Bamboo Eco-Business Taking Root
El CUA, Matagalpa – Deep in the mountainous countryside north of Matagalpa, farmers who traditionally harvest coffee, corn, bananas and beans are being propositioned to grow a plant that could potentially answer some of the country’s ecological, economic and social problems.
With the support and guidance of multinational company CO2 Bambú, 129 campesinos have signed up to start producing bamboo.
CO2 Bambú is kick-starting an industry of bamboo eco-products in a country where the fast-growing plant is viewed by many farmers as more of a nuisance than a resource.
Guadua bamboo, a particular native species found in abundance in Nicaragua, is one of the strongest bamboos in the Americas, making it an excellent building material, according to the company.
Nicaragua, therefore, is ripe for the bamboo business. Yet the $10 billion worldwide bamboo industry has never taken root here.
“Until we came along there was no bamboo industry to speak of,” said CO2 Bambú founder Ben Sandzer-Bell.
That could change if CO2 Bambú is successful. Eighteen months after its inception, the company has recently started operations at an existing wood products factory in Granada to work with bamboo. It also has nurseries and plantations already underway in the country’s northern department of Matagalpa.
CO2 Bambú has plans to manufacture bamboo laminates for floors, ceilings and countertops for export to the United States and Europe. But the company says its vision is about more than just generating export profits; it also wants to help work on a solution to the national housing problem.
Roberto Ferrey, the company’s Nicaraguan president, says building low-cost houses for the poor is CO2 Bambú’s “best project.”
The company has plans to design and manufacture pre-fabricated bamboo houses to help alleviate the country’s deficit of 500,000 homes.
One model home has already been built – a higher-end house with concrete walls and a bamboo structure.
But CO2 Bambú’s next step is to build a prototype for a low-cost home made of prefabricated bamboo laminates, which will be affordable to the rural poor.
To do this, Sandzer-Bell is travelling to Ecuador to look at the blueprints of a NGO’s successful low-cost housing program. Further testing is being done at the University of Engineering in Managua, and the company has already begun the process of government certification.
Benefits of Bamboo House
Sandzer-Bell says low-cost homes could range from $3,000 to $4,500, depending on dimensions, location and other cost factors.
The homes, treated for resistance to insects and water will be built to last 12 to 15 years, he said.
Bamboo housing maintenance, on the part of the home owner, requires a similar level of care that people would give to a wooden home, Sandzer-Bell says.
Besides helping the poor, the company hopes that bamboo reforestation and the development of a bamboo industry could also help empower women in single-mother households.
“Bamboo is extremely light,” Sandzer-Bell explains. “Two women can carry a big piece [of bamboo].”
Its lightness also makes it an easier product to transport in isolated and inaccessible areas, without the need for heavy machinery and access roads.
The company, Sandzer-Bell said, is interested in studying the applicability of bamboo homes in the hurricane-ravaged area of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), where housing needs are particularly urgent.
CO2 Bambú is also working with campesinos to educate them about the utility of bamboo, which they say fits its label as “the plant of steel.”
Sandzer-Bell said bamboo is still thought of as “poor man’s wood” – but that’s an image they hope to help change.
Ferrey says many rural poor still want cement houses, so educating people about bamboo is one of their priorities.
“People don’t realize how useful bamboo can be,” Ferrey said. “Some people just cut it and throw it away.”
The Bamboo Fields
Besides making sure demand exists, the new bamboo business has to ensure a supply chain, too.
A pilot project that gives farmers the tools to produce bamboo for free has been operating for months throughout farmland surrounding the community of El Cua.
This year’s goal of planting 150 hectares of bamboo has almost been completed. The project hopes to expand by an additional 1,500 hectares by 2012.
With 13 nurseries, 30 plantations and another 20 additional farmers preparing to plant, the company’s U.S. bamboo expert, Gib Cooper, arrived in the country in late August for a quick visit to check on the progress.
At one of the largest nurseries, bamboo seedlings had sprouted into 12,000 baby green shoots, individually encased in black plastic sheeting, and neatly organized into rows interspersed with coffee plants.
After about 10 months of sprouting, the plants range in height from 50 to 80 centimeters and are ready to be planted.
“For the farmers it’s a new experience. It is as if they are in school at this point,” explains Gustavo Adoleo Romero, the Nicaraguan reforestation manager hired on by CO2 Bambú.
By providing farmers with the bamboo plants, CO2 Bambú is ensuring they have the right to purchase the bamboo after it is ready to be harvested. In turn, they are offering farmers an opportunity to diversify their product and earn extra income.
Ruben Rugama, the regional field manager charged with finding interested farmers in the region to participate in the project, says, “This is something we can do on a small scale. This is an opportunity to develop revenue in my community.”
At a nearby plantation, farmer José Ubeda already has bamboo shoots that are a couple of meters high, the most advanced of the participating farms visited during this trip.
“I detest people who cut down trees, which is why I am part of this bamboo project – and we are going to triumph,” Ubeda says.
Jonathan Weinstein, head of CO2 Bambú’s sales and marketing, says, “If we are successful, then eventually hundreds of campesino farmers will be selling their bamboo.”
Looking for Startup Investment
CO2 Bambú says it still needs investors to keep their project from stalling in the early stages.
One of their ideas is to seek investment through international emissions trading, which allows polluting companies to buy “carbon credits” from companies that reduce green house gases. Bamboo absorbs carbon dioxide, making the project eligible to sell such credits to international companies seeking to reduce their carbon footprint.
“The reason why we are in this business is we want to have an environmental impact,” Sandzer-Bell said.
The act of planting and harvesting bamboo also stimulates reforestation, Sandzer- Bell said.
Bamboo is a grass, so it regenerates much faster than hardwoods. Bamboo is ready to be harvested six years after being planted.
“The act of cutting it stimulates the underground root system, and it grows [back] bigger and stronger,” Sandzer-Bell says. “So in this very unusual case that is bamboo, the relationship between harvesting and reforesting is a mutually reinforcing cycle.”
Nicaragua’s government has welcomed the company’s reforestation efforts. CO2 Bambu is now part of the National Campaign for Reforestation, one of a few foreign entities involved in a government agency of reforestation programs in various communities.
María Eugenia Rosales, a forestry technical advisor to the National Institute of Reforestation (INAFOR), says, “Reforestation is a priority of this government because of deforestation that’s occurred over the past five years.”
She says CO2 Bambu simultaneously addresses three issues – the environment, social needs and economics.
“It’s a type of economic activity which is friendly to environmental objectives,” Rosales says. For CO2 Bambú, the whole project is about “starting a business from nothing.”
Just as a bamboo seedling needs time to grow, the company also needs time to take root, but hopes it will shoot to success within the coming years.
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