Is bamboo a tree or a grass?

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Wednesday 19 September 2018

is bamboo a treeThe definition is contested as the answer has immense economic implications. If bamboo is a tree or timber, it belongs to the forest department and can be auctioned to the paper and pulp industry, often at throwaway rates.

If it is a grass, then it would be classified as a minor forest produce and people would have the right to cut bamboo for sale or for value addition by making furniture or baskets.

The Indian Forest Act 1927, the bible for forest managers in the country, says “forest produce” is what is found in or brought from a forest. This includes trees and leaves and plants that are not trees. Furthermore, trees include palms and bamboo. Timber is defined as trees, fallen or felled. Over the years, foresters have interpreted these provisions to mean that bamboo, being a tree, is timber and, therefore, under the control of the department. The legacy passed down from generations of forest managers has meant that this grass-like tree is not included in the list of minor forest produce.

The minor produce of a forest is everything valuable that is not timber. This produce, from tendu used in beedi manufacture to lac resin and tamarind, is big bucks business. It is also the main source of earning a living for the people who live in and around the country’s forests. The opportunity is to use this ecological wealth for building economic wellbeing of the people, mostly poor, in these rich regions. But forest policy has worked deliberately to destroy this option.

So over the past years different state governments have nationalised different produce and differently handed them over to either federations or contractors or corporations to collect and sell. People, who live in the forests, have no right to sell the nationalised minor forest produce, other than to governments. They are wage labourers and collectors for contractors and forest departments.

B D Sharma, a former civil servant who has spent a lifetime campaigning for the rights of tribal communities to forest produce, will tell you that many attempts have been made to correct this distortion. In 1974, when the tribal sub plan was conceptualised, it was agreed that the collector would be the owner of the produce. But even as the policy got operationalised governments took control over the produce, leaving collectors to be just collectors.

Then in 1996, the Central Act for panchayats in Scheduled V (tribal) areas was passed. It directed state governments to ensure that in these areas gram sabha (the village assembly) would be given the “powers of ownership of minor forest produce”. But even before the ink on the Act was dry, the resource battle was lost again.

First, the forest department objected, saying PESA (as this act is known) did not define what constitutes minor forest produce. As Sanjay Upadhyay, a lawyer working in this area, points out this is when the Indian Forest Act does not define minor forest produce. Second, states made rules to bypass these provisions.

The fight for the minor produce does not stop here. In 2006, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) for the first time defined minor forest produce as including bamboo and tendu and many other things. It also gave tribals and other traditional forest dwellers the “right of ownership, access to collect, use and dispose of minor forest produce, which has been traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries.” Now the fat is in the fire. Tribals and other traditional forest dwellers have the right to both collect and sell bamboo.

What happens now? As my colleagues found when they traversed the country’s tribal districts, the right exists only on paper. Of the 2.9 million claims settled under the FRA, only 1.6 per cent pertained to community rights. Worse, virtually no right of any community has been recognised for minor forest produce. They noted the missing right was deliberate. Governments across the tribal districts ensured no information was ever provided to people that this right was available. The technique was simple: the form issued to people to ask for rights left out this provision.

Two villages did ask. Menda Lekha and Marda in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra asked for the community right over their forest and its produce. The right was recognised. But as Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, an activist working with the villagers, will tell you this legal right is still not worth the paper it is written on. The forest department now says that people can indeed have control over the sale of the bamboo, but they cannot take it out of the forest. The transit rules over forest produce do not allow for transportation of any produce unless it has been “authorised”. The state forest department is busy inserting provisions to say that people have rights over the minor forest produce, but only if it is for self use.

The forest department will tell you these controls are needed to protect forests. But forests in India are the habitat of millions of people. The conservation of forests will require more productive benefits. The challenge is to use the green wealth and also regenerate it and increase it for the future. Putting a fence around it and negating its value as the livelihood of millions will not do.

So, let us hope that this time the definition of bamboo will remain settled. It is a tree-grass, one that can give a million new shoots and provide a million new jobs to the people.

—Sunita Narain

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  • Hi Sunita I am into bamboo

    Hi Sunita

    I am into bamboo sector, i entered in this sector to provide jobs for the tribes community and to save nature by introducing bamboo as an alternative for wood.

    I really appreciate the report from your end. Please provide me your email id for further communication

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Madame, I started

    Dear Madame,

    I started reading DTE 1 year back and have been stuck to it since then. The article has not come at more appropriate time.
    In days of alternative energy sources, Bamboo could provide bread and butter for millions of people.

    Since childhood, I have been tought that Bamboo is the highest growing grass. I do not what is tought to forest department.

    The grass is one of the fastest growing. It can also be used as fancing and can be grown on marginal lands, generating additional revenue to farmers.

    It's one of the few biomass inputs that can be cut from third year onwards and can give annual consistent income for at least 25-30 years.

    I hope your efforts in this area will root out anomalies in forest department's rules and the grass will be available for growing and selling freely.


    Manish Khare

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • With the passage of time and

    With the passage of time and reduction in forest resources due to various factors,the importance of forest produce on which the forest dependents survives has become an area of extreme care and judicious use.Who should have the right on this produce is a matter to be decided.Naturally the dependence of forest community is supreme than any other use. Let the community take decision how they would like to dispose off this produce in their own interest.Let they be vested with the right to collect Bamboo and dispose without any interference.
    When Bamboo was in abundence,its use in Industry was Ok. Now under changed circumstances,its use for forest dependent community need to be ensured first and option for its disposal be vested with them.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • hello sunita, an information

    hello sunita,
    an information for you.
    Bamboo shoots which are 6-8 inches or so are used to prepare a very delicious dish by the tribals.If they are allowed to eat away those new shoots and you know bamboo grows very slowly gradually bamboo forests will the forest contractors or the tribals no one should touch the bamboo which is raw.only dead bamboo should be allowed to be taken by the tribals.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Bamboo has never been

    Bamboo has never been considered a tree by the Forest Department anywhere in the country. The role it plays in the livelihood of the people living inside and in the fringe forest villages have also been recognised and well documented.
    Bamboo forests do not disappear because the local communities use it. In most instances, it is due to faulty working of bamboo coupes.
    The other misconception is about the settlement of rights under the FRA. The forest department has little role to play in it. The rights to communities is recognised because they have been protecting the forests while using it on a sustainable basis. I wonder, if any study has been taken recently to study the deforestation that has taken place after settlement of rights.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • From taxonomic point of view,

    From taxonomic point of view, there is no dispute that Bamboo belongs to Graminaceae (Grass family) but it is also widely acclaimed as Poorman's timber due to its varied utility. Keeping in view the later aspect this is categorised as timber in the IFA,1927. From the management point of view, bamoo needs special care from regeneration to harvesting at periodic interval. Without cultural operations quality stock is not available in the forest. Hence, it is a class in itself unlike other NTFP crop. No doubt, it has industrial demand but it is also used to meet out demands of the communities especially in tribal belt. In southern Rajasthan where bamboo was chosen as principal species in rehabilitation of Degraded Forest are managed under JFM from early ninties and preparing Management Plan, since 2002 bamboo are being harvested and net revenue is being shared @50:50 basis between JFMC and Govt as per JFM Resolution of the State Govt. Every year JFMCs of this area are earning sizable revenue in this process and huge money has been accumulated in their Village Development Funds. In Dhar village the portion of the revenue accrued enable SFD to electrify each house hold with solar pannels, so also streets and other community owned premises including village school. As an acknowledgement to PESA Rajasthan FD is transferring 100% revenue to Panchayats proportionate to their areas. I do not see any conflicts in these petty issues although in the beginning some activists with vested interest also tried to raise hue and cry on these issues by organising so called Public Hearing etc and today the grateful villagers also tell about misdeeds of acivists and kept them at arm's length. These are realities that can be verified from the field.
    ABHIJIT GHOSE,IFS(Retd.)Ex PCCF(HoFF)Rajasthan

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Good, informative and able to

    Good, informative and able to bring the facts to millions. I support the oppinion.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Ms. Sunitha! Good that this

    Ms. Sunitha!

    Good that this issue is raised now.Its important for all of us who are concerned with livelihoods of tribal communities especially when the forests they live in and/or nearby have Bamboo in abundance. In Andhra Pradesh, the Government, in the CFM GO agreed that 100% net returns from Bamboo go to the VSSs of which 50% to be reinvested in the forest and 50% can be shared among the members. Our organisation has been struggling to see that this happens at the field level, in 100 VSSs in the Srikakulam Forest Division. There are 1000 VSSs which have Bamboo in AP.
    It is often said that the communities do not know the management aspects, in this case - inventorying, and harvest plan preparation (whcih currently needs approval of FD). Community members were trained in all these aspects and they submitted the proposals in due formats seeking harvest permits. For the past two and half years it did not happen as the field level officials do not have clarity (or they do not want to do it deliberately) though senior officials in the Head Office say it has to be done. In the case and in other cases of benefit sharing from plantation and timber hravest what we could understand is - at the top level the government and the senior officials have good intentions and they bring out good policies/implementation guidelines, but the local field functionaries and their attitudes are not allowing things to happen.
    I strongly feel that, there is a need for reorganisation of forest administration where a separate stream of officials need to be performing dedicated duties for Community Forestry. Their performance need to be assessed in terms of how many benefits are shared with the communities within their area and so on... Otherwise they lack accountability and say that attending to VSSs related work is one of the several tasks they need to perform that too not their primary mandate. Let us all work towards making this as primary mandate for atleast some officials by advocating for creation of a separate stream for Community Forestry within the Forest Departments and MOEF.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Which is the ideal trees to

    Which is the ideal trees to be planted on the drought prone areas of Bengal, like Purulia etc. I have been advised to plant ecalyptus trees as according to them it is the most valuable trees for faster growth and beter returns to help the poor water-starving people of the area, as I found manysuch trees thrive and grows there. Your expert recommendations please.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Is bamboo is tree or Grass:

    Is bamboo is tree or Grass: very knowledgable write-up revealed the 420/illeterate policy of Forest ministry.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • My observation is regarding

    My observation is regarding not only bamboo but all the NTFP and medicinal plants that are collected from the forest. Collection, use and sell of all NTFPs except Tendu Patta is allowed under the JFM Rule of UP. But during a recent study in UP Forest Divisions, we found that field-level forest officials lack awareness and often prevent the villagers from collection of Mahua, Amla etc. from the forest. JFMC members, specially the women who mainly collects from the forest, are also not aware of their rights. The benefit sharing should not remain only on the Rule Book and should be implemented on ground. For the greater benefit of the forest dependent communities, the JFMC women members need training and capacity building exercises on techniques of collecting, drying and processing of NTFPs for higher income generation.
    Society for Natural Resource Management and Community Development (SNRMCD)

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • There have been several

    There have been several comments and discussions earlier also on this topic. Law and science has been mismatched in this issue more often than not.

    The classification in the law gets irrelevant once everything, including grasses and trees are classified as forest produce. It is the policies and proceses for regulating the harvest and use, which are important.

    In this background, it is the policy, which decides who uses the forest produce and how. MFP is not a legal but management term and has nothing to do with either taxonomy or law. In most of the places,collection of bamboo is regulated by special dispensation for tribals, local communities and separate systems exist for industrial use: rightly owing to its quantum and sustainable yield potential. It has been free of regulations or very concessional for local communities in many states. There have been several initiatives at state and national levels for improving the benefits of bamboo for the local communities through value addition.

    For the industrial use, rates have been different - very cheap earlier, but increasing now. It needs to be appreciated that large quantum needs stronger mechanisms for dealing. Trade oriented use can only be sustained by proper institutional mechanisms. Federations do this task and returns are with the state to use either for communities individually or for public collectively - again a matter of policy!

    I fully agree with the point that community rights are not being pursued under FRA, whcih must have been the foremost ones to be set right in terms of mechanisms and processes for assessment and plans for sustainable use. It is here that science must come, albeit in simple methods.Focus has been ignored in the FRA itself and its rules.

    Who could see it as important as the "individual right", is something to be seen!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • think u should respect the

    think u should respect the forest departments view too

    but what if the tribal s can plant 200 trees every month or two months per family and take care of the trees so that the forest lives too ,then most probably have an understanding with the forest dept and govts for getting 50 trees per family say for every month and use these to make and sell so that they could support there family too.
    don't know if this really can work but i feel its a mans duty to take care of nature too lets say for rains or for natural resources we do require our forests too for it to take care of a man


    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Bamboo is indeed a grass. It

    Bamboo is indeed a grass. It is assigned to the family Graminae (Poaceae), SUBFAMILY: Bambusoideae, TRIBE: Bambuseae and SUBTRIBE: bambusinae. A search on the internet will reveal that there is universal acceptance of the fact that bamboo is a 'woody' grass. Defining it 'legally' as a tree does not necessarily make it so! A tree has certain characteristics such as a clear bole or trunk, branches, tap roots among others - none of which bamboos have! Bamboos, however large, do NOT have real branches, have an adventitious root system on a rhizome (rather than a well defined tap root and lateral roots) and the leaves are parallel veined (like all grasses). There are many other characteristics that place bamboos closer to grasses than to trees.

    Bamboos were indeed classified as 'minor forest produce' in all classical forestry literature - now popularly known as NTFP - non timber forest produce. The reason forest departments do not want to let go of control over bamboo is the traditional dependence that the paper industry has had upon this resource. Major paper industries were set up in MP, Orissa, Maharashtra and Assam primarily because of the bamboo resources in the forests there. Forest leases ensured regular supply at minimal rates. Local villagers were permitted to use the bamboos for local construction, farm tools and handicrafts. There were few or no roads in the forests and few or no markets for bamboo other than the paper mills. Consequently there was no serious demand for community control over this resource.

    Times have changed since. As education and awareness has spread, NGOs and media have become more active and environment and tribal rights have come to the forefront - calls for devolution of control over forest resources (including bamboo) have become more vociferous. It is doubtful whether communities (actual users) will ever be allowed to take control of the forest resources they depend upon for their livelihoods (for whatever reason), but there is definitely a case for the benefits from bamboo exploitation to be shared with them.

    As per the 1980 Forest Policy, it is the local people who have the first claim over the forest resources. That does not imply that the resource is theirs to do as they will. Maintenance of forest cover is still the primary aim of the forest policy. What is needed is that Government forgoes its claim to the revenues from forest exploitation - the revenue should go to the people/communities. Conservation of the environment/natural resource is a function of the government, and budget needs to be allocated for this, but revenue should definitely go to the locals - as the Policy envisages.

    Bamboo, in any case, is a grass AND an MFP/NTFP so the right to harvest/use/sell this lies with the local communities. Let the paper mills buy what the need from the tribals - on the same (or better) terms that they had with the government!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks. Do keep in touch:

    Thanks. Do keep in touch:

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • laws are meant to be for the

    laws are meant to be for the welfare of populace. they have to be implemented, interpreted and enforced in such a fashion that the true spirit behind that enactment comes into fore rather than merely sticking to the wording. this is where the acumen and sensitivities of those who implement,matter the most. forest dept is no enemy of people. it is saddled with dual responsibilities which conflict with each other--of protection as well as that of distributing out of that which needs to be protected. all seems to be in a faulty policy which leaves too much room for manipulations and interpretations. if the forest produce gets started to be exploited for commercial gains by anybody--be it a right holder (which i understand are for bonafide use), then there will be no end. but agreed that the policies have to be more clearer on these issues. no use blaming forest officials.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Scientifically, Bamboo is a

    Scientifically, Bamboo is a grass. Some species of bamboo are tall- that can not be a reason to consider it as tree. Grass is grass. It belongs to Poaceae family. Poaceae(formerly known as Gramineae) is a family in the Class Liliopsida (the monocots) of the flowering plants. Plants of this family are usually called grasses, or, to distinguish them from other graminoids, true grasses. The shrub- or tree-like plants in this family are called bamboo (there are also herbaceous, non-woody bamboos). There are about 600 genera and some 9,000ÔÇô10,000 or more species of grasses and bamboos are members of them. All morphological characteristics of bamboo are similar to species of Poaceae. It is surprising,the forest acts still considers bamboo as tree !

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Hello Ms.Sunita We are a

    Hello Ms.Sunita

    We are a start up social enterprise working in sustainable bamboo livelihoods.

    Request your support in our bamboo initiative.

    Pls visit us @



    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • The Article is very

    The Article is very informative and definitely helps in increasing broader awareness. But with rights come responsibilities. As couple of posts give the insight, sustainability is important. As one post on AP prompts the communities need to be first trained in planning, preservation, community ownership & responsibility, etc. This should also be reassuring to all stake holders whose concern is in balancing conflicting interests. An organised effort in this could be beneficial. Else, as we all know, any well intended effort (inc intentions of the present exclellent article) could actually end up strengthening local vested interests.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Hi Vinay Bamboo is not slow

    Hi Vinay

    Bamboo is not slow growing plant, its the fastest growing plant in this world. And if tribes using the bamboo shoot for food, why stopping them, they not doing any commercial activity they taking it for their food. They are living by depending the forest. Not all the bamboo shoots are eatable, only specific varietiies shoots are eatable like dendrocalamus asper.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • i m looking for the answer

    i m looking for the answer that "is bamboo tree or not"

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Its there in the story

    Its there in the story only
    "The fight for the minor produce does not stop here. In 2006, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) for the first time defined minor forest produce as including bamboo and tendu and many other things. It also gave tribals and other traditional forest dwellers the ÔÇ£right of ownership, access to collect, use and dispose of minor forest produce, which has been traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries.ÔÇØ Now the fat is in the fire. Tribals and other traditional forest dwellers have the right to both collect and sell bamboo"


    Idrisi MS

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • It is unfortunate but a fact.

    It is unfortunate but a fact. That we seem to be losing out on the environment front in a big way. Rivers, forests and the produce along with it all seem to exist only to fill the coffers of a select few. The Government would do well to rectify and allow the silent tribal communities the liberal and ready use of bamboo.

    This single move will bring the dual benefit of optimum use of the produce as well as the well being of the countless who inhabit the villages located on the fringes of forests. What is more? They would form a lasting vote bank for our corrupt politicians as well.

    It actually seems a win win situation for everyone but the very few who are pocketing the returns obtained currently.

    Krishnan Ananad

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • In the forests of Western

    In the forests of Western Ghats, I know it is a major elephant's food. Lot of wild animals (Langurs, Red panda, deers), reptiles, (Bamboo pit viper), birds, insects and micro organisms depend on it.

    We are trying to harvest what we have not planted, maintained, watered, from a forest that is common to all living beings. Don't you think harvesting bamboo from the forest for the needs of humans living outside the forests can be disastrous to real forest dwellers?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I am glad to inform that we

    I am glad to inform that we are under the process of establishing a miniunit for manufacture and supply of bamboo sticks for using in agarbathi industry. In this regard we approached District Industries Corporation authority Vijayawada for issuing of SSI certificate. The authority information directed to contact forest department to state whether NOC is required or not and obtained if needed. The forest department orally said that no NOC is required for this unit and only simple information is quite sufficient.

    We had the golden opportunity of going through your detailed statement published DOWN TO EARTH dated 15 December 2010 ÔÇ£Is bamboo a tree or grassÔÇØ. But still we are in dilemma to come to a decision to obtain NOC from the forest department to clarifying that bamboo sticks manufacturing unit comes under minor forest produce and such we humble request you to kindly take pains to supply a copy of any act what so ever or an order or any court judgement and for this we will be highly thankful to your kind co-operation for early established of our unit which provides lively hood for the rural unemployed poor.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • What was the fruiting age of

    What was the fruiting age of the Dendrocalamus Strictus( a spp. of bamboo)?....I am the student

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • I fully agree with Dr. Sunitha Narain.The FRA rights have to be recognized and those who have right should be recognized. However, though laws and rules are there, the problem is getting sufficient regeneration and harvesting the yield sustainably. The quality of forests all over the country are very poor and the system to manage and harvest the resource sustainably is quite weak. Again the PFM/tribal cooperatives are also not strong and so ultimately unscrupulous elements will eventually destroy the forest in the name of tribals or forest dwellers who may not get anything in the process. We have to be careful in dealing with the cases to avoid heavy forest destruction in the name of tribals and FRA. So we have to examine the system and carefully build a sound strategy that will help to get forest dwellers their due rights without sacrificing the forest & bamboo. It is not just the question of definition but the lack of proper system . If we start without addressing these concerns there may not be any forest as eventually, it will lead to further degradation of quality.

    Posted by: Dr UN Nandakumar | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Hi Sunita

    This is really awesome writing because I have lot of information from your article.Really we can not ignore bamboo now because 1000 plus bamboo products are using daily in different sectors. .

    Posted by: Md | 3 years ago | Reply