Can ‘amazing grass’ bamboo replace rubber?


Can the ‘amazing grass’ bamboo, used as agarbatti sticks to floor tiles, replace natural rubber in Kerala as a commercial crop is a question being raised on the occasion of World Bamboo Day on Friday.

Bamboo can generate income, provide employment, mitigate pollution, and act as a bulwark against flooding and landslips. The agroclimatic condition in Kerala is suited to different varieties of bamboo but the State appears to have been left behind in exploiting its potential, says Syam Viswanath, Director, Kerala Forest Research Institute at Peechi, Thrissur, on Thursday.

He says farmers in States such as Karnataka have begun to plant bamboo on a commercial scale. A prominent tea estate in Karnataka had converted about 100 acres of its 1,200 acres into a bamboo plantation.

Tea plantations have fallen on bad days with shortage of labour. The rubber sector too is in disarray. There are 8.22 lakh ha under rubber in the country with 13.2 lakh small units involved in cultivation. The rubber-based manufacturing sector is worth about ₹87,000 crore while natural rubber production is worth about ₹9,000 crore. There are 8,000 dealers and two lakh processors involved in the sector.

Dr. Syam says the business in bamboo shoots as a food item, which forms 14% of the world trade in bamboo, is worth around $1,700 million. The market is dominated by China and South Korea with a demand for around three million tonnes of bamboo shoots.

He also points out that a leading agarbatti brand needs about 1,000 tonnes of bamboo splits a day. Most of it is now being imported from Vietnam and the cost is roughly ₹130 a kg. Local bamboo planters can replace the import with a little investment in value addition, he says.

It is time Kerala explored its bamboo potential, says V.B. Sreekumar of the KFRI, who heads the bamboo technical support group. He says agroforestery models are available and means of propagation standardised. Besides, there are bamboo varieties that are suited to all conditions in Kerala ranging from hilly soil to the coastal segment.

He says yearly floods in Kerala have highlighted the soil-binding qualities of bamboo plantations. Bamboo can be used as bio-shield against flooding.

In the meanwhile, Chairman of the Kerala State Bamboo Corporation K. J. Jacob says the corporation was raising production of agarbatti sticks at its Nadapuram plant from about 250-300 kg a day to 1,000 kg in view of the increase in demand. The corporation is engaged in making a variety of products from bamboo, including plywood, floor tiles, and reinforced wall panels.

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