Europe has not yet realized the potential of bamboo

Der ehemalige INBAR-Direktor Hans Friederich

Interview with Dr. Hans Friederich, who was Director General of INBAR, the International Bamboo and Rattan Organization, from 2014 to March 2019. The geographer with Dutch roots also sees opportunities for Europe in bamboo.

What was your experience with INBAR?

In January 2014, I moved to Beijing, China to take on the management of the International Network of Bamboo and Rattan – INBAR. INBAR is the only policy-focused international organisation that deals with two amazing groups of plants; bamboo and rattan. It was created in 1997 through a Treaty, and therefore membership is serious business. I stepped down in March 2019.

I was the Head of the Secretariat, which comprises Headquarters in Beijing, China and Regional Offices in Ecuador, Ethiopia, Ghana and India. Earlier this year, we opened a fifth Regional Office in Cameroon.

When I asked how many different bamboos and rattan there are, I received different figures, and therefore we commissioned a report to get the definitive answer. The Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew/London worked with experts around the world to create the checklist of bamboo and rattan in 2017. There were at the time of publication 1642 different species of bamboo and more than 600 different types of rattan.

Hans Friederich beim Bambus- und Rattan-Kongress 2018
In 2018, the world’s first bamboo and rattan congress took place

INBAR is a network of 45 governments, and most of them are from countries that have natural bamboo and rattan, and are therefore considered “producers”. Canada is the only Member of INBAR that does not have natural bamboo. One of the reasons that most members are producers is that INBAR is the International Commodity Body for bamboo and rattan, and it is therefore promoting trade of products.

During the past years, I have managed to strengthen relations with many of the Members of INBAR, and I persuaded several countries to join the Treaty, but unfortunately we have not managed to start projects in all INBAR Member states.

Is there interest in bamboo in Europe?

Interestingly, most of the bamboo and rattan products are produced in Asia, and the bulk come from China. The market is mainly in Europe and the USA. Promotion of trade is there not only a case of working with the suppliers, but there is need to engage the consumers in countries where the products are bought.

Bambuswald in der chinesischen Provinz Guizhou
Bamboo forest in Guizhou Province in China

During my tenure as INBAR Director-General, I have tried to encourage European Governments to join INBAR, but this has not happened. Prior to my arrival, there had been a concerted effort to get the European Union as a block to join INBAR, but I was told in 2014 and 2015 that this was no longer of interest. Through my own channels and with help from Ambassadors of European countries in China, I reached out to Austria, France, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, but the response was always that bamboo and rattan were not priorities.

I also spent considerable efforts to connect INBAR to the international private sector, showing that bamboo can only live up to its full potential if there is a strong business case to use it as a sustainable and durable alternative to other products. This was more successful, and if we want the bamboo trade to grow, the positive message needs to be repeated and broadcasted in as many ways as possible. This interview is only one way to raise awareness in Europe, and the continuous efforts of the European Bamboo Society and individual initiatives like bamboosphere are extremely important. I hope that I will be able to provide my own support in this area, now that I have returned from China and have settled in Malta

How will the private sector in Europe benefit from more bamboo activities?

The business community in Europe is intrigued about the developments in Asia and China in particular, and there are a number of key issues to consider. One trend may be that China will no longer be the main producer of all bamboo goods, and other Asian countries will develop their own industry. This is already happening for the production of low-value bamboo goods. In the long run, countries in Africa will also become serious suppliers of bamboo pulp and eventually products.

In all of this, it is key that international standards are followed and the certification of both the plantations, the manufacturing process and the final products will be fundamental to developing and maintaining a thriving business. I was told of a case in the USA where bamboo textile was sold as ecologically safe, without recognizing that the production method used potentially polluting chemicals. The result was a local legal case and all products were taken of the shelf. This is not good publicity!

Bambuskohle Charcoal
There are countless ways to use bamboo, even as charcoal

Another development could be that Europe will develop its own bamboo supply, through planting of bamboo in southern Europe. Already, a plantation is being established in Portugal with Dutch funding, and Italy is seriously exploring the growing of bamboo for local production. Greece and Spain are also looking at opportunities to establish bamboo plantations, and there is talk about a national symposium in Madrid later this year.

Can Europe and Africa work together?

There is a real opportunity for European countries to work with developing countries that want to create a local bamboo industry. This could involve China as the third party, as this is where most of the expertise and experience for bamboo activities is located. Such so-called triangular cooperation is a relatively recent mode of development cooperation. It normally involves a traditional donor from the ranks of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC), an emerging donor in the South, and a beneficiary country in the South.

Bambuspflanzung in Tansania
Bamboo planting in Tanzania

During my tenure as Director General, I managed to develop an initiative managed by INBAR that comprises a cooperation between China and the Netherlands in East Africa, to support small and medium sized bamboo enterprises in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. INBAR is also about to start a project in the norther Andean Region with financial support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development and technical assistance from China.

We have discussed the possibility of starting a similar bamboo partnership between GIZ and China, supporting countries in Africa or Southeast Asia, but this has not yet come to fruition.

What is your overall impression after five years at INBAR and what do you wish for the future?

I am proud that I managed to make INBAR better known, although there is still a long way to go. INBAR is now not only the International Commodity Body for Bamboo and Rattan, but it is a member of the United Nations ECOSOC, partner in the UN Environment assembly, participant in the UN Forum on Forests, Observer to the three Rio Conventions and Permanent Observer to the United Nations General Assembly.

INBAR bei der UN-Generalversammlung
INBAR at the UN General Assembly 2018

Even in China, INBAR is now better known, especially since we received a letter of congratulations during the 20th Anniversary in 2017 from President Xi Jinping. I have also become international advisor to the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED). During the past three years, INBAR has established constructive relations with several local authorities in China, which has generated a sustainable source of income, and created new partnerships for cooperation.

A lot has been the result of a dedicated communications team that I established, liked with my own efforts on social media. I have been very active, especially on LinkedIn, and I have received many compliments on our efficient outreach.

For the future, I wish for closer cooperation with Europe, and I hope to be able to work on this now that I have stepped down from the position of INBAR Director-General and have settled in Malta. As I explained earlier, there are real opportunities for cooperation and private sector involvement, but we have not yet managed to raise awareness in Europe to the level where this knowledge has become mainstream.

I also hope that more countries will start planting bamboo, as this is one of the most effective way of creating carbon sinks that can help us to mitigate climate change. Bamboo plantations absorb arguably more CO2 than tree plantations, they hold soil in place as good as or better than other vegetation and they provide raw material for a range of small and medium enterprise development.

Homepage von INBAR
(Copyright Photos: INBAR)


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