By Randy V. Urlanda

Bamboo is deeply planted in the lives of Filipinos and its endless uses affect them from birth until death.

Rural midwives use the razor-sharp bamboo knife to cut off anewborn baby’s umbilical cord and a bamboo pole to lower the coffin into a grave when a person dies. Many houses in villages are built with bamboo splits or woven bamboo mats called “sawali.” Bamboo shoots are a nourishing food when cooked with coconut milk, whether served a lowly streetside karenderia or a three-star Michelin rated upscale restaurant.

Humble but Versatile

The Philippines has 82 species of bamboo, 21 of which are endemic or native. Bamboos are of notable economic and cultural significance in Southeast Asia, being used for building materials, as a food source, and a versatile raw product.

An Oxygen Park inside the Beema Bamboo plantation in Romblon.

Despite its lowly reputation, bamboo maybe the strongest stuff on the planet. It has greater tensile strength (or resistance to being pulled apart) than steel. Certain species of bamboo can grow 36 inches within a 24-hour period, at a rate of 1.6 inches an hour.

In 2009, Dr. Merian C. Mani, then director for research of the Romblon State College (now university)in Odiongan, Romblon, read in a newspaper that a private company, Future Energy Concept, was interested on focusing on biomass as an alternative energy source. Biomass is an organic material that comes from plants and animals, and it is a renewable source of energy. It contains stored energy from the sun. Plants like bamboo absorb the sun’s energy in a process called photosynthesis. When biomass is burned, the chemical energy in biomass is released as heat.

Propagating Beema

Dr. Mani, a Doctor of Education major in educational management,went to India to learn how to propagate a new species of thick-walled bamboo—the Beema Bamboo—developed by Dr. N. T.Barathi, an Indian agriculture scientist. After learning about the advantages of Beema over other species of bamboo, she ordered 1,000 tissue-cultured saplings. Dr. Mani thought that the thick-walled Beema bamboo was the right biomass material that Future Energy needed.

Beema bamboo is a tissue cultured variety of the Indian Bambusa balcooa. Unlike common bamboos, Beema bamboo’s culm grows nearly solid, without genetic engineering. It maintains a fast growth rate and after every harvest cycle, it regrows and does not require replanting for the next 50 years.

The experienced team under Dr. Mani of the Romblon Bamboo Research Center, Inc. (RBRCI) provided and maintained perfect growth conditions and ensured the ideal maturation of the seedlings. After 12 weeks, the saplings reached a size of 60 centimeters (cm) and were ready for planting. The first harvest was done three years after planting. It reached its full harvest rate after five years, which yielded up to 100 tons of biomass per hectare.

The RBRCI operates the first Beema bamboo nursery and plantation in the Philippines. A Beema bamboo nursery was started at the Marinduque State College (MSC) in October last year to propagate it,partly to help absorb toxic substances left by the Marcopper mining disaster in 1996. Spacing between plants is 3.2 meters (m) by1.2 m. It must be planted at least four feet deep then topped with good soil.

A Versatile Species

Beema bamboo’s suitable applications are for power generation projects, paper industries, construction and furniture, and the handicraft and cottage industries. All the bamboo handicrafts in Quiapo like Spanish fans were sourced from Gasan, a town in Marinduque. Beema is also recommended for land reclamation in mines and water clogged areas.

Beema bamboo nursery at Marinduque State College with more than 28,000 saplings.

“In 2009, I put up the first Beema bamboo nursery and plantation in the Philippines in Romblon,” says the 55-year-old Dr. Mani, the current president of Marinduque State College whose main campus is situated in Boac, Marinduque, the capital town of the province of Marinduque.

“Beema bamboo is similar to our patong in Central Visayas and called bayog (Bambusa sp. 1) in Central Luzon,” continues the bamboo specialist.“Now, we have a total of 16 hectares of fully grown Beema bamboo plantation in Odiongan, Romblon.

“They are now part of the province’s eco-tourism tour,” says the amiable Beema bamboo proponent. “Visitors walking through the bamboo plantation enjoy cool and clean air as they walk on the carpetlike dried bamboo leaves that cover the pathway. In India they make vermiculture in between the bamboo stands which uses the bamboos’ fallen leaves.”

One fully-grown Beema bamboo could sequester more than 400 kilograms of carbon dioxide from our surroundingsevery year for the next 100 years, at least for the next few generations. It absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen into the atmosphere at a rate three to four times higher than any other tree. One bamboo tree generates plenty of natural oxygen sufficient for more than one human being’s daily requirements.

A family of four, including a dog or cat, would essentially require 1,100 to 1,250 kilograms of oxygen every year for breathing, which is made available by three bamboo plants organically. In tests conducted in India, patients were made to jog through a lush bamboo farm.After the test, all of the patients recuperated and rehabilitated fully from their illnesses.

“Advantages of Beema bamboo are: it is fast growing, it has high biomass, it is thornless, its wall thickness is three times more than other bamboo [species], and it is [a] sterile plant,” explains Dr. Mani. “What’s more, it effectively cleans water pollution [from] factories and effluent of mine tailings due to its natural affinity with nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals. That’s why we requested the mined out areas of Consolidated Mining, Inc. for us to plant Beema bamboo to help in restoring the mined out soil into what it used to be.”

“Beema bamboo has simple characteristics. The only difference is that it is tissue cultured so we can mass produce it,” aversDr. Mani. “If we use the traditional way of producing one plant material, it would take six months with low survival [rates]. However, with Beema bamboo, in ten weeks’ time there are already tiny shoots or tillers and I split them into two, thus doubling the plant materials.”

Helping to Build A Cleaner Future

Dr. Mani was acclaimed as one of the ten Outstanding Movers in the Philippines last year, and was awarded the “Champion of Life and Hero of the Environment Award” in February this year. She has asked the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and other government agencies with idle lands or vacant lots for permission to transform these into Beema bamboo farms with farmer cooperators who would be paid by the agency landowner to make the farm sustainable.

When fully grown, the bamboo farms on vacant government properties could be converted into oxygen parks where people can avail themselves of fresh oxygen produced by the bamboo, and carbon neutral gardens to enhance the health of residents living in the area. In the town of Buenavista in Marinduque, a landowner has planted Beema bamboo in her two-hectare pilot project, complete with irrigation.

A Swedish scientist has taken notice of Beema bamboo as an environment-friendly cargo box. After stripping the bamboo of its skin, the pole is then pulverized and moldedinto airplane cargo boxes, making it lighter and environment-friendly than styrofor boxes.

Once Beema bamboo is propagated in the entire country, its oxygen parks and carbon neutral gardens will help alleviate the health conditions of Filipinos, while its biomass will generate clean energy and wean our power generators from harmful fossil fuels that pollute the environment.

“Soon, Beema bamboo would be planted in some towns in Marinduque, like the one in Buenavista, to help in absorbing toxic substances in the air, soil and water, including the 34-hectare badland that was abandoned by Consolidated Mining, Inc. since it was closed down,” concludes Dr. Mani, who organized the “First Public-Private Partnership of Romblon State College (now university) on “Alternative Energy Using Biomass and Agrowaste” and the “Adaptation Trial of Beema Bamboo” hosted by the RDE Unit of the Romblon State University with German and Indian scientists as partners.

“When these logged over [wastelands are] planted with fast growing Beema bamboo, Marinduque [will] become a major ecotourism destination because of its cool Beema bamboo oxygen parks, and a major income earner for the province as producer of biomass for power plants.”

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s June 2018 issue.