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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


Tuesday, May 31, 2005

entry arrow4:58 AM | Redefining the Bamboo

The very nature of the bamboo -- which is among the most useful of all plants -- provides a fitting metaphor for understanding the mechanism of the success, and the continuing goals, of Buglas Bamboo Institute (BBI) in Dumaguete City: the bamboo is resilient, it is highly functional in so many ways, and it is always conducive to growing to its fullest potentials.

There is, all over the world, over 1,500 species of bamboo. A significant portion of them grows in Asia, with the Philippines breeding many of the species best suited for the manufacture of specialty products. According to experts, their uses can astound in the way they vary: bamboos, of course, are highly decorative plants, but their compact and highly-complex root systems also make the bamboo environmentally useful because of its magnificent capability for controlling erosion. Houses, screens, and windbreakers have been made from bamboo, and its culms have been used for an array of things, from bridges to rafts, from fishing poles to garden stakes, from water pipes to scaffolding, from carving to jewelry, from cooking utensils to woven mats and baskets, from fences to furniture. Toys and musical instruments have been made from bamboo. The bamboo organ in Las Pinas, for example, was constructed in 1818 from 950 bamboo culms -- and is still operational. There is no construction material as hard as bamboo. Its complex physical structure makes it a hardwood material perhaps comparable to steel -- but is, almost paradoxically, waterproof, light, bendable, and tough. In many Asian cuisines, edible bamboo shoots are also considered a delicacy.

The bamboo gets into the record books as the fastest growing plant in the world, and its continuous regeneration makes it an authentic "sustainable resource." What is remarkable about the plant is that, under certain beneficial conditions, new shoots become taller and thicker over the years, until that particular species of bamboo planting reaches its maximum potential in terms of height and breadth. While the mother plant produces new shoots every year that develop to their maximum height within a few months, the poles can be harvested after 4 or 5 years when they reach their maximum tensile strength. And bamboo can grow relatively anywhere. Thomas Walta, the DED specialist currently assigned to look over the manufacture and design component of the BBI, says that bamboos generally thrive on moist and rich soil, but are fairly tolerant of varying soil conditions. "That is why they grow mostly beside riverbeds," Mr. Walta says. But once they take root to any particular environment, they become reasonably resistant to drought -- hence their remarkable resiliency.

That may be the same exact story about how BBI itself came to be. Resiliency. That story is also the chronicle of a socially-minded Carmelite missionary who came to the Philippines from the Netherlands in 1964, and quickly took root among Filipinos, particularly those who lived by the skin of their teeth and the caprices of often cruel fates.

Frans Kleine Koerkamp's first assignment as a man of the cloth was in Escalante, Negros, where his social education about the plight of common Filipinos first flowered. "I would take a walk in the barrios of Escalante," Mr. Koerkamp recalls, "and already I could see so much of extreme poverty among so many people." Moved, he decided to help form a credit cooperative in town -- but soon his social activism took its first mark in the eternal skirmish of local class wars: he eventually got himself in trouble with the local hacenderos or landowners.

In 1972, he was transferred to Iligan City, but there his social activism became even more heightened. He helped setup labor organizations, with the sole purpose of starting a housing project for local workers. In those days, that brand of advocacy was already enough to cast suspicious eyes from the authorities, and when military rule became instituted under President Marcos, Mr. Koerkamp again got into trouble. In 1980, he was in Manila trying to organize church people to become more aware about the social evils of Martial Law, focusing mostly on human rights abuses, which he saw firsthand happening in the countryside.

By the end of that tumultuous decade, Mr. Koerkamp's social activism took on a different focus. "I had, by 1989, become aware that there was a need for a kind of socio-economic progress for political advocacy, but I didn't know what to do," he said. His wife suggested that perhaps he stayed, at least for a while, in a typical barrio -- where he might grow into seeing what needed to be done.

In 1994, he settled in Dauin, a town south of Dumaguete City. In barrio Casili, he noticed there were plenty of bamboo plantings -- an abundance that belied the stark social realities of the place. The land in Casili, just like most land in the province and elsewhere, have become privately owned and subdivided, with the local farmers left to tenant the land, producing mostly coconut and maize. "The children of the barrio farmers knew only to get out of the place as soon as possible, and go into the big city -- where they end up selling cigarettes or becoming housemaids," Mr. Koerkamp remembered. "That got me into thinking... If we could only do something with the plentiful bamboo, we could increase the income of the farmers -- and perhaps, in the process, empower them as well." He concluded that the utilization of bamboo, whatever that may be, should be in the hands of the people.

By the time Mr. Koerkamp came into that conclusion, countries around Asia already knew of the bamboo as a source of a multi-million dollar industry. In the Philippines, however, he knew he had to start from scrap. First, he had to convince local farmers about the value of the bamboo itself -- a feat in a country already used to concrete and the like. Between 1995 and 1999, he devoted his efforts to research, and was astonished to find out that in a given year, Negros Oriental alone is capable of producing between 90,000 to a million poles -- but that only 30,000 of these per year are being used.

Buglas Bamboo Institute -- which took into its identity, "Buglas," the pre-Spanish name of Negros Oriental -- finally came into being in the interim, with initial support from Dutch developmental organizations. In 1999, Deutscher Entwicklungsdienst (DED) came into the picture, with the primary aim of extending technical expertise, and networking potentials, to the program. That year, DED's Andreas Eineg helped set up the extension component of BBI -- something which sets the Institute apart from typical business entities: it is a corporation with a social conscience, and works actively to develop it. For the most part, this is an evolution of Mr. Koerkamp's belief that corporations should develop a benevolent social dimension to help the poor.

Set up as a support base for the marginalized farmers and rural poor of the province who have little stake in the formal economy of the country, BBI urges them to make their own living through their own enterprise, by producing something in their fields, in their homes, or in small workshops -- in other words, helping communities make sustainable use of local resources for their welfare. That resource, in this case, just happens to be the bamboo, which farmers -- in localities such as Maayong Tubig, Si-it, Lunga, and Apolong -- breed, harvest, and sell to corporations like the BBI, which in turn manufacture them into profit-making products. Today, BBI's biggest products range from raw bamboo materials, to elegant furniture, to the construction of houses and gazebos.

But it is also an institution currently in the crossroads of its existence -- and the question now is how it must become more viable in the future. For that, it is in the stages of splitting the closely-linked production and extension components to become more sustainable, but still aims to retain the overriding social orientation that started it all.

For the most part, the future looks bright. Local sales of its products have gone up almost 200%, especially with the Institute's success in the 2005 Cebu Exposition, where it won a Mugna Award for Best Outdoor Design for an intricately conceived lounge chair.

The international market is also being exploited, with orders now streaming in from everywhere, particularly from the Middle East. By 2006, according to new CEO and business head Samuel Ruiz, the BBI will finally get into the black, rising above the break-even point. Within three years, the company will finally be earning for good.

The challenge, it seems, is to firm up the business side of the program, meet customers' needs, streamline the factory in Dauin, and control overhead.

But perhaps the bigger challenge BBI is facing is in promoting the bamboo as "the grass of life," restoring the original significance of this indigenous resource. Although very much a part of Filipino culture, bamboo has lost much of its importance in the lives of the common people, and has become dubbed "the poor man's timber." The ultimate aim, Mr. Koerkamp admitted, may be for "the culture to be redeveloped since it has already been damaged for 500 years."

With BBI at the helm of a bamboo renaissance, the future indeed looks green -- and pliable, just like the bamboo.

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