Arief Rabik is an Ubud-based environmental scientist specializing in bamboo. His company, Indobamboo, makes some of the strongest beams and bamboo products in the world. This week Arief launched a book, co-written with Ben Brown, called ‘Towards Resilient Bamboo Forestry’. It’ll be on sale in Periplus shortly. 

Catriona Mitchell talked to Arief about his work, and why bamboo matters to Bali.

Arief, your mother, Linda Garland, set up the Environmental Bamboo Foundation back in 1993. Was it always clear to you that you’d grow up to be involved in the activities she had initiated?

No, it happened very organically, effortlessly, because like most other people who were listening to what my mother was saying, I agreed and believed that bamboo could help out so many different situations in the world which are far from ideal. That is, deforestation issues, farmer livelihoods, watershed degradation, and so on.

Arief CROP

 Arief Rabik

What were some of your childhood impressions of bamboo and what it could do? Were you entranced by it?

Well we used to make knives and arrows from it, and spears… those were the most memorable moments! I slept in a bamboo hut, I hung out with bamboo tukang for over 10 hours a week, ”borrowing” their implements and trying to make things from bamboo myself, with many interesting results…I wasn’t a natural born tukang that’s for sure, but I loved carving bamboo and trying to make things from it, especially weapons when I was younger. And then slowly I became more utilitarian as I got older.

Linda Crop

 Linda Garland, in a bamboo forest in Flores.

 How long have you been working with bamboo?

Around 15 years. So since I was 16 years old.

You’re now an environmental scientist who’s passionate about the supply chain, and how bamboo can benefit communities that grow it. What do you see as the advantages for farmers in Bali who grow bamboo?

The versatility of bamboo is its strength. A farmer and his family can weave the skin, make a building from its poles, make utensils for many different industries; everything from storage to sanitization (charcoal). The clear point with bamboo is that it has been used in all parts of Balinese living for many years, and so the opportunity still exists to supply a demand for a product in almost every facet of daily life here in Bali.

Bamboo Forest 2

At work in a bamboo forest, Kintamani. Photo by Mila Shwaiko

Historically, what have been those traditional uses of bamboo in Bali? 

The Balinese have been using bamboo for over a millennium and probably longer then that. It was a rapidly renewable timber species that was much easier to harvest and work, for those who did not have tools other than basic splitting implements and one large blade most of the time.

Balinese use bamboo in all aspects of their life to this day, however modern alternatives have meant that the bamboo culture in Bali has taken a serious hit and many bamboo crafts are dying out.

Do the Balinese believe that spirits live in bamboo? Are there any myths around this?

Not sure, but I’m sure if you took a piece of bamboo to a Pura Dalem at 12 am and waited, myths would manifest…

What are the environmental advantages of cultivating bamboo? Why is it touted as being such a green building material? 

The advantage of using bamboo is that it grows fast, it provides a good versatile and strong raw material for timber, and it is a very good crop to integrate with others in a typical agroforestry setting.

Bamboo is a part of the grass family, Poaceae. This means that it has a tendency to store a significant amount of its carbon in the organic horizon instead of in the clump. Luckily with bamboo you have a happy medium where it stores its carbon both in the clump and the soil.

Bamboo also holds a lot of water, so it helps build good soil. These are the types of parameters that help ecosystems to grow.

Bamboo is touted as a green building material because of its strength as a building material that is very fast growing, with an annual harvest of 5-10 poles per clump per year, depending on species.

Bamboo Forest 3

photo by Mila Shwaiko

Is bamboo currently being grown as a monoculture in Bali?

Bamboo is grown in mono specific stands, yes. Is that a bad thing? Not as much as some would think. It’s about nutrient cycling, so as long as that still occurs and is supported there’s no problem.

Is there any danger of biodiversity being lost if bamboo becomes so popular that it’s grown in commercial plantations?

Most biodiversity loss is in rainforests being logged for timber or cleared for agriculture. When you plant bamboo you are creating an alternate source of timber and this will hopefully eventually allow shifting agriculturalists and illegal loggers to stop destroying the biodiversity of Indonesia, especially in its forests.

Do the Chinese grow bamboo in huge quantities and if so, is it sustainably done? Is China setting an example for Indonesia to follow?

The Chinese have a 10 plus billion dollar per annum bamboo industry that grows over 5 million hectares of bamboo. Yes, it is an example for us to follow.Bamboo beam

Testing the strength of bamboo beams. They were expected to fail at 1.5 tons of load, but at as much as 4.9 tons of load, there was only 5cm of deflection and two little cracks.

You’re currently manufacturing strong bamboo planks for flooring. Is this breaking open a new interiors market that can be applied anywhere in the world? Or are the products best placed in certain climates?

Yes I’m making all sorts of planks and bamboo beams, and it’s a breakthrough material. Products are best placed in stable climates.

This is one of the prettiest times of year in Ubud, when bamboo is most visible, because of the penjors. How are penjors made and what do they signify?

Penjors use the whole pole of the bamboo, from tip to toe. And then the decorations are wrapped around them. They are used to attract the ancestors home.

For more information on Arief’s activities and the Environmental Bamboo Foundation, see here.