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Green and versatile: the hidden potential of Brazilian bamboo in the global low-carbon economy

Updated: Mar 3

Quick guide to discover a little about the history, scientific classification and scenario of native Brazilian bamboo and introduced/exotic bamboo in Brazil.

2024, The low-carbon bamboo economy. CEBIS

The first uses of bamboo in Brazil date back to the ancient culture of indigenous peoples, where it was also known as taboca and taquara, before Portuguese colonization. The first studies of Brazilian bamboo took place in the 19th century, between 1829 and 1835. The German biologist and doctor Nees Von Esenbeck published important works for understanding the taxonomy of bamboos. Nees wrote a chapter on grasses, which included bamboos, in the publication Flora Brasiliensis no Brasil. Later, he published another study dedicated to Brazilian bamboos, which is recognized as the first production dedicated exclusively to Bambusoideaes.

The Tukano, northwest Amazon.

Return of an owner. Jean Baptiste Debret (1839-1839)

Classified as a non-timber forest product, bamboo is not routinely included in environmental resource inventories, which makes it difficult to truly understand the economic potential of bamboo in Brazil. The favorable environmental conditions, in principle, for planting bamboo are: soils with a pH between 5.0 and 6.5, soils with good drainage but with good moisture retention, rainfall between 1,800 mm and 2,500 mm annually and relative humidity between 75% - 85%. pH in the range of 5.0 to 6.5 is acidic soil, but not extremely so. Many plants prefer this pH range to absorb nutrients effectively.

Regarding the costs and profitability of bamboo planting, it is not possible to present estimates of gains, as they are directly linked to the construction and positioning of the brand of entrepreneurs and investors, and the requirements of the purchasing segment such as certification, treatment, guarantee, form payment, delivery time, shipping, among others.

Bamboo is indicated for the recovery of degraded areas and/or low economic returns, and market-oriented commercial strategies impact the strategic planning of cultivation and/or collection. One hectare can be filled with 400 seedlings or 800 seedlings.    

2022, Distribution of bamboo and rattan.

According to the scientific classification, Bambusoideaes belong to the Eukaryota domain. They belong to the kingdom Plantae, order Poales and family Poaceae (grasses).  Poales is an order of plants within the group of monocotyledons (class Liliopsida), which comprises a wide variety of families, including some of the most economically important. Grasses, which are part of the Poaceae family, are perhaps the best known among the Poales, due to their importance as cereals (such as wheat, rice, corn and barley), forage, among others. Furthermore, many Poales species are fundamental to natural ecosystems, providing habitat and food for a wide range of fauna. The general characteristics of plants in the order Poales include generally linear leaves and small flowers, often grouped in inflorescences. Many are adapted to specific habitats, from humid and aquatic areas to dry and mountainous regions.

Scientific classification

The Poaceae family, also known as grasses, are a large and nearly ubiquitous family of monocot plants. With more than 12,000 species distributed in around 700 genera, Poaceas are one of the most important and ecologically significant plant families. They include crucial crops such as wheat, corn, rice, barley, oats, sugar cane, sorghum, and many others, which are fundamental to human and animal nutrition around the world.

Poaceas play a crucial role in soil conservation, the water cycle and as habitat for a wide range of wildlife.  The domestication of several species of Poaceas for agriculture is one of the pillars of the development of human civilizations, allowing sedentarization and population growth.

1908, The roadway through a forest of bamboo, Brazil

The Bambusoideaes are a subfamily belonging to the Poaceae family, which is one of the largest families within the Poales order. Bamboos stand out for being a very versatile group of plants, with a strong presence in different ecosystems around the world, especially in tropical and subtropical regions.

General characteristics of Bambusoideaes:

  • Growth:  Bamboos can be divided into two main groups based on their root system: leptomorphs (spreading), pachymorphs (semi-clumping) and metamorphs (clumping). Clumpy bamboos tend to grow in dense clumps, while sprawling bamboos spread more widely.

  • Structure: The structure of bamboo is notable for its woody stems (culms) that can reach different heights, from dwarf species to giants that exceed 30 meters. The culms are generally hollow, with clearly defined nodes and internodes.

  • Leaves: Bamboo leaves are typically long and narrow, with a prominent central vein.

  • Flowers: The flowering of bamboos is a peculiar phenomenon, as many species bloom at long intervals, which can vary from a few dozen to more than a hundred years. Furthermore, the entire population of a species often flowers synchronously, regardless of its geographic location, which can lead to its mass death after flowering.

The Bambusoideae are divided into three main tribes - Bambuseae, Arundinarieae and Olyreae - and reflect the diversity within the subfamily:

Bambuseae:  This tribe is mainly made up of tropical bamboos that are often woody and live in tropical forests, and are known for their rapid growth and the ability to form dense forests. Many members of this tribe are economically important, providing materials for construction, furniture, and other uses. Some of the most important genres are:

  • Bambusa: One of the best-known genera, it includes species such as green bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris), widely cultivated in the tropics for its rapid growth and usefulness in construction, furniture and utensils.

  • Guadua: This genus is notable in South America, especially in Brazil and Colombia, for its economic and environmental importance. Guadua angustifolia is an emblematic species, known for its resistance and usefulness in sustainable constructions.

  • Dendrocalamus: Species of this genus are large and robust, used in Asia for construction, paper and furniture. Dendrocalamus giganteus is one of the largest bamboo species in the world.

Guadua angustifolia

Arundinarieae:  Known as temperate bamboos, these bamboos are found in colder regions, including mountainous areas. They tend to be less woody compared to members of the Bambuseae tribe. Temperate bamboos are adapted to colder climates and are often found at higher elevations. They tend to be smaller and less invasive than tropical bamboos. Some notable genres include:

  • Phyllostachys: This genus includes some of the most cultivated species outside the tropics, such as Phyllostachys edulis (moso bamboo), which is widely used in China for food (bamboo shoots) and construction.

  • Fargesia: Species in this genus are important to the giant panda's diet and are characterized by their clustered growth, unlike the invasive growth of many other bamboos. They are widely used in gardens in temperate climates.

Olyreae: This tribe is unique because its members are generally herbaceous rather than woody, differing significantly from other bamboos in terms of structure and habitat. They are mainly found in tropical regions under forest canopies. Bamboos from the Olyreae tribe differ from woody bamboos (Bambuseae and Arundinarieae tribes) by several characteristics, including their herbaceous size, smaller stems (called culms) and growth habits that tend to be more adapted to life under the forest canopy. rather than forming dense bamboo forests or being used significantly in construction or crafts. Olyreae bamboos are ecologically important, especially in tropical forest ecosystems, where they contribute to biodiversity and serve as food and habitat for various species of fauna. However, unlike their woody relatives, they have limited use in industry or crafts due to their small size and physical characteristics. Genera within the tribe Olyreae include, among others, Olyra, Pariana, and Eremitis.

From the knowledge of the tribes, we move on to the genus, for example, Guadua, and then the species, such as Guadua angustifolia.

The bamboosoidea subfamily is the only one in the Poaceae with great diversity in forest environments. It is distributed globally between 46 ° N and 47 °  S, with latitude up to 4.3 meters at sea level, in 116 genera and 1439 species, 62% of which are in Asia, 34% in the Americas and 4% in Africa and Oceania. Regarding temperatures, the climate is temperate for the spreading ones and between 20°C and 25°C for the swollen ones.

In 1994, Inbar published a survey of priority species, with 75 genera and 1,250 species, with 50 species used extensively. The criteria for classification were: use, cultivation, processes and products, germplasm and genetic resources and agroecology. Based on the studies, 20 Bambusoideas were classified with the highest priority. Only one Latin American species (Guadua angustifolia) has been recognized as a priority species for international action based on its economic importance. In the 1998 publication, the species priority_species were updated, and Guadua angustifolia continued as a priority species.

As early as 2001, Inbar assessed bamboo resources in Latin America. 20 genera and 429 species of woody bamboo were highlighted. The species distribution was: Brazil (137), Colombia (70), Venezuela (60), Ecuador (42), Costa Rica (39), Mexico (37) and Peru (37). In the Amazon region, in 1999, there were 18 million hectares.

According to the study, the most useful species in Latin America are from the genera Guadua and Bambusa.  For commercial use, the highlights are Guadua angustifolia, Guadua amplexifolia, Bambusa vulgaris (introduced/exotic), Bambusa tuldoides (introduced/exotic) and Phyllostachys aurea (introduced/exotic).

According to this 2001 study, in Brazil there are 17 genera, 137 species and 2 sub-species of bamboo, with emphasis on the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Santa Catarina, Bahia and Paraná. There is greater diversity of Bambusoideas in the Atlantic Forest, which extends from the state of Pará to Rio Grande do Sul. However, it is the exotic genera and species, which were initially introduced during the period of Portuguese colonization, with the greatest economic role, being most studied and more promoted than native species. Also according to the study, the following genera and species have potential commercial use in Brazil: Actinocladum, Apoclada, Chusquea, Guadua and Merostachys.

In the 2002 study Potential Distribution of Woody Bamboos in Africa and America, by Inbar, 378 individual species and subspecies of bamboo and 32 genera of Bambuseaes were mapped. The highest numbers of potential richness of woody bamboo species (35 species per km²) were recorded in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. The coastal regions of the Atlantic side of South America are believed to be one of the main centers of bamboo grass diversity, along with the monsoon belt of Southeast Asia and southern China.

In 2004, the first checklist for Bambusoideae in Brazil was published by Filgueiras and Santos Gonçalves. In this publication, 34 genera and 232 species were listed.

In 2005, in a FAO/Inbar publication ratified that there are 232 native species, distributed in the Atlantic Forest (62%), Forest  Amazônica (28 %) and Cerrado (10%).

Another study from 2015 reports that in Brazil there are 256 native species, in 34 genera, 2 tribes Bambuseae (17 genera) and Olyreae (17 genera). The largest number of the Olyreae tribe (herbaceous) is found in the North region, with 61 species. Bambuseae (woody) are found in the Southeast Region, with Merostachys (43 species), Chusquea (45 species) and Guadua (18 species) totaling 96 native species. They are  genera endemic no Brazil: Diandrolyra, Eremitis Parianella, Reitzia  and Sucrea,  and tribe Olyreae, e Alvimia, Apoclada, Athroostachys, Cambajuva, Filgueirasia e Glaziophyton to Bambuseae tribe.

In 2017, a new international publication classifies native, introduced and invasive species from different countries, and presents Brazil with almost 400 native species.

2017, The global distribution of bamboos

It is very important to emphasize that when reading the scientific classification of the bamboos, it is necessary to understand the tribe they belong to, and then move on to the genus, and then and finally the species.  

Even with hundreds of studies and research, little is known about bamboo in Brazil and bamboo in Brazil. Despite the considerable federal budget allocated to carrying out research, Brazil has continued to have a negative trade balance for 20 years, increasing the import of bamboo articles year after year.  Informality predominates the bamboo chain in Brazil, which has a negative impact on the development of the bamboo economy. The bamboo economy generates around US$68 billion annually on the world market, with applications in various industries, including construction, fabrics, furniture, paper and energy sources.

2024, The low-carb economy in bamboo. CEBIS

New genera and species will certainly be discovered when there is greater interest on the part of national and international companies and investors, providing applied research, aimed at the market, quite different from the artificial environment of academies.  The lack of training and qualifications, as well as the professionalization of the sector, compromise the development of the production chain. Therefore, the Brazilian Center for Innovation and Sustainability operates with consistency and technical robustness, providing advice and consultancy for risk management in bamboo cultivation, discussing the legal framework at federal, state and municipal levels, promoting the production of technical standards, certifications, of origin stamps, holding events and other activities. The Brazilian Center for Innovation and Sustainability is recognized nationally and internationally as a reference for bamboo in Brazil.

As bamboo is of the Poales order, investment by economic groups is necessary to validate business models and bamboo cultivation and collection protocols, and the Brazilian Center for Innovation and Sustainability is the right partner.

Bamboo's DNA will certainly surprise, as the scientific foundations are just a beginning, given the extraordinary ability to adapt to specific ecosystems, from humid and aquatic areas to dry and mountainous regions inherited from the Poales.




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