En masse bamboo flowering is a cyclic occurrence that often has devastating effects: it is followed by massive invasion of big field rats that get attracted to bamboo seeds. These rodents multiply fast and when seeds get exhausted, they turn their attention upon foodgrains in houses and crops in the fields, causing severe food shortages. Moreover, the bamboo crop dies immediately after flowering. So, unless it is harvested in time people are left with no bamboo for household and commercial uses till the new stock matures. This takes about four years. The seriousness of all this is evident from the fact that the last incidence of bamboo flowering in Mizoram led to the birth of insurgency in the area. And the next cycle of bamboo flowering in India's north-eastern states of Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Assam and Meghalaya, is due between 2004 and 2007.
It is a difficult but not an insurmountable problem. First, a buffer zone equivalent to an area that the village depends on to meet its bamboo needs, should be identified. Then bamboo from this zone, including rhizomes (underground stem), should be cut and stored for later use. Rhizome removal must be done in bands to avoid serious soil erosion problems. Care should also be taken to leave considerable tracts of contiguous land uncleared. These would serve as food 'guides' that will lead rats away from inhabited areas into other bamboo fruit bearing areas (those with traces of bamboo plants but not the mature crop). Another advantage of a buffer zone is that the large cleared areas will expose rats to action by people, and other animals and birds.
Mature bamboo obtained from the buffer zone can be stored carefully to ensure supplies for housing and other purposes during the lean period. These stocks should be kept on a raised platform and treated with smoke to ward off insects and fungi. Using bamboo mat-board bins can ensure protection of food grains. If the buffer area is very large, gassifier-based electricity generation units with limited distribution capacities can also be set up. Rhizomes can be used to produce charcoal for use as fuel and for heating. New bamboo species with higher value and diverse uses can be introduced in the buffer zone, so that there is reduced danger in the next flowering cycle. The Food for Work Programme should provide part of the cost of implementing this strategy. Food grains given in exchange of work will help overcome food insecurity, as cultivation of food crops will not be possible during this time because of the risk of raiding rats. Thus with careful planning, the crisis associated with the bamboo flowering season can be turned into a situation of opportunities.
In the long-term, however, much needs to be done if we have to benefit from bamboo cultivation. Changing the status of bamboo to that of a horticulture crop might help, but we have to be cautious about the accompanying rules. India will do well to learn from the experiences of China, which is far ahead of us in utilising its bamboo potential. In China, an area of public land is leased out to a family to cultivate bamboo stocks. Once they acquire a lease, families are vested with sole responsibility of management and they can keep the entire produce to them and derive profits from it. We have Joint Forest Management (jfm), which has little scope for private incentive. The forest department representative is vested with executive authority and the resource is considered public property. The best way forward is to make bamboo movement -- whether from forests, homesteads or plantations -- completely free of transit permits. The jfm bodies should be allowed to sub-lease lands to individuals or families. A minimum threshold stock can be set for a forest area and those managing it should be allowed to sell the surplus over this stock. Show people the money and they will conserve bamboo well.
I V Ramanuja Rao is with the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, Beijing, China and Centre for Indian Bamboo Resource and Technology, New Delhi, India