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Bamboo: a sustainable alternative for bioenergy production in Indonesia?

Perennial plant grows well on degraded land, allows farmers to diversify income streams
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Villagers transport bamboo with a small boat in Selimbau, Lake Sentarum, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. CIFOR/Ramadian Bachtiar

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Indonesia - For thousands of years, people in Indonesia have used bamboo for a huge range of purposes. It is a ready source of food, fibre, firewood and construction material, and its abundance and availability has earned it the moniker of “timber of the poor.”

Now, scientists are exploring its potential in another critical realm: energy production and restoration of degraded land.

Energy demand in Indonesia has increased significantly in recent years, as a result of population growth, urbanization and economic development. The government is also working to up its energy provision from renewable sources, in line with its commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the international Paris Agreement on climate change. As a country with a rich biomass base, bioenergy seems an obvious port of call.

However, growing crops for bioenergy is not without its risks and tradeoffs. At present, Indonesia’s biofuel comes chiefly from oil palm, which has spurred widespread deforestation, peatland drainage and many other grave social and environmental impacts. So, say researchers from Australia’s RMIT University and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), it is crucial to start looking for other species that can provide sustainable supplies of biomass for energy production, without compromising food security or unduly affecting the wider landscape.

And that is where bamboo comes in, said RMIT and CIFOR researcher Roshan Sharma in a just-published opinion piece for the journal Sustainability. The fast-growing, perennial plant grows well on degraded land with minimal water or fertilizer input, and also thrives when planted in combination with other crops in forestry and agroforestry systems. What is more, there’s no need to chop the whole stand down and start again when it’s time to harvest: once mature (after around three to four years), the crop can be systematically thinned every year, and this may actually increase its productivity over time.

Bamboo cultivation can also be a “powerful ally” in restoration processes, say the co-authors. Its extensive root systems help to control erosion and retain water, while its copious leaf litter contributes significantly to soil fertility. Because it grows fast, it quickly creates habitats for enhanced biodiversity, and sequesters carbon in the process. What’s more, points out CIFOR scientist and contributing author Himlal Baral, the financial benefits of cultivating bamboo for bioenergy make restoration a much more economically viable prospect, which will be crucial for scaling it up.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Another advantage of generating bioenergy from bamboo is that it allows for decentralized energy production, say the scientists. Indonesia is made up of thousands of islands, many of which are not connected to the national power grid: according to Jaya Wahono, co-author  and chief executive of Clean Power Indonesia (CPI), there are around 12,500 villages across the country that don’t have reliable power. Diesel is imported in drums to many of these places and used to power generators, but it’s expensive and unreliable, which limits options for economic development, says Wahono.

As such, CPI has set up pilot bamboo power plants on the remote Mentawai islands, with considerable success: they’ve brought reliable electricity to 1,200 households in three villages, each of which has their own power plant. Bamboo harvesting provides jobs, and also allows farmers to diversify their income streams, reducing their vulnerability to crop failure and helping them adapt to climate change.

Wahono says CPI is now keen to replicate the model across Indonesia. Since bamboo cultivation and use is already a familiar aspect of everyday life, they hope that locals will be willing and able to participate in bamboo-based bioenergy production right across the archipelago.

Bamboo plantations will need to be carefully managed, notes Baral, as they can pose a threat as an invasive species which can displace surrounding vegetation. It will also be important to ensure bamboo is cultivated on degraded and under-utilized land, so it doesn’t displace food crops or cause clear-felling of native vegetation while reducing the risk of invasiveness.

According to Sharma, the research team’s next step will be “to explore how much local bamboo is available in Indonesia, identify sites for possible bamboo plantations, and study the economic feasibility of producing bamboo by farmers and the economics of land restoration using bamboo.”

Wahono will share more on the findings from this research in a discussion forum on integrating bioenergy and landscape restoration in the tropics, at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn on Dec. 2.

This research is part of the CIFOR Bioenergy project funded by NIFoS (National Institute of Forest Science, South Korea), the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (CRP-FTA) with financial support from donors to the CGIAR Fund.

Join the discussion at GLF Bonn. Learn more here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuH_mx6JwEY

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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