Fighting climate change with bamboo

08.06.2021 There are many approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation. One seems to be promising in many ways for Bhoke Masisi’s home country Tanzania: bamboo. Find out more in the interview with our Master's student.

“The fast-growing versatile woody grass”, as Bhoke Masisi calls it in her master’s thesis, sequesters carbon in an efficient way, restores degraded lands, helps to reduce pressure from conventional forests and is a great economic resource for local communities. But precisely because it is a grass, bamboo has not made its breakthrough yet. 

That’s why Bhoke Masisi decided to explore bamboo as a strategy to mitigate and adapt to climate change in her home country Tanzania. We talked to her about the many positive characteristics of bamboo, the knowledge gap around climate change in Tanzania and what is needed to control dangers such as invasive spread or monocultures.

Bhoke Masisi Enlarge image

How does climate change affect Tanzania?  

To be honest, I think most Tanzanians don’t know that climate change is the cause of what they are going through. In Tanzania, the consequences of climate change mainly leave their mark on the agricultural sector, which puts a heavy burden on poorer rural areas. I would say that 90% of rural livelihoods depend on agriculture, which is mostly rain-fed. Rainfall has become unpredictable and dry spells longer. And once it rains, it often destroys the entire crop. 

Besides crop, do you also see an impact on forests? 

The forest sector is supposed to help mitigate and adapt to climate change. Due to the immense drought, the establishment of forests is not that easy. We need rain for tree growth. In addition, prolonged drought increases the risk of forest fires and the scarcity of pastures. Therefore, people bring their livestock into the forests, which leads to further forest degradation. People who have lost their income due to low productivity in the agricultural sector are looking for new ways to earn money through logging of timber and firewood. This further increases the pressure on forests. 

That’s where bamboo comes in. What makes it an important approach to mitigate and adapt to global warming? 

It helps to mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon. At the same time, it is great for climate adaptation: First, it helps to restore land. Bamboo can prosper on degraded and marginal lands. With its extensive roots it protects soil and helps to build resilience during extreme weather events such as flood and strong winds. Secondly, if we shift our demand from forests as an energy source to the fast-growing bamboo, this would help to prevent deforestation. In the end, bamboo also helps to safeguard rural livelihoods as a source of diverse products. It generates income even at times of climate change when agricultural crops aren’t growing. 

Nevertheless, bamboo has been overlooked in the past years in the climate change debate. Why?

In Tanzania, we found that the knowledge gap between different actors concerning climate change is one of the major constraints to its recognition. Another limitation is the lack of information about the potential of bamboo, thus limiting policy-makers’ ability to engage. 

At the global level, a major reason is the classification of bamboo as a grass rather than a tree. Most climate policies and agreements build on forests as carbon reservoirs. But since bamboo is classified as grass, bamboo automatically falls outside the scope of agreements on forests.

Furthermore, most people believe that bamboo is invasive and classify it as a noxious weed. Moreover, researchers see bamboo ecosystems as non-permanent carbon pools. Carbon pools like forests should retain carbon and prevent it from entering the atmosphere. Since bamboo grows very fast, it can be harvested every year. This action releases carbon instead of storing it. Through selective logging, we could replace the lost biomass with rapid regrowth.
The biggest threat is bamboo's unpredictable flowering cycle. Bamboo follows a gregarious flowering cycle, which means that a given species will flower at the same time, regardless of its geographical location. After seed development, the entire population dies, resulting in a massive loss of biomass. To overcome this limitation, we can simply collect the seeds during flowering and regrow a new bamboo forest within a year.

 

We are already deep in the talk about bamboo. You researched whether the carbon sequestration potential of bamboo is static. What did you find?   

A lot of studies do not address the question of whether bamboo carbon sequestration is static or whether it depends on environmental variables, species selection and management intensity. This is crucial to know if we want to transfer the outcome of a certain study conducted in Asia to the Tanzanian context. Taking Tanzania as a case study, we laid out sixty plots with different cultivated bamboo ecosystems in which we assessed and compared the carbon content. We found that indigenous bamboo species (Oxytenanthera abyssinica) could store a significantly larger amount of carbon than the exotic species (Bambusa vulgaris). We also found that bamboo ecosystems in the lowland can store more carbon than the ones in the highland.

Bamboo has so many advantages. Isn’t there the danger of monocultural practices?

Of course, that’s why legal regulations are needed. If people see more economic benefits in planting bamboo than agricultural crops or trees, they would only plant bamboo. There would be a massive replacement of natural forests and agricultural lands by monocultural bamboo ecosystems. Therefore, a sustainable management system controlled by strong legislation and regulations is required. 

What are your recommendations to overcome the difficulties?   

With profound knowledge, the risks and uncertainties pertaining to bamboo management can be overcome. Many bamboo species, for example, are not invasive. For-instance, Africa’s mainland is dominated by the non-invasive clumping bamboo species over the running bamboos which are mostly aggressive and exhibit invasive traits. Beside education, I recommend strong legal regulations to curb species invasion through importation of exotic bamboo species following the growing interest in bamboo for economic reasons. 

Is this something you want to work on?  

Exactly. I especially want to close the knowledge gap. I am talking from my own experience. Before coming to BFH-HAFL, I was an employee in the forestry sector. But I didn’t really understand climate change in the form that I do now. Climate change knowledge to most Tanzanians is based on the existing seasonal and weather variations, but the knowledge of greenhouse effects and its global correlations are quite new concepts to many.

Within your suitcase, what will you take back to Tanzania?  

Studying at BFH-HAFL made me more confident and a critical thinker. Our professors put us in a position to understand that not everything that is documented is perfect and so we can always reason “Why should this be like that?”. My wish is that Tanzania’s educational institutions could also prepare students to become more open-minded. They should focus on the latest research methods and findings to close the climate change knowledge gap.

About Bhoke Masisi

After finishing her bachelor’s degree at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, Bhoke worked as a forester at the Tanzania Forest Services Agency (TFS). Bhoke has always been interested in international career opportunities, where she heads now after finishing her master. She is looking forward to applying her knowledge to solve forest issues in an international environment.

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Subject area: Forest science
Category: Research, Studies