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Articles & Essays
by John Schinnerer

Inside a Bamboo Conference

This is a first-hand report on the First Annual Hawai'i International Bamboo Conference. Although the conference took place back in May of 1996, the experiences and information I gained through attending it are still fresh and useful. Here's the once-over of what went down (and what didn't) at that particular two-day conference.

The first real presentation (after the obligatory "welcoming remarks") of the first day was a slide show titled "Bamboo from Cradle to Grave." It showed how the hill tribes of northern Thailand use bamboo to provide for a majority of their daily needs for food, shelter, tools and implements. The presenter was Dr. Edward F. Anderson, senior research botanist at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona. Desert Garden...bamboo...??...I still don't get it, but Dr. Anderson had great slides and lots of fascinating information and anecdotes from his travels in Thailand. Phoenix or not, he knew bamboo!

Continuing with the Thai theme, Charuphant Thongtham with the Royal Institute for Agricultural Development in Thailand talked about "Farming Bamboo," Thai style. Perhaps due to his being part of a government bureaucracy, I didn't get much practical information out of this portion of the show. The slides couldn't compare to Dr. Anderson's, and there was a bit of a language issue as well (that's an understatement). Nonetheless, it was a useful example of a national government taking bamboo seriously as an agricultural product.

Part of the intent of this presentation was to indicate some of the potential for commercial farming of bamboo in Hawai'i on land formerly used to grow sugar cane. Unfortunately, the "Thai example" appeared to tend towards increasingly industrial approaches that in the long run would be just as destructive as any commercial monoculture, bamboo or otherwise.

Robert Tornello of Tornello Nursery in Florida was next up with two presentations. The first was supposed to be on propagation and nursery issues, but ranged far beyond those two topics. Tornello presented some biomass yield comparisons of bamboo and native hardwood; the bottom line was that one bamboo plant could provide a limited initial harvest much sooner and continue to be harvested (with increasing yields) for many years whereas one tree would require at least three times the wait and could only be harvested once. Tornello also brought up significant marketing issues such as the creation of co-ops, self-regulation in the bamboo industry, reinvestment in local manufacturing and so on.

Not content to stop there, Tornello went on to the ecological-sociological consequences of inappropriate resource and market development. What happens, he asked, when a general demand is created for a resource that is initially abundant in some areas and has minimal production costs? It's not a new story - extraction of the resource at non-sustainable levels, degradation of the region's ecosystem, cultural and economic disruption and displacement, loss of local control of the resource, ad nauseum. All things to reflect on before purchasing that bamboo "hardwood" flooring, plyboo paneling and other such products of unsustainable offshore economies.

Tornello stressed awareness of these issues in light of the fact that the majority of bamboo-producing countries have political-economic systems even more corrupt than our own. He had a lot to say about the complex interrelated issues involved in commercial production and sale of bamboo products; at first I thought he was just another bamboo fanatic but now I suspect he may actually be a closet permaculturist!

Tornello's second presentation was on bamboo as a landscape element. Several examples came from his own nursery business, which supplied some enormous bamboo for equally enormous projects. One that went beyond the pretty face of bamboo to demonstrate multiple functions of the plant was the installation of a number of 60-foot tall plants in an indoor atrium at the Children's Hospital in Oakland, California. The bamboo, he said, greatly enhanced the healing esthetics of that portion of the building. Also, after it had adjusted to its new home in the atrium, the bamboo provided a 200% improvement in indoor air quality in that part of the hospital.

South America, formally represented by Oscar Hidalgo Lopez and Simon Velez of Colombia, was the dominant presence at the conference where building with bamboo was concerned. Hidalgo, a university professor, focused on his work in researching the historical and current uses of bamboo for construction and in using it to provide basic housing and other infrastructure needs (fences, water piping, furniture, scaffolding, bridges, and so on). Besides having written a number of books and papers on bamboo construction, Hidalgo has also worked out methods of growing timber bamboo in forms so that it comes out square instead of round. He discussed the potential for this material in easing the transition from milled lumber to bamboo for structural framing. He also showed slides of the results of more recent research on growing bamboo in zig-zag forms. One application he presented was combining such a zig-zag bamboo with two straight poles to make a flat truss in three easy pieces.

Velez, an architect, professor and former student of Hidalgo, presented gorgeous slides of his massive concrete and bamboo style of architecture for lavish stables, private residences and polo clubs. Velez has clearly made significant contributions to construction engineering uses of timber bamboo. His preferred roof structures are cantilevered bamboo trusses that extend seven to eight meters beyond the vertical members and support extremely heavy cement-and-tile roofing materials. Besides bamboo, Velez also uses "non-traditional" woods in some of his buildings - mangrove used as vertical structural posts, in one example.

In a spirited question and answer session after Hidalgo and Velez' presentations, some attendees voiced concern about the cost, complexity and overall viability of Hidalgo's techniques for growing bamboo in square and zig-zag forms. While Lopez defended his experimental methods, Velez half-jokingly sided with the critics, commenting "but Oscar, it is so easy to cut, the bamboo!"

Although Hidalgo and Velez both helped develop a wide variety of methods for joining and framing with straight, round bamboo, Velez has clearly focused on the high end of the market while Hidalgo works with what would be called, in the politically correct language of El Norte, "affordable housing." It turns out, says Hidalgo, that one of the main problems encountered in using bamboo for constructing homes in Latin American countries has nothing to do with growing, harvesting, designing, joining and fastening, framing and so on. The primary barrier to the unadulterated use of bamboo for homes is cultural.

It seems that in these places bamboo is the material of greatest poverty. "Poor people" live in bamboo homes, and it is generally looked down on as a material of last resort - not because it is not strong, inexpensive, readily available or anything like that but because of its association with the architecture of poverty. Hidalgo, as well as several other less formally scheduled Latin American innovators at the conference, had arrived at different implementations of a similar solution to this barrier - disguise! A house made with bamboo framing and split bamboo paneling and lath looks just like a house made of wood products...after it has been plastered, that is! Out of sight, out of mind - cover it up with the same plaster used on wood-framed buildings and the stigma vanishes.

Hidalgo had slides of historic buildings and current projects where this had been done, as did a woman from another part of Colombia (whose name I unfortunately did not write down in my notes). The project she presented consisted of a two-part housing development. The first group of structures was built using concrete and wood; the second group was built using concrete and bamboo. As both were plaster-finished, it was not possible to tell which was which in the pictures of the finished structures. The buildings incorporating bamboo cost roughly 45% less to build and were stronger as well. Besides the use of bamboo, old cement bags and plastic six-pack holders were used in place of paper and chicken wire to provide the wrapping and lath over which the plaster was applied.

The final event was a panel presentation entitled "Bamboo in Hawai'i's Future." This was not too exciting for the most part, as the majority of the panel consisted of government bureaucrats or their minions discussing rules, regulations, codes, restrictions and so on. The county of Hawai'i representative talked about tax and other incentives to industries; even if I liked subsidies (I don't), I got the impression that they would neither happen soon nor be readily available to local grassroots micro-enterprises. It sounded more like big business as usual.

A Hawai'i-licensed structural engineer played devil's advocate and beat bamboo to death (symbolically, that is) with code considerations and the like. He did offer a few possible cracks in the codes where certain types of buildings (such as homes smaller than a given square footage) might get a toehold. There was much discussion about the need for further testing, engineering review, U. S. and international certifications and specifications and so on. I found all this quite ironic in light of the keynote address having shown a culture (one of many!) with thousands of years of experience building with bamboo and a significant number of conference presenters with proven contemporary bamboo building techniques right there in the room. As Pete Seeger so eloquently put it, "when will they ever learn?"

The main problems with general bamboo production in Hawai'i seemed to be that there was very little bamboo of appropriate types (for shoots, timber, fiber, what have you) available in the islands, and the people most energetic and interested in digging in and getting started (growing, harvesting, building, etc.) were at the grassroots level and didn't have the money, land or political clout to actually do so.

There were a couple of brighter spots to this panel discussion, however. One was Gary Young, a Big Island micro-entrepreneur who had been experimenting with various resin and natural fiber composites (using commercial laminating resins with bamboo fiber, cane fiber, hemp cloth, and so on in place of fiberglass, kevlar, and the like). He said that not only did bamboo fiber look promising, but that non-toxic epoxies based on vegetable compounds were under development by various researchers and were looking good as well.

On the housing front, Hawaiian Homelands property is technically exempt from county building codes. This means that bamboo building techniques, both proven and experimental, could be used on those lands without having to wait a century or two for building codes to be updated (only to find them still stacked in favor of industrial methods and materials, as with straw bale and rammed earth codes...). It is certainly worth looking into this possibility for native tribal lands on the mainland as well.

The idea was also floated that owner-builder designs, properly researched, constructed and documented, could be brought to licensed engineers for approval. Where the owner-builder would get the money and facilities for "properly performed and documented" work, as well as the irony of an engineer with no relevant experience approving the designs, was not delved into further. The official adjournment followed and the conference was finished!

Of course, there was more to the show than just the presenters and their audience. Besides the frentic networking between attendees and the swapping of bamboo-related anecdotes, there was the trade show - a standard feature of any convention! The Big Island's own bamboo nursery, Quindembo Bamboo, was present with live samples of their wares and copious information on cultivation. Meanwhile, no less than three different vendors were hawking bamboo flooring board, all from the same factory in China. One was representing a Dutch company, one was a local flooring retailer and contractor and one was apparently a recent local family startup offering wholesale prices for large lots of the product only. None of them could tell me if the adhesives used involved formaldehyde, which I took to mean "yes," and at that point I gave up on the idea of asking about the sustainability of harvesting and production.

There was a nice selection of bamboo arts and crafts, from silk paintings with bamboo motifs to local and not-so-local craftspeople selling everything from furniture to kitchen implements to toys to musical instruments. George Tortorelli, a superb flautist from Florida, not only sold his handmade bamboo flutes of all types and keys (and his CD's) but also gave a fascinating concert at the saturday evening banquet. Halfway between the arts and crafts and the industrial products was the aforementioned Gary Young, with samples of his experimental laminates and a wood-verneered surfboard or two.

Of the things that weren't present at the conference, Asia was the most evident by its absence. Thousands of years of bamboo culture simply weren't represented, except for the opening presentation (given by an occidental traveller through a fragment of bamboo's long history in asian countries) and the less-than-inspiring Thai official that followed. I don't know why Asia was absent, but I suspect that it had to do with the usual political maneuvering that seems to afflict most of organized human activity.

As for other absences - this was a bamboo conference, so ardent bamboo boosterism was to be expected and certainly did occur. Diversity is one of the most basic tenets of Permaculture, and unfortunately this fundamentally important concept seemed to get lost amidst the conference's furious agreements over what a wonderful plant bamboo is. Not that this conference was about permaculture - but it seems a common mistake of evangelists for any of the diverse(!), neglected plants of our era and area - bamboo, hemp, and so on - to leave out the big picture of essential diversity and champion a mono-crop solution to the mono-crop problems we face. I recommend that permaculture-minded folks attend as many as possible of these sorts of one-crop conferences. A lot can be learned about the particular crop and its potentials and problems, and with luck the opportunity will also arise to stand up and say "...but just say NO to monocultures!"

Copyright © 1998 John Schinnerer


Hawai'i Bamboo Society (Hawai'i chapter of the American Bamboo Society)
Box 356, Suite 133
Paia, HI 96779

Quindembo Bamboo Nursery
P.O. Box 44556
Kawaihae, HI 96743
(808) 885-4968

Estudios Tecnicos Colombianos Ltda.
Apartado Aereo 50085
Bogota, Colombia
(Publishers of "manual de construccion con bambu" by Oscar Hidalgo Lopez. All conference attendees received a complimentary Spanish-language reprint of this 70-page manual of traditional and developing methods of building with bamboo. I do not know if it is still available but it is worth a try!)

Copyright © 2010 John Schinnerer
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