Bamboo in the Philippines: Community Resource

The following article may be reproduced freely with a credit line for the

Bamboo in the Philippines: Community Resource

Quoted in the July 30th "Manila Bulletin," Philippine Senator Ernesto Herrera
said, "[We should move toward a culture] that truly promotes self-reliance
and people empowerment at the grass roots." If he had said "bamboo rhizomes"
instead of grass roots, he would be telling the "Joe" Caasi story.

Merdonio C. "Joe" Caasi, 65, stands at the center of one of the few genuinely
successful, enduring rural development programs in the world. His work is
founded on bamboo as one of the very few truly regenerative economic
resources. He begins by proving that real economic development begins with
community revitalization. His work defines the word "sustainable." Also, he
proves that bamboo is more than just a plant.

Mindanao, the southernmost major island of the Philippine archipelago, has
been devastated by all the downside effects of economic exploitation,
governmental mismanagement, corruption and conflict imaginable. Add in
centuries-long conflicts pitting valley against valley, community against
community, religion against religion and the result is chaotic. 

In Davao Province, at the southeast corner of the island, the forests are
gone. The soil pours down the hillsides collapsing the banks of rivers,
washing out village and field in its headlong rush to the sea. In the rural
areas, about the only export activity left is banana plantations. Land
reform, although long overdue, is creating dislocations in the transition
from monocropping as well as the recently prevailing land tenure

On the banana plantations, Joe Caasi, former school teacher and trained
community organizer, saw an economic niche to be filled by bamboo. As the
huge banana bunches mature, their heavy weight needs to be supported, propped
up. As long as there had been wood, props came from the forests. With the
wood gone or beyond economic access, plantations turned to bamboo. 

The wild bamboo groves were quickly threatened. The demand for strong, tough
culms was phenomenal--millions every year. Joe developed his family business
by trucking props from the countryside to the plantations. By the early 80s,
he saw that there would not be enough bamboo to meet plantation demand.
Bamboo was needed in almost phenomenal quantities.

Senator Herrera continued, ". . . growth that does not reach the household,
growth that does not translate into jobs for the able- bodied, capital for
the enterprising, schools for children, healthcare for the sick and aged,
growth that does not allow parents and children to spend their best years
together is growth that makes fuel of the lives and energies of the many for
the benefit of the few. It does little to ease tensions in our midst. Instead
it breeds discontent and dissent."

As most members of the American Bamboo Society know, vegetative propagation
of bamboo is slow and labor intensive work. Joe, his sons and a few others
started the laborious process of planting bamboo. You can read the details in
"Propping Life with Bamboo," by Gerrard Rikken, a German researcher,
published 1994 by the Asian Social Institute. 

[Reproductions of the books and a video on Joe Caasi's work will be available
at the October 1996 American Bamboo Society Meeting at Quail Gardens and by
mail order from the address below]

In 1987, after extensive experimentations in increasing propagation rates,
Jodel Caasi, Joe's oldest son, Roger Cervantes and Nilo Lucas, two leaders of
the MACO Cooperative Chapter, saw the critical step needed to open the way to
large scale bamboo propagation. 

With that breakthrough, propagation quickly resulted in hundreds of thousands
of propagules annually. Joe increased his community organization work to
match and by 1989, the Davao Bamboo Development Cooperative [DBDC] was on its

Joe sold land to pay for the work, he organized his extended family and other
community networks, he guaranteed to buy every culm produced. Joe's energy,
his commitment and all his personal resources focused on bamboo as a
community revitalization resource. Today, having sold his family business to
the cooperative, he is on a mission to expand bamboo utilization as a rural
community revitalization tool.

Among common bamboo [kawayan] species of the Philippines are:
1) 	Laak, (Sphaerobambos philippinensis),
2)	Kawayan tinik (Bambusa blumena),
3)	Kawaya tiling (Vulgaris),
4)	Botong or patong (Dendrocalamus latiflorus),
5)	Bolo (Gigantochloa levis),
6)	Kayali (Gigantochloa atter)

For bamboo propping, Caasi and his associates settled on Laak. With an annual
demand from banana plantations of over 12 million props, the market
opportunity justified full-out expansion of cultivated bamboo. Additional
effort went into Kayali for bamboo shoot production.

What can we learn from Joe Caasi's work in the Philippines? 

First, large scale vegetative propagation of bamboo can be done without
massive capital investment or technically specialized workers.

Second, bamboo can be the focus of equally large-scale community
revitalization efforts. 

Third, to succeed, any bamboo-based development scheme must be based in an
appropriate and accessible end-user market. 

Fourth, to support bamboo development as an economic resource, infrastructure
needs to be developed in parallel.

In subsequent articles, I will explore these points in more detail. Joe Caasi
and I are working on a concise paper detailing the propagation methods as
they have matured. Currently, Joe Caasi is working in Laguna Province on
Luzon, the largest and northernmost island of the Philippines. Meeting
microclimate differences between this location and the Davao area of
Mindanao, Joe and his son had to adapt their techniques. Although his
contract with Laguna Province calls for 300,000, Joe expects to produce
1,000,000 propagules this year. 

"Amazing" may be the best word to describe Joe Caasi. Indeed, a bamboo of a


Milo G. Clark
Strategic Design, 
a consultancy devoted to rural community and development
1153 Delaware Street
Berkeley CA 94702-1619  USA
510 526-5512
510 526-4887 fax