuku – Green school and Green Village
XC: To change the subject a little to focus on the uses of bamboo, as in Bali, where you live, there are some propositions for what we can do with it. There is the 20-hectare Green School, made entirely from bamboo—at the time of writing they’re putting in place the final pieces of the largest arched bamboo structure in the world, the school gym. Next door, also by Elora Hardy’s architecture firm IBUKU, is the Green Village where bamboo forms not only the skin and bones of a dozen villas, but also the furniture and the fine grain experience of all the accessories needed for day-to-day living; toothbrush holders, light switches, kitchen taps and so on. In a sense we could consider them as concept cars or prototypes demonstrating the possibilities of the material—you enter the six-level Sharma Springs villa via a floating 15-metre-long tunnel on the fourth floor. What are the unique set of circumstances that have brought these immensely complex structures into being?
AR: I don’t think anyone can speak about the catapulting and acceleration of the bamboo movement here in Bali without talking about the Green School, the Green Village and IBUKU. John Hardy, who founded the Green School, created a melting-pot of bamboo creativity, and invested heavily in getting the most creative minds to Bali to join this creative development. And then his daughter, Elora, took it to the next level. What we’re seeing in Bali now, in the last decade, is really getting into the details of supply chain management, talking about carbon sequestration, carbon emissions, and how to be socially responsible with the bamboo. There is a growing sophistication and understanding of bamboo and how to be sustainable with it, and it’s started growing up as an actual sector in Bali. Designers, and the artistic community, have come in and have started empowering, inspiring, evolving and pushing the creative process and conversation. There are small incremental developments in bamboo that many people don’t appreciate, from how dowels are used, the joinery, the preservation and curing techniques, to these more freeform techniques of ‘listening to what bamboo wants to become’ as Elora says. There are things that happened all around the world but then got pulled to Bali because it’s a melting pot of design, and has that spirit. In Bali, we have a government that is much more receptive to the experimental use of bamboo in buildings. Here everything is flexible, like the bamboo itself, and also affordable to experiment.
Bamboo’s gregarious flowering
XC: Bali has become a real hub for architects in search of inspiration. You have the likes of Bjarke Ingels extolling the virtues of bamboo in Home, the AppleTV documentary on Elora’s practice. After visiting the Green School, Thomas Heatherwick is in the process of designing their campus in Tulum, Mexico. On a more quotidian level, you have the likes of Ikea mass producing whole collections made entirely from bamboo, and people adopting habits like using bamboo toothbrushes at home. Which makes me wonder if there’s a metaphor for this boom in bamboo in the phenomenon of how certain species come into flower at unpredictable intervals of between 60 and 120 years—and when one clump of bamboo flowers, all the bamboo of that species will flower across the world at the same time. Does bamboo have a collective consciousness?
AR: It’s called gregarious flowering. There are theories about what causes it. Bamboo has a complex and rich association with many components of the abiotic and biotic ecosystem, but most interestingly, with mycorrhiza. Because mycelium is present in the first meter of the organic horizon of the soils—bamboo roots go out sideways, they don’t go down—their interactions with mycelium are remarkable. Bamboo’s sensory network is much larger than that of many other plants because of that. So bamboo really benefits from the worldwide web of fungus; these temperature changes, changes in pH, climate and water levels can all affect these flowering events. That’s the secret life of plants we have misunderstood for more than a millennium. Understanding how sophisticated plants are and valuing them is probably the biggest lesson for the 21st century, and will be the key to our future progress as a species.
Is a writer and editor who contributes to art and design magazines such as 032c, Interview, Purple, and Vogue Italia. Some of his stories have seen him apply the conventions of Brutalist architecture to food, re-wild his child in the Canary Isle of La Gomera, and interview Madonna. Having lived in Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and even Tallahassee, Xerxes is now doing the sensible thing and splitting his time between London and Bali.
Is the director of Indonesia’s Environmental Bamboo Foundation and the founder of the 1000 Bamboo Villages project, which aims to create economic viability for the use of bamboo agroforestry to sequester CO2 and restore degraded tropical forest lands in dozens of countries. Arief is an expert in bamboo cultivation, value added processing, and brokering public and private support and investment in village-level bamboo production.