Soil loss remains one of the more overlooked global environmental issues. Almost a third of the world’s land is degraded, presenting a serious obstacle to feeding a growing population in the future. Restoring soil and preserving it for the future is an important 21st century challenge, and bamboo could play a major role.
Bamboo is a remarkable plant for all kinds of reasons, but it is particularly well suited to land restoration projects. It has long root systems that can reach down deep, drawing up nutrients where other plants would struggle, so they can grow on poor soil or on steep slopes. Those roots bind the soil together and prevent further erosion, with a single bamboo plant able to bind six cubic metres of dirt.
It’s also very resilient. Because it builds up such a huge amount of biomass underground, it can quickly recover from damage, even if it is burned to the ground in a forest fire.
Once the plant is established, it provides ground cover that helps to prevent run-off, helping to keep moisture in the soil and eventually replenishing groundwater. The leaf-drop begins to return organic matter to the soil, rebuilding fertility. It famously grows very fast, so bamboo can make a difference quickly.
As the land begins to recover, other plants can follow, making bamboo a pioneer plant. And of course it’s useful in its own right, providing materials and fuel.
Take Tanzania as a practical example, a country that was losing an estimated $18 billion a year from soil degradation. A project in the southern highlands trained people to cultivate bamboo, which was an unfamiliar plant in the region. Varieties were chosen that were drought resistant and that were most suitable to make into charcoal – the main reason for deforestation in the area. People were able to feed the leaves to their animals, make charcoal from the wood, and it also spawned a host of small businesses making furniture and useful household items out of bamboo. The land and the community benefited together.
In Ghana, soil erosion costs the country between 1.2 and 2.4% of its GDP every year. A national reforestation plan allows for 50,000 hectares of bamboo forest. One particular focus here is using bamboo to shore up the soil around riverbanks and river valleys, preventing soil from eroding and washing away. Bamboo has also been used to restore land that has been degraded by mining.
Bamboo planting has to be done with care. Some varieties can become invasive, and like any mass planting initiative, it’s wise to avoid creating monocultures. Nevertheless, bamboo could be an important plant in the 21st century, particularly because there’s also a climate change angle to bamboo cultivation. Bamboo is one of the fastest plants there is for drawing carbon out of the air and storing it in the wood and the soil. It could be one of the best ways for rapidly sequestering carbon. Since it is so strong and versatile as a material, it could also displace the carbon embedded in materials such as steel.
Put all of those factors together, and bamboo comes in at number 35 in Drawdown‘s top 100 solutions for reversing climate change.