The project aims to restore 2 million hectares of degraded land in Indonesia by activating 1000 Bamboo Village based industries.
From Eco Mantra:
Indonesia has long been considered the Earth’s third lung due to the vastness of its rain forests, but over the past 100 years it has seen millions of hectares of forest stripped for its timber or cleared for agriculture, greatly contributing to ecological problems that stretch beyond the archipelago nation.
Rain forests are not a net producer of oxygen. They are typically a self-contained ecosystem, offsetting as much as they emit. Carbon captured by plants and trees escapes once organic matter begins to decompose, releasing it back into the atmosphere.
But degraded land comes with an opportunity. human engineered agroforestry can create a system of symbiotic plants and trees that maintain the topsoil and enriches the earth beneath it. By using agroforestry techniques we can revolutionize agriculture in a way that allows us to capture carbon in a more permanent state.
Enter the bamboo. Bamboo has many applications and can even replace many products made of wood. the benefit here being in how bamboo grows, how it is harvested, and the products that can be made from them.
By harvesting bamboo shoots we remove the carbon it has sequestered and build with it. Creating in essence a forest that not only provides farmers with an income, but also turns degraded lands into net producers of oxygen and net off-setters of carbon.
This month’s eco champion is Arief Rabik, Secretary General of the Environmental Bamboo Foundation, architect behind the 1,000 Bamboo Villages Program, founder of Indobamboo and a pioneer in the Indonesian bamboo industry.
In many ways, one could argue that Arief Rabik was destined to work with bamboo. His mother Linda Garland and father Amir Rabik were pioneers in the field of bamboo construction and ardent environmental advocates.
Born to an Irish mother and Indonesian father who had worked for decades understanding bamboo not only as a construction material, but also a product with immense ecological benefits, Arief had from a young age instilled in him the potential of bamboo to reclaim degraded lands and the role it could play in creating a viable agroforestry economy.
Growing up in Bali Arief had a unique insight into village life and Balinese culture that remain a cornerstone of any successful project in Bali. The Balinese philosophies of Tri Hita Karana and desa kala patra form an integral part of life on the island, and understanding them has been a cornerstone of Arief’s work.
Growing up in Bali, particularly in the 80s, has given you a unique insight into construction, design, the value of nature, and the way to incorporate the best aspects of village life with modern development. Tell us a bit about how your past has shaped your perspectives today.
Arief Rabik: The Tri Hita Karana concept is a core part of the Balinese community in Ubud especially in Sanggingan where I grew up at the time. We were very rural, and I was surrounded by farmers who couldn’t even grow enough rice to fill their plates and so had to mix it up with sweet potato and corn.
We were a family with highly creative parents who were doing international projects and thinking completely out of the box and yet we lived in this very poor agricultural community. There was a lot of beautiful old Balinese wisdom and openness that you don’t see so much these days and sustainability wasn’t a buzzword for them, survival was.
They had small systems and so we felt a lot of those shocks growing up and I think as my mother was an environmentalist who kept asking people about the condition of their soil, springs, and trees, I grew up more aware about what was going on with our environment in Bali and Indonesia. That awareness really shaped a lot of the way that I think today.
My father prided himself as a pragmatist who often said “We Madurese don’t waste time talking too much about things, we make it clear where we are trying to get to and we do it.”
I saw that got him into a bit of trouble along the way but when he didn’t get in trouble he was very effective and efficient, and he got praise for it. A lot of the time however he steamrolled and caused more problems than good. It was interesting you know; an Irish, creative, dyslexic mother and this bulldozing small Pitbull of a father in the context of the Balinese Tri Hita Karana, desa-kala-patra systems, sent a lot of mixed messages but I think growing up in Bali you have to pick and choose from that dynamic.
That is the beauty of Bali, it was open. You had this open and humble thing wherein everything that happens to you is based on your decisions. The whole theory of causality is very much ingrained in this culture and so they blame everything on themselves, which is a beautiful thing. The Puputan for example, where instead of fighting invaders Balinese killed themselves, is very unique to this culture.
That humility also made me more sensitive to the environment and to what was going on. I got a little bit of a technical, cultural, and philosophical boost just from my context growing up, which really helped shape me into an environmental thinker who didn’t want to be a fru fru hippy who only ever preached about all these philosophies. I wanted to make things happen in a way that was appropriate to the communities and as I spent a lot of time with them, I developed that idealism quite early.
Why did you get into working with bamboo?
Definitely by osmosis. Many people have said my father was my mother’s secret weapon because he was the guy who got the logistics done and got the bamboo from A to B. I saw that a lot of people didn’t know how to crack working with bamboo and that my parents did, because they understood a few things about how bamboo grows, how to cut it, when to cut it, which ones to cut and so on. That definitely enticed me because I saw we had not only a network and a team, we also had some unique knowledge.
I understood how bamboo is sequestering carbon and that bamboo absorbs a lot of water. I went to many different communities where bamboo changed their lives and when you see it in the eyes and hearts of people, when you hear the tone of their voice, it hits you. You could say I was beyond bamboozled and brainwashed by bamboo.
I saw the positive effects bamboo had and I saw the constraints. I saw for example that bamboo has to be preserved in order to be a long-term solution. It has to be converted from this short-term wood replacement, into something that is hip, high-tech, beautiful and sustainable. Something that can be a vision and the sustainable timer of the future.
I have a lot of ambition and am taking my families visions and improving on them technically and scientifically, and branding the ideas of bamboo. Why bamboo? Because it has all these environmental, social, and economic benefits that can help create a resilient system for future economies. I am convinced bamboo is a cornerstone solution and foundation of sustainability for Indonesia.
What are some of the benefits bamboo construction has over wood?
Firstly, it’s a giant grass, so the beautiful thing about bamboo is that when you cut what we see as poles they are actually branches. The main trunk of the tree is underground and so what we are harvesting are its branches.
You don’t actually cut the trunk of the tree when you harvest bamboo and that is one of the critical things that make it more sustainable. You’re cutting branches! Its like pruning a tree. With bamboo you plant it once and for the next 200 years you still have that same trunk of the tree that gets bigger and grows more branches.
You just have to understand how to harvest what we call the great grandmother branches. You can’t harvest the mother branch or the baby branch. With our harvesting teams we have a joke; we only chase grandmothers.
Once you figure that system out, you can absorb 50 tons of carbon per hectare per year which is incredible. Indonesia has 100 million hectares of degraded land. If you took 100 million hectares, you can sequester 5 billion tons per annum, just by converting degraded unwanted land into bamboo-based agroforestry. Bamboo is incredible, but it is most incredible and optimal in an agroforestry setting.
Bamboo is a shallow roots species that absorbs runoff from rain. It absorbs rainfall like no other species can, but if the water percolates just pass the root zone, which is only a meter deep, it doesn’t have access to that water anymore. You need a palm or something that has roots that goes down to 6 meters and a taproot species that grows roots from 8-25 meters deep.
Once you have a knitted hydro system, all your subsoil all the way down to 30 meters is knitted up with roots and that is when you get the optimal system and your bamboo grows the quickest. We really try to present that visual to farmers and other people trying to work with landscapes because bamboo is king for the restoration of land.
One clump of bamboo can absorb 5,000 liters of water in just 4 or 5 rain events, which is crazy. You don’t get a tree out there that can do that, and it is basically because half the height of the canopy around the bamboo is where the roots are and any water that passes by gets sucked up like a sponge. You basically have this surface aquifer that just holds on to that water, and it can hold on to that water for 6 to 9 months. It’s a pretty incredible plant
Indonesia is one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses and deforestation rates are high. How can bamboo forestry help mitigate the ecological damage and reduce CO2 from going into the atmosphere?
The word mitigation is loaded these days but when you think globally in terms of climate change and you think of greenhouse gas emission you can mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon into your forest.
But then you have to think about what is called the durable product pool. Bamboo absorbs carbon incredibly quick but it also releases it incredibly quick because bamboo is made of hollow fibers which are made of incredibly strong cellulose. When one bamboo pole drops to the ground, microbes get in and eat it within a year, so that all re-emits into the atmosphere. You build some soil in the process and feed microbes and that’s good but just in terms of carbon accounting you are reemitting.
But if you take that pole and preserve it and lock it in to a durable product pool and keep it for fifty years then you have a true carbon sink and that’s really exciting because you can grow all this bamboo super quick, you preserve it, you put it into the durable product pool and you can save the world.
Bamboo seems to be a promising carbon sink. Are there any programs by the government to use bamboo to reforest degraded lands? Are you getting enough support from the government?
In 1997 the Indonesian government tried to launch a national strategy for bamboo but then President Soeharto stepped down and they stopped the program. In 2015 we launched a new program called the 1,000 bamboo villages program, which is a government program but is implemented through government partners and with government assistance.
Now for example the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s Directorate of Watersheds and Protected Forestry Control has 3 different programs to create bamboo seedlings and to give them to cooperatives that are adjacent to degraded land.
The Environmental Bamboo Foundation works with the ministry by training members of the cooperatives for 8 months in what we call a farmer field school. Then we give them a cocoon nursery, which is basically a 10-hectare mini plantation where we grow the bamboo up to 5 meters in height before planting.
We do so because for about 5 years in the late 90’s we tried to reforest a lot of degraded and up to 90% of the seedlings we planted died due to fire, livestock, creepers, a prolonged dry season, the soil and even due to human sabotage.
We had to create a solution, which was the cocoon nursery. We grow the bamboo to 5 meters tall because at 5 meters the actual trunk of the tree, the rhizome, grows to weigh 5-10 kilograms, instead of planting a 50-gram rhizome as we used to. We literally chuck it on the ground and throw a bit of earth onto it and it grows.
Once the government sees that in place they give the bamboo farmer cooperative a concession of 2,000 hectares of degraded adjacent land to plant that bamboo. This concession not only solves the degraded land issue but also functions as a peacemaking tool whereby the government returns land to communities for as long as they create a business plan, make money from it, and pay taxes. The government is galvanized to do this.
Tell us how the 1,000 Bamboo Villages Program aligns political and economic systems and helps build a sustainable future.
Firstly, degraded land is a huge threat to this country. We see as Indonesia as this third lung of the world; a fertile volcanic archipelago with huge amounts of islands that are growing copious amounts of everything and yet, a third or more of our land over the past hundred years has been degraded to the point of being almost entirely unproductive.
In Palangka Raya the complete erosion of topsoil in some places has resulted in beaches being formed in the middle of what used to be rainforest. There is an elephant in the room that no one is talking about; If we do not start dealing with this problem now then our generation, Gen X and Y, will face huge land management issues.
The 1,000 Bamboo Villages Program is a system and a technology created to integrate local champions around Indonesia and farmer cooperatives that are adjacent to these huge degraded lands. The objective is to utilize these lands and to empower people as restoration champions in a way that also generates them money so that they may have a livelihood.
The two main mechanisms we have for now involve setting land limits on the construction industry and producing bio pellets that can be used as alternative fuel in coal power plants for example, but we are working on alternative mechanisms for the future.
From an economic perspective the 1,000 Bamboo Villages Program is a way to set up a national plantation system wherein large entities do not actually have to deal with planting and managing the crops. They simply have to set a purchasing price and product standard and have farmers deliver the products to their doorstep.
So we have created this network of farmers who plant on degraded land, process it, and are given the opportunity to do value-added processing. They don’t sell a bamboo pole, they sell a value-added product from which each household can make 10 million rupiah per month with 2 or 3 active members.
Cooperatives in America and Europe who started to mechanize began making a lot more money, and then it began to happen in China, and we just want it to happen here. We have this Chinese model in particular that works, has been proven to work for over 25 years, and we have tweaked it a bit to fit Indonesia. We want to create a restoration economy which is incredible for Indonesia because we have a solid, tangible base for the growth of our economy and we restore degraded land.
The project was first announced in 2015. How far into the project are we?
Phase 1 began in 2015 and goes until 2021, and most of what we have been doing is lobbying and campaigning at the central government to create policies and raise funds to align with existing funds to make it happen and to create policy frameworks and such.
There are 40 villages in phase 1. If we get 40 villages up and running by 2021 the ministry will create a national strategy specifically for our program and they will align with the ministries of finance, trade, industries and we will have a multi-sectoral approach to a singular restoration economy system. Once we have that then everything explodes.