Raising the Bar

Interview by Peeyush Sekhsaria of J Coosje Hoogendoorn, the Director General of INBAR on the occassion of INBARs' 10th anniversay
Indian Architect & Builder -JUL 2008
The entire interview has not been uploaded on this blog as yet - I am trying to correct this

As INBAR (International Network for Bamboo and Rattan) celebrates its 10th anniversary an interview with the organisation’s Director General, J. Coosje Hoogendoorn, gives a perspective to the potential and restraints in the use of bamboo in design and detail. The interview also throws into focus the multiple economic and architectural possibilities for its usage in mainstream. INBAR is an intergovernmental organisation with 34 member states, it is headquartered in Beijing. INBAR initiated from a small network of researchers funded by IDRC of Canada over 25 years ago into what it is today. (
INBAR aims to help improve the lives and livelihoods of the poor rural producers and users of bamboo and rattan throughout the world, within the context of a sustainable natural resource base. In spirit, we believe firmly in the ability of bamboo and rattan to make a long-term sustainable difference to the poor of the world, and in our responsibility, and ability, to help do this.
Bamboo is a wonderfully versatile plant in many ways. It is harvested annually, but only a proportion of the stems are taken, leaving the plant intact to grow for future years, and thereby providing annual incomes to growers who can sell the stems (or process them into products, which adds more value). This is wonderful for the environment too, because the green canopy remains over the soil always, reducing soil erosion, and helping conserve moisture and fertility in the soil.
Bamboo has over 1500 recorded uses. All parts of the plant can be used, but the most important parts is the stem which is a source of soft wood. Traditional products such as baskets and agarbattis have been joined in the market by new ones, like parquet flooring and activated charcoal, which have higher value and provide more money to those who produce them. Of course, bamboo stems also have a very long history of use in housing. Bamboo leaves are used for fodder, and bamboo branches can be chipped and used for paper and pulp and composite boards, as can bamboo rhizomes.
Rattan is different. It has a long history of use for local and high value export goods, mostly furniture, and the markets and production processes are more established than for bamboo products, but it is also less versatile, and isn’t used to produce so many products. It certainly can’t be used as a structural component as it’s far too thin and bendy. It is also threatened by over-harvesting in many parts of the world, and as it grows mainly in tropical rainforests, is subjected to deforestation pressures.

Q. The best bamboo research seems to be happening even today, after 10 years of the existence of INBAR in the developed world. Has the developing world missed another opportunity?
A. Well, we think most research on most subjects is done in the developed world anyway. But of course, today’s research builds on earlier research. Before INBAR became an intergovernmental organisation, we worked more on “research-for-development” than on direct development, and we like to feel that in some ways what is done now is building on what we helped do in the past. We support the organisation of International Bamboo Congresses and Conferences which bring the world’s top bamboo researchers together, from all continents. Their main effect is improved capacity to research bamboo, particularly in our member countries.
There are of course many excellent researchers on bamboo and rattan all over the world, and a few years ago INBAR started a journal called the Journal of Bamboo and Rattan, that provides a platform for the best scientific research to be published. Most of the papers are authored by scientists from the developing world. But we also encourage and fund technical research into processes and products, and almost all of this is done in the developing world. We believe it is very important to build R and D capacity in the countries with the resources, to increase their abilities to innovate and to benefit from these innovations in the future. With one exception (Canada), INBAR is an organisation of the developing nations.
Q. Rattan as opposed to bamboo faces larger problems of depletion, over exploitation. The larger association of INBAR being that of Bamboo, is the rattan sector suffering from lesser attention?
A. It’s true that in its first ten years INBAR has focussed more on bamboo than on rattan, especially in its field projects. Bamboo is often a more “attractive” plant to potential partners, due to its rapid growth and ease of cultivation, and the multitude of uses to which it is put, and in many ways it has been easier for INBAR to use bamboo to develop our approach to development, and our pro-poor partnerships. What we have learnt with bamboo can now be adapted for rattan, and to this end we have recently started a special rattan programme that focuses on building capacities to do development with rattan. We expect to make significant progress with rattan-based development in the near future.
Q. Critics would say that INBAR is pushing for greater industrialisation and mechanisation of bamboo products and manufacturing processes, is this not happening at the expense of the millions of traditional bamboo craftsmen?
A. No. Bamboo is much easier for rural people to process than other types of wood. It splits easily without the need for sophisticated machines -our project in Tripura has developed an agarbatti industry there that relies solely on hand-production, with over 90% of the producers being women. The “production chain” of many bamboo products involves many separate stages, from growing and harvesting, through “primary” processing, (such as splitting into sticks or slats), to “secondary” processing, (such as weaving the sticks or moulding the slats into boards), and on through finishing to marketing. For some products, such as export -quality flooring, high tech machinery is necessary, but for many other products this is not the case. INBAR has even helped develop hand-production techniques for laminated boards (including flooring) that obviate the need for machines. We have developed pedal-operated processing machines that can be used by rural people and, of course, don’t need electricity. Developing such pro-poor but state-of-the-art technologies, and helping people adopt them, is one of the many ways we try to build the skills and capacities of the traditional bamboo producers, and ensure that they remain major beneficiaries of our work.
Q. Bamboo has often described as the poor mans timber, this has a double edged sword effect on Bamboo. Would you like to comment?
A. Bamboo has been used traditionally in many countries for housing and is a very durable building material. However, its durability depends upon the selection of the right bamboo stems and application of appropriate treatment methods against decay. If bamboo of inappropriate age, physical or mechanical properties is used, and without treatment, it doesn’t last long. Rural people generally use bamboo in its natural state without considering these qualities, and therefore the houses they make are generally less durable. This gives the impression that a bamboo house is not permanent, and bamboo is a poor man’s timber. This image of bamboo is being improved through proper extension education and capacity building, work that INBAR has been doing since its inception.
Q. INBAR’s housing programme is relatively young and small, what are the reasons for this? What are INBAR’s plans for the future?
A. True, INBAR’s housing programme is new. INBAR started the programme less than five years ago. However, in a short period of time, the programme has gone global. It has run medium-sized projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It has developed innovative bamboo housing systems. It has built a solid partnership with the business sector and housing professionals to promote bamboo housing on a global scale, and will supervise a large project in Nepal and Ethiopia soon. It is no more a small programme in INBAR. However, there are still challenges, especially getting funding to carry out activities in large-scale disaster hit areas such as the earthquake and tsunami hit areas of Indonesia.
Q. What do you think are the main limitations faced by Bamboo in the housing sector?
A. Funding is one of the main limitations. The bamboo housing sector is new and there is still a lot of misunderstanding and lack of awareness of the permanent housing options that bamboo can provide. Secondly, as you mentioned earlier, it will take some time to improve its image as a mainstream, quality, modern building material. Once our programme becomes successful at creating awareness among government, donors and the construction sectors about bamboo as a sustainable building material, then the programme will build its own momentum and we will be able to help more and more people live, work, and go to school in high quality bamboo buildings.
Q. Use of bamboo in post disaster scenarios, especially in tropical areas where skills in bamboo building and bamboo availability are high has come up a great deal in recent years. Does INBAR have a special programme on this?
A. INBAR’s housing programme aims to promote bamboo as a sustainable building material and create awareness as well as build capacity to use bamboo for housing in disaster areas. INBAR has successfully completed capacity building and awareness raising projects in Nepal, India, Ghana, Ethiopia, China, Sri Lanka and Ecuador. INBAR has developed a pre-fabricated modular bamboo housing system that can be used in disaster hit areas to provide houses rapidly and on a massive scale. INBAR will help commercialise this technology in Nepal and Ethiopia in the first phase of a new project, and this will be extended to other countries later.
Q. Is there a message that you would like to share with our readers?
A. Bamboo and rattan are materials for the 21th century. They are environmental friendly, accessible to all, and can provide rich and poor affordable and high quality life style products, from houses to kitchen utensils and food. INBAR, as a networking organisation, looks forward to working with partners in India to realise the full potential of bamboo and rattan in the coming years.

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