Is Bamboo the Next Green Gold?

 "Is Bamboo the Next Green Gold? Balancing the Needs of Vernacular Builders, Non-human Forest Dwellers and Green Architects in the Age of Sustainability"

One of the fastest growing plants in the world; bamboo has emerged as a silver bullet for sustainable design and architecture. However, bamboo also has long been used in artisanal construction in Asia and South America, where it is part of important ecological and cultural systems. Its commercialization brings us back to a now familiar problem: How should we manage nature without damaging the systems that bring us these materials? Can bamboo satisfy all its lovers or – like sugarcane for ethanol – will it become the next green gold? Darrel DeBoerJennifer M. Jacobs and Rudolf von May will examine this significant problem, while focusing on tropical bamboo as an emerging case study.

Panel speakers

Darrel DeBoer is a leading figure for Architects for Social Responsibility and Green Building, who was named by Metropolitan Home magazine in 2001 as “one of the 100 most influential designers” and by Natural Home magazine 2005 one the 10 “Green Architects.” In thirty years of practice, he has used structural bamboo, straw bales, earthen & lime plasters, earthen floors and salvaged materials in an effort to find alternatives to toxic or scarce materials used more often today. Darrel has written and co-authored seven books on building with these materials, including Bamboo Building Essentials and The Art of Natural Building. In addition, he has taught sustainable building techniques through UC Berkeley Extension, the Academy of Art University, Merritt College, the County of Alameda and the City of San Francisco. See his work at:

Jennifer M. Jacobs is a biologist, who has studied bamboo forest biodiversity in Peru’s Amazonian region. Her latest research focused on beetle community ecology in bamboo forests. In collaboration with Rudolf von May, she co-authored the article titled: "Forest of Grass: Discovering Biodiversity in the Amazon's Bamboo Jungles" in the Journal of Natural History. Jacobs is also interested in teaching environmental education in K-12 schools.

Rudolf von May is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, UC Berkeley, who grew up in the rain forest region of Central Peru and has studied frogs living in bamboo forests. For the last 15 years, in collaboration with other scientists, he has been tracking amphibian biodiversity in the Andes-Amazon region. This research has been featured in National Geographic and Los Angeles Times, among others (see video at:

Co-Sponsored by the Departments of Anthropology, Politics, and Sociology | Hosted by Luz Cordoba

November 19, 2014 | 4:00-6:00PM | Engineering 2, room 475

"Is Bamboo the Next Green Gold?: Balancing the Needs of Vernacular Builders, Non-human Forest Dwellers and Green Architects in the Age of Sustainability"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
19 November 2014
Rapporteur Report by Luz Cordoba
First, Jennifer M. Jacobs and Rudolf von May presented their research on Guadua
bamboo ecologies in the southwestern Amazon. Creating a “patchy” topography, Guadua
bamboo is a fast growing clonal plant that creates mono-dominant patches that span more than
300 square kilometers. Yet, in the southwestern Amazon, Guadua bamboo adds to the
heterogeneity of the rainforest by sheltering and interacting with a diversity of species.
Bamboo, Jacobs stated, experiences mass flowering and collective die-offs, even when
patches are non-contiguous. Luz Cordoba asked how are egregious flowering and collective dieoffs
temporally coordinated across these disconnected patches of bamboo? Jacobs responded that
some theories suggest that there is speciation among patches. Darrel DeBoer, our third presenter,
pointed out that the Guadua Jacobs referred to are smaller varieties. Larger varieties reproduce
mostly asexually because the seeds of the largest species of Guadua are not viable. He stated that
“if you go back far enough (to study these patches) you may find that an entire species is one
plant.” Most of these bamboos spread asexually through a rhizomatic root system, which give
rise to new bamboo culms. Through this underground system, one individual may spread and
“colonize” large and often non-contiguous territories, creating new patches. Despite its
separation from the mother plant, these patches are temporally synchronized, which results in a
species dominating different territories, but also disappearing at once.

Bamboo forests, Jacobs suggested, are largely understudied, particularly in the area of
genetics and ecology, but during the last twenty years, recent advancements in satellite
technology have allowed researchers to study large patches in the Amazon. Researchers
speculate that the spread of bamboo forests may have come from wild fires or native people’s
swidden agriculture. For instance, the study of mound formations in Argentina has shown that
pre-Columbian people worked with bamboo. Jacobs’ research on Enema Pan (rhinoceros beetle)
was inspired by these anthropological discoveries. In the Southwestern Amazon Jacobs and von
May found similar mounds in bamboo forests. Upon excavation of these large mounds, they
found E. Pan. E. Pan, working at the base of the Guadua bamboo, shreds open the culm,
exposing its sap and allowing other insects to feed off the sap. The male E. Pan forms the mound
when digging its burrow. The male beetle then guards the burrow at its entrance. Jacobs
speculates that they feed on Guadua and use these tunnels to raise their larvae.

Von May finished their talk with a survey of the different species that inhabit the inside
of bamboo. He explained how a weevil makes a hole in bamboo, which opens it to other species.
Surprisingly, amphibians are a large group of species that live, reproduce or find shelter in
Guadua. In particular, he called our attention to a particular poisonous frog that uses the inside of
Guadua as a breeding space. In southeastern Peru, this small frog, less than an inch in length,
takes advantage of the structure of Guadua by laying eggs on the walls of the bamboo after
mating inside of it. The nodes of the bamboo are usually filled with water. The male frog looks
for available pools free of predators while carrying hatched tadpoles on their back. Von May
pointed out that this phenomenon of amphibians using bamboo as a breeding ground is not
particular of Peru, but takes place wherever there are these types of bamboos. To date, scientists
have documented at least another five species of amphibians that use Guadua bamboo as shelter.
Like frogs, there are a number of vertebrates, such as birds, that use bamboo as shelter, retreat
and breeding grounds. Von May concluded by pointing out that it takes millions of years for
such species to develop such strong relationships with plants like bamboo, “making us wonder
what would happen if the bamboo habitat disappears?”

DeBoer spoke about the importance of thinking about land use in today’s environment.
He stated, “there are millions of people who would accept living in really high density places in
order to save other land for other things.” In order to do that, DeBoer asked, “What do we need
to be building?” He thinks that we should be constructing as densely as possible buildings that
are “at least 4 to 5 stories high, as densely as possible.” In order to build sustainably, DeBoer
thinks the goal is to get “people to live in 25 units per acre.” This translates to about 1,500 square
feet per unit. He points out that under the right conditions, “transit works without subsidies when
you have 25 units per acre.” Sustainably constructing these spaces will depend also on the
materials we use. DeBoer highlighted how concrete is responsible for 8% all our greenhouse
gases and 30% of our energy goes to building and another 30% goes into transportation, so
building densely will save all of that energy, he argued. Bamboo is a perfect material to build
dense cities because some of its species, particularly, Guadua angustifolia, have strong walls that
can sustain human structures.

In reference to Cordoba’s question of how do you take a natural material like Guadua,
and use it without industrializing it, DeBoer explained that people have found techniques to
transform it without capital/energy intensive processes. Andrew Mathews asked DeBoer whether
he foresees people building their high-density bamboo cities next to their bamboo forests?
DeBoer responded that one way to see this is that one must grow as much bamboo as the area to
be built with it. So, “if you want a house this big, you plant that much bamboo.” And he, pointed
out an example in Asia where people were directed to grow bamboo next to their lots in order to
build their own homes. DeBoer continued to explain that to build with soft wood, the current
paradigm, would take a few acres to build the same house, partly because of the nature of the
fiber of bamboo. Mathews asked whether there are “big industrial projects to build with Guadua,
and is there a fear of destroying these large bamboo forests?” Von May said that in Peru bamboo
is used in small-scale projects but in Brazil there are paper projects where large tracks of bamboo
forests are cleared. In these last cases bamboo is very profitable. However, von May highlighted
that it is very common that people think of bamboo “as a weedy plant, a grass” and they are more
concerned with clearing up land for agriculture because it is more profitable. Kristina Lyons
added that one of the things that has been left out of the conversation are the legal structures that
forests farmers must adhere to in order to make decisions about what plants to cut. She stated, “it
all depends of what Amazons you are talking about, because they are many Amazons. The
Amazons are many worlds.” In Colombia, which still follows a colonial system, farmers must
clear 3 quarters of the land in order to obtain legal title over the land. Farmers want to
incorporate forestry into their farms but they cannot because of this, and if the forest is not
farmed, the mining and oil companies are free to exploit it. She pointed out that these policies do
not protect the forest, but mostly protect the rights of multinational corporations to exploit it.
Lyons raised an important point that we must be mindful of the geopolitical, constitutional and
economic forces that force people into certain relationships with the forest.

Lastly, Karen Barad pointed out the constant use of the verb colonize in order to describe
the ecologies of bamboo. She suggested that, as insiders, scientists get really used to using
certain terminology. Barad asked the scientists what they have thought may be the implications
of using this term, “and what epistemological and methodological issues may arise from the use
of that terminology?” Rudolf responded that in ecology and biology there are few
generalizations. One, he said, is the Island Biogeography where organisms that arrive from the
main land are conceived as colonizers. Thus, in ecology is common to describe organisms that
arrive from another place as colonizers and the process described as one of colonization. Jenny
added that although she uses this terminology, rather than colonization, she sees it as movement
rather than colonization. Barad commented that while she understood that this word has a
genealogy within the sciences, it, nonetheless, carries an array of meanings and assumptions that
take place without thinking about it. She commented that colonization “…is a term about
insertion, rather than a welcoming or a kind of invitation.” Barad’s pointed out that, “the words
we use as scientists do all kinds of work for us and they carry entire models with them…(they)
may be a vehicle for background assumptions.” Andrew added that thinking about beetles
colonizing bamboo makes us think only of a one way relationship, but, he asked, “is the bamboo
getting anything out of it?” Parasitization, he pointed out, is often not a one-way process and
thinking of it in this way we may pay more attention to the return not just the arrival. Karen
finished the conversation by summarizing this discussion with an important question. She asked:
What is not being asked as the result of that or being pay attention to?

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