The Wicked Problem of Sustainable Bamboo Management

From poor person’s timber to rich man’s green gold, bamboo is truly the “cradle to coffin timber” for the people of various strata and geographies. Bamboo is a gift of nature and India is blessed with the world’s largest bamboo resource. But the existing utilisation of the bamboo sector in the country remains underdeveloped and its share in domestic consumption and international trade is negligible. With depleting natural resources and changing policy scenarios, such as the ban on single-use plastic, bamboo is increasingly looked upon as the most preferred alternative wood material. It has thousands of well-documented applications in daily life. Despite having such enormous potential for both nature and society, the bamboo industry in the country is still at a nascent stage. Although bamboo management may appear to be a “wicked problem” with no immediate solution, changing policy regimes and growing interest of various stakeholders can potentially provide a way to revive the bamboo sector.

Bamboo is an important ecological and livelihood resource benefiting both people and the planet for decades. India as a country and Asia as a continent is blessed with an abundance of bamboo resources. India has the highest area under bamboo and ranks second in terms of bamboo genetic resources (MoAFW 2019).  Bamboo is increasingly looked upon as the most preferred alternative to wood material owing to its unique characteristics like fast growth, strength, high biomass productivity, self-regeneration, and tolerance to poor soil conditions (UNDP 2018). Moreover, with issues such as climate change and depleting forest resources, it is considered a climate-resilient species. The importance of bamboo is reflected in an old Asian proverb “A man is born in a bamboo cradle and goes away in a bamboo coffin. Everything in between is possible with bamboo!” (Jambay 2014). Bamboo has thousands of well-documented applications in daily lives and hence people also call it by different names such as “green gold,” “poor man’s timber,” “material of the future,” “friend of the people” and “cradle to coffin timber” (Northeast Window 2017). Despite having such an enormous potential for both nature and society, the bamboo industry in the country is underdeveloped and still at a nascent stage. 

“Wickedness” of Bamboo Management

There are multiple stakeholders in the overall bamboo sector, including the state, forest department, local communities, artisans, industry, and civil society organisations. Each entity has varying interests, views, and objective measures of success, thus leaving the problem of bamboo management typically under the construct of a “wicked problem.” The complex nature of the problem resembles the fundamental characteristics of the wicked problem where the stakeholders do not agree, problems are multicausal and there is no clear-cut linear solution to address the problem. As described by Camillus (2008), “Wicked problems can’t be solved, but they can be tamed. Increasingly, these are the problems strategists face and for which they are ill-equipped.” 

The main tussle here is between the state comprising the forest department, state or central government versus the society, in general, comprising local communities, artisans, and the tribal people. There is a perception in the forest department that under the participatory forest management regime, the local communities under CFR/PESA (Community Forest Rights/Panchayats [Extension to the Scheduled Areas] Act, 1996) areas are not managing the bamboo resources sustainably, resulting in deterioration in the overall health and quality of the bamboo resource. But on the other hand, the recent study undertaken by the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), Bhopal for the Maharashtra Forest Department highlights that 87% of the bamboo potential in eastern Maharashtra is untapped and left unharvested owing to demand–supply constraints (Pinjarkar 2019). Both the stakeholders have conflicting views. While the state has got the mandate to protect and conserve natural resources, they are typically ecocentric in nature with a major focus on the conservation of existing resources and the plantation of new bamboo resources. But on the other end, there is a major chunk of utilisers of this resource comprising the local communities, artisans, and industry. They have been traditionally dependent on this resource for generations and bamboo serves as a medium of livelihood security to them.

Supply-side Constraints

While a lot of impetus was and is being given on the “propagation and cultivation” of bamboo, meagre attention is directed towards the “processing and value chain addition” of bamboo products resulting in the lack of holistic development of the bamboo sector. This is also evident from the fact that despite having the largest area under bamboo, India’s share in international trade is miniscule. This was one of the reasons why the National Bamboo Mission got restructured in 2018 to shift from production to processing focus and develop the complete value chain of bamboo from producer to consumer (MoAFW 2019). 

In the existing value chain of bamboo, there is a lot of information asymmetry as the local communities are not aware of the demand in the market. Moreover, the producers cannot decide the price of their bamboo produce as they do not have much bargaining power in the value chain and are driven by the terms and conditions of the fluctuating market. In the present scenario, negligible value is added to the product by any kind of processing, and the increase in price at different levels is attributed to the place value (UNDP 2018).

In general, there are majorly three supply chains in the bamboo sector, namely industrial, commercial and social supply chains (Tambe et al 2019). The industrial supply chain caters to the requirements of the paper industry and other small-scale industries but the consumption of bamboo in the industrial supply chain has significantly reduced. It is estimated that only 10%–20% of the paper mills are utilising bamboo as a raw material as compared to those in the 1990s and their composition of bamboo has also reduced to a meagre 20% (Tambe et al 2020). The commercial supply chain plays a major role in agriculture and horticulture orchards. This is an emerging sector, but due to abnormal climatic conditions like erratic rainfall, frequent floods, and droughts, the demand for poles and sticks in the agriculture and horticulture sector is highly uncertain. The social supply chain meets the bonafide requirements of the forest fringe communities for fencing, housing, and roofing. But here too as the aspirations and standard of living of the people have increased, it is facing a stiff challenge from other materials like plastic in daily use and brick masonry in construction. 

Local uses of bamboo

Demand-side Constraints

The criticality of the problem does not solve here with the supply-side constraints, but there are several demand-side constraints too. There has been declining demand due to the drop in consumption and substitution of bamboo in the traditional market. Unfortunately, there is no official record of the temporal changes in the consumption data of bamboo in various sectors. The industry dynamics have also changed drastically over the years. Initially, the paper industry was the biggest consumer of raw bamboo and they were only interested in the quantity of bamboo and not in its quality or type of species. But the scenario has changed now, as the paper industry is no more consuming bamboo in bulk while the other players are also not bulk consumers and focus both on the quality and type of bamboo. 

In the paper industry, the consumption of bamboo declined substantially with the advancement in technology and changes in raw material composition. Second, in the construction industry, the share of bamboo declined with the introduction of new-age materials like brick masonry, concrete, and steel. Third, with modernisation and an increase in the overall standard of living, the use of bamboo has gradually declined in the rural areas (Forest Department 2017). Thus, while the new value chains have not developed, the existing supply chains are facing stiff competition putting them in great trouble.

Another major constraint on the demand side is the lack of an organised market, especially for the farm bamboo. While the state is promoting the bamboo outside forest areas with flagship schemes like Atal Bamboo Samruddhi Yojana in Maharashtra, farmers are reluctant to cultivate bamboo as there is neither a fixed price for the produce nor an assured market. Bamboo is also closely linked to the culture and livelihoods of artisans, tribal and rural people. But they are realising many difficulties in the changing dynamics of the market.  The traditional artisan base like Buruds in Maharashtra are realising its slow death as the demand for their products is gradually decreasing with the replacement of bamboo products with other materials like plastic in households and concrete in construction.

Additionally, the artisans find great difficulty in procuring the raw material. Initially, under the Nistar policy, the state government used to provide 1,500 bamboo per annum at concessional rates, but that is no longer the case. The bamboo that is available in the market is not affordable to them and is not green bamboo which is a prime requirement for artisan work. Also, they face difficulty in marketing their products, as the production and processing lie in rural areas and demand exists in the urban markets. 

Traditional Burud artisan

Way Forward 

It is no doubt that a lot of efforts are being taken both at the centre and state level under the aegis of the National Bamboo Mission and various state-level missions. However, the results have not been up to the expectations as the bamboo sector has not picked up. A number of factors like policy and regulatory issues, skill development, and lack of a favourable ecosystem for entrepreneurship has led to this stagnation (Das 2017). Amidst the darkness in the bamboo sector, there is still a ray of hope as the changing policy regime like the ban on single-use plastic and increasing pressure on timber wood is likely to intensify the search for alternatives. Additionally, a lot of interest is being shown by young farmers, potential entrepreneurs, new generation architects, and researchers as all are concerned about environmentally friendly and sustainable solutions. Against this backdrop, bamboo as an eco-friendly resource is well-positioned to take centre stage amidst the changing scenario. But in order to realise this, the mindset needs to be shifted from looking at bamboo as a poor person’s timber and souvenir item to green gold and engineering material. Considering the importance of bamboo resources in impacting both the lives and livelihoods, a strategic policy shift ought to be made in looking at bamboo as a priority sector and not as a sideline activity. Only when we value something do we pay attention to it. An integrated, systematic, and actionable approach in developing the bamboo sector will not only help contribute to the emergence of new businesses, jobs, livelihoods, poverty alleviation, women’s empowerment, and rural development, but also help reduce India’s carbon footprint thereby contributing to some of the commitments made in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) under the Paris Agreement. 

Although bamboo management may appear to be a wicked problem with no immediate solution, a way-out is certainly possible. In the present scenario, the problem seems to be less of a supply and more of a demand one (Tambe et al 2020). In order to gain the lost focus, some parts of the bamboo-based items should necessarily be procured by some of the key government departments like tourism, tribal welfare, rural development, and the forest department in order to provide the initial hand-holding and market support. For example, many government organisations regularly require furniture, and if some part of this demand could be met by bamboo-based furniture then it will give a huge boost to the bamboo sector. This would build much-needed confidence and trust in bamboo farmers, traders, and entrepreneurs about the assured demand in the market, thereby promoting the cultivation, processing, and value addition of bamboo. Furthermore, in order to attract engagement in bamboo-based activities, certain aspects of bamboo trade need to be incentivised by way of reduced taxes and enhanced subsidies. A lot of focus should also be invested in innovating new product designs and marketing the products with social appeal to attract a wider consumer base. The focus should not be on reinventing the wheel, but on capitalising on the existing scenario by learning from the developed bamboo markets like that of China and Vietnam. Last, all the planning and implementation should be done in a cluster development approach in a targeted area where there is an abundance of raw material, trained human resources, artisan base, and required market. It will help in maximising efficiency, enhancing productivity, and achieving economies of scale thereby ensuring better returns on investment. 

Bamboo is fast emerging as the material of the future owing to the trends such as green consumerism, and sustainable production and consumption. With the growing restrictions on plastics, bamboo is looked upon as a viable alternative to many of the personal use products such as toothbrushes, combs, straws and baskets. There is a huge opportunity waiting to be tapped in the bamboo sector, be it related to construction, furniture, handicrafts, or simple utility products. There is hardly anything that cannot be made or replaced by bamboo. Urban consumers are willing to buy eco-friendly and sustainable products by paying premium prices. However, they need to be made aware of the importance of bamboo products through proper channels such as Khadi outlets, handicraft fairs, and e-commerce portals. There is also a great potential to export such green products which have minimal impact on nature and maximum benefits for society. It is a unique resource with the potential to impact all the three pillars of sustainability, that is, ecology, economy, and society. The production and consumption of bamboo products would not only help the planet but also the needy people in generating meaningful livelihoods, green jobs, and impactful profits. 

The criticality of bamboo management as a wicked problem lies in the premise that there is no sure-shot single-point linear solution to address the multifold and multicausal problems discussed earlier. Despite having such interconnected problems and concerns involving multiple stakeholders, one thing is sure that bamboo as a resource has enormous potential to conserve nature, generate livelihoods, reduce poverty and boost the rural economy, and the concerted efforts must continue for the holistic development of the bamboo sector. 

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