Print this page

Published: 14 September 2010

Australian bamboo takes a stand

Michele Sabto

Edible shoots and timber are just two of the most recognised uses of bamboo, a plant of economic, social and cultural significance throughout Asia. However, this fast-growing perennial member of the grass family also has a wide range of environmental applications, including carbon sequestration, wastewater reuse, and soil and water erosion control. Australian scientists and environmental engineers are beginning to take another look at this prolific perennial.

In South-East Asia, where bamboo is used primarily as a building material for low-cost structures, it is mostly harvested from wild stands. In other parts of the world, the area under plantation has been increasing at a fast rate; India and China dominate, with approximately 9 million and 5 million hectares respectively.1 In China, the growth in bamboo plantations has been partly driven by fast-growing domestic demand for wood: the country’s need for wood is expected to reach 260 million cubic metres in 2020, with an expected domestic production of only 139 million cubic metres.2 But, demand has also arisen for bamboo construction products from outside China.

Bambusa arnhemica in flower, Northern Territory. This species is native to Australia.
Credit: Donald Franklin.

Professor David Midmore, of Central Queensland University, has been involved in an Australian government-funded aid project that investigated silvicultural management of bamboo for shoots and timber in the Philippines and Australia.

Says Professor Midmore, ‘Bamboo growth rates are significantly faster than most woody species soon after planting and for this reason bamboo can be harvested much earlier than forest species. It can produce harvestable culms within 4–7 years of planting, which can subsequently be harvested annually for timber.’

In Australia, initial interest in bamboo in the 80s and 90s as a commercial crop had resulted in 200 hectares under plantation by 2002. However, Mr Bob Gretton, President of the Bamboo Society of Australia, explains that development of an Australian industry has struggled to compete with competitively priced imports, mostly from China.

Bambusa arnhemica seedlings (at bottom of photo), Otto Creek, Northern Territory.
Credit: Donald Franklin

‘In the late 1990s Australian bamboo growers planted commercial areas of Dendrocalmus asper, Bambusa oldhamii, Dendrocalamus latiflorus and a couple of other species for shoots,’ he says. ‘However, shoots are being imported at about anything between $2.50 and $4.50 a kilo and it is hard for Australian producers to compete.’

A small number of growers have found niche markets in the supply of fresh shoots to the restaurant market. Hans Erken, who runs a business called Earthcare, is an example. He sends the fresh shoots in the early season straight down to restaurants in Sydney.

Competitively priced imports have also hampered Australian growers interested in supplying bamboo for timber. Other barriers to commercialisation include high labour costs.

Bambusa arnhemica, shoot.
Credit: Donald Franklin

‘There are some aspects of bamboo growing that are less like a plantation and more like a horticulture project, so that increases the cost, as against a tree plantation’, says Mr Gretton.

Bamboos require summer water, and (edible) shoot production has a high water demand. This poses problems when water supply is affected by dry conditions. Professor Midmore and Mr Mark Traynor, of the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industries, investigated the ability of bamboo to continue to produce biomass under dry conditions, trialling practices designed to capitalise on this feature.3 They identified management strategies with the potential to allow for both shoot and culm production under seasonally dry conditions, including strategic irrigation and thinning regimes. Factors found to affect shoot and culm yields included the number of culms of different ages in each stand and the age of culms at harvesting.

Professor Midmore and other scientists, such as Dr Jeff Parr of Southern Cross University, point out that in addition to the wide range of human uses, bamboo may also provide a variety of potential ecosystem services, including erosion control. Bamboo has an extensive fibrous root system, and new culms are produced from underground rhizomes. This means that harvesting can occur without significant disturbance to the ground or even the dense leaf litter, which also contributes to protecting the soil from wind and rain events. The thick leaf litter produced by bamboo also collects and conserves moisture. Bamboo has been extensively used in South America, China and India for remediation and protection of degraded landscapes.

Dr Parr has been investigating the potential for soil organic carbon sequestration by bamboo leaf litter in collaboration with researchers from the Fujian Academy of Forestry Sciences in south-east China.

‘All bamboo leaves a prolific amount of leaf litter on the ground, and we’ve been looking at the leaf litter because the rest is often harvested,’ says Dr Parr. He explains that the Chinese are interested in this research.

Bamboo phytoliths (under magnification).
Credit: Jeff Parr

‘A lot of bamboo in China is economic bamboo that is used for the production of lots of things, from flooring to clothing. They are interested in the sustainable harvest and use of bamboo, and at the same time are interested in what it’s doing in the way of locking up carbon. They’re interested in carbon trading,’ he says.

According to Dr Parr, leaf litter is often overlooked in carbon inventories. This is significant, because he says that it is mainly the phytoliths, or plantstones, produced in the epidermal cells of a plant’s leaf, sheath and stem that are good at occluding carbon. Phytoliths form as microscopic silica grains in the leaves and stems of many plant species (see Ecos Issue 145). They are particularly prolific in grasses such as bamboo species, and become incorporated into the soil matrix during decomposition of leaf matter. In a paper published in Global Change Biology, Parr and his co-researchers state that ‘relative to the other soil organic carbon fractions that decompose over a much shorter time scale, the carbon occluded in phytoliths is highly resistant against decomposition’.4

Bamboo flowering wave remains a basic biological mystery

Australia has three native species of bamboo, all of which grow in northern Australia. One of these is Bambusa arnhemica, which is found in the top end of the Northern Territory. Its edible shoots are harvested in the wild under a permit system.

Between 1996 and 2002, an event occurred that was of intense interest to botanists and bamboo afficionados. A wave of synchronous flowering occurred, with a succession of stands flowering in successive years. Although some bamboo species flower annually, many do not flower at all until the end of their lives. Some of these ‘semelparous’ species flower and die synchronously, and in spatio-temporal waves, such as happened with Bambusa arnhemica. How this works remains a biological mystery.

More information

Franklin DC (2004). Synchrony and asynchrony: observations and hypotheses for the flowering wave in a long-lived semelparous bamboo. Journal of Biogeography 31, 773–786.

Bamboos for effluent reuse

Bangalow effluent reuse plant.
Credit: Byron Shire Council

Bamboo has the ability to take up more water and nitrogen than it needs for optimal growth, and 80% of its dense, shallow root system can be found at a depth of 0–40 cm. An effluent reuse scheme in Bangalow in northern NSW is designed to take advantage of these features.

A 4.5 hectare site adjacent to the Bangalow sewage treatment Plant has been planted with a number of different species of non-invasive clumping-style bamboos, and is being irrigated with treated effluent from the plant.

‘The primary function of the bamboo is to uptake the effluent so we don’t have to discharge it into the local creek,’ explains Michael Bingham of Byron Shire Council. The scheme has been a success in those terms, but the secondary objective of finding a market for the bamboo has not been met, with the council unable to find anyone to harvest and sell the bamboo.

More information

Midmore DJ (2009). Bamboo in the global and Australian contexts. Proceedings of a workshop held in Los Banos, the Philippines, 22–23 November 2006. Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.
Meyer D (2009). Demand for bamboo grows as wood substitute and food, China Daily,
Traynor M and Midmore D (2009). Cultivated bamboo in the Northern Territory of Australia. Proceedings of a workshop held in Los Banos, the Philippines, 22–23 November 2006. Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.
Parr J, Leigh S, Chen B, Yew G and Zheng W (2009). Carbon bio-sequestration within the phytoliths of economic bamboo species. Global Change Biology,

Published: 2010

Empowering vision

Cynthia Karena

Educational filmmaker and sustainability advocate, John Liu, has a knack for effectively communicating the complex in ways that make people sit up and take notice. A key to his success is leveraging the power of the image to inspire hope and a commitment to action.

John Liu in Rwanda – <i>Hope in a Changing Climate</i> documents local communities and government working together to rejuvenate the land.
John Liu in Rwanda – Hope in a Changing Climate documents local communities and government working together to rejuvenate the land.
Credit: John Liu

John D Liu’s mission is to make it easy for people to understand climate change.

‘The issue is knowledge. For either the public or for policy makers, ignorance is a good excuse,’ says Mr Liu, founder of the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP), which produces audiovisual environmental education materials for broadcast and educational audiences.

For more than ten years, the project has been documenting best-practice methods for large-scale restoration of damaged or destroyed ecosystems.

‘If (people) don’t know what to do, they are unlikely to be able to do much,’ says Mr Liu. ‘But if we know that it is possible to rehabilitate large-scale degraded ecosystems and we don’t do it, then we have crossed a line, because our knowledge is responsibility.’

An American with a Chinese father and an American mother, Mr Liu has lived in China for more than 30 years. He trained as a journalist in the United States, and moved to China to help open the CBS News Bureau in Beijing in 1979.

After a decade of living in China, Mr Liu became concerned about the levels of pollution and the rapid pace of development.

With his ‘knowledge brings responsibility’ philosophy, he founded the Environmental Education Media Project for China (the precursor to EEMP) and has been engaged in researching, documenting and educating people about ecology ever since. As an environmental filmmaker and ecological field researcher, he has produced and directed documentaries for CBS, National Geographic and the BBC.

John Liu on location in the 1990s, soon after establishing his environmental education media project.
John Liu on location in the 1990s, soon after establishing his environmental education media project.
Credit: John Liu

In 2006, Mr Liu was named the Rothamsted International Fellow for the Communication of Science. Rothamsted – a non-profit organisation working towards sustainable agriculture in developing and emerging countries – supports his PhD work with the Soil Sciences Department at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.

Mr Liu is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Global Forum on Media for Development, and an Associate Professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate and Society in the US.

Stories of hope

Mr Liu says most policy makers and the public assume that the human impact on climate is limited to the copious emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases generated by fossil fuel combustion over the past century or so.

‘The problem with this is that it is only partially true,’ he says. ‘Human impact on the climate began long before egregious emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, when human beings began to reduce biodiversity, biomass and accumulated organic matter. These impacts are exacerbated by egregious emissions.’

Re-balancing the world’s carbon equilibrium, according to Mr Liu, is not just a matter of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

‘If we restore all degraded land on the entire planet as well as reduce emissions, you can extrapolate massive carbon uptake, [as well as] re-regulated hydrological flows, increased fertility and productivity, and the ability to ensure that the highest level of genetic diversity possible survives into future generations,’ he says. ‘That seems like a much more comprehensive result.’

EEMP’s most recent documentary is Hope in a Changing Climate, filmed on location in China, Ethiopia and Rwanda.1 The film aims to demonstrate that damaged ecosystems and degraded land can be restored to health, and that such an outcome economically improves the lives of local people.

The segment on China’s Loess Plateau proves the point, with location footage showing how a barren, brown landscape covering an area the size of Belgium was transformed into a functioning, green ecosystem where rainfall infiltrates, water is retained and crops are readied for export. Importantly, this has enabled local communities to prosper.

Hope ... also interviews world leaders, bankers, students, presidents, journalists, scientists and local people. According to the film’s website, the Government of Rwanda has adopted a new national land-use policy based on EEMP’s presentations and analysis.

The film aired on BBC World last year, and screenings were held for world leaders at the Copenhagen climate change summit.

Reversing the damage

Degraded farmland in developing countries may be one of the best opportunities we have to reverse the trend toward reduced ecological function, says Mr Liu.

‘What human beings have done historically to damage the environment can be understood rather simply. We have interrupted evolutionary trends. This has resulted in reducing biodiversity, which has caused a reduction in biomass, which has in turn caused a reduction in the accumulation of organic matter. These changes have caused disruptions to fundamental systems that all life relies on.

John Liu’s documentation of the transformation of China’s Loess Plateau from barren landscape (top) to fertile oasis (bottom) has inspired communities in other ecologically damaged areas.
John Liu’s documentation of the transformation of China’s Loess Plateau from barren landscape (top) to fertile oasis (bottom) has inspired communities in other ecologically damaged areas.
Credit: John Liu

‘Through our ignorance, we have reduced gas exchange through photosynthesis, lowered nutrient recycling through the decay and transformation of each generation of life, and massively disrupted the infiltration and retention of rainfall in the biomass and in the soils.

‘If we return vegetation to degraded landscapes we can sequester large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. This is done through photosynthesis. If we return vegetation, we also can lower temperatures because of shade, and we can increase soil moisture and relative humidity by restoring microclimates below vegetated canopies.

‘The Global Partnership for Forest Landscape Restoration has roughly estimated that one billion hectares of the Earth have been degraded and could be restored. This represents a huge potential, through understanding and positive work, to improve what is now a quite bad situation.’

Urban responsibility

The principles of conserving biodiversity and utilising biomass and accumulated organic matter are not just applicable to rural areas, says Mr Liu.

He sees the Earth as made up of five different landscape types; urban landscapes, pristine or functional landscapes, agricultural landscapes, industrial landscapes and large degraded landscapes.

‘In urban and industrial areas we have in many cases created “dead zones” without any biology. This is not true of all cities. In great cities [such as] London, Beijing, Tokyo, Paris and New York, there are lovely parks, but the buildings, the streets, the parking lots, the factories and businesses are mostly not designed to include these principles.’

Mr Liu says that if you lower biodiversity, biomass and organic matter, you get elevated temperatures. Another impact of losing biomass and organic matter to impervious ground cover such as pavement is the loss of capacity to retain and infiltrate rainfall. This results in flooding during rainy seasons. Further, water that would have been captured by living plants and roots during rains is not available to an ecosystem during the dry season.

‘If we understand these principles, and design our cities, our transportation systems and our buildings around them, then we will have a very different, a very liveable and a sustainable future,’ he says.

‘If we continue to fail to learn this, then I think we are in for very serious problems very soon.’

Not ‘them’ – just ‘us’

Australia’s pollution has little impact on the world compared with China or India, which may lead some Australians to feel complacent about the environment. However, this type of thinking suggests an ‘us’ and ‘them’ approach, says John Liu.

‘From my perspective there is just “us”. Humanity is a species. We need to have a species response now to our problems, not suggest that this is “their problem”. It is our problem because we are affecting global systems,’ he says.

Mr Liu gives the example of persistent organic pollutants. These human-made substances travel all over the world and accumulate up the food chain, but the highest concentrations can be found in Inuit peoples who are thousands of miles from any source.

‘Pollution somewhere is pollution everywhere,’ he says. ‘There is no them. Just us.’

More information

Environmental Education Media Project,


ECOS Archive

Welcome to the ECOS Archive site which brings together 40 years of sustainability articles from 1974-2014.

For more recent ECOS articles visit the blog. You can also sign up to the email alert or RSS feed