THE BAMBOO HISTORY
OF PUERTO RICO
by Sadhu Govardhan
When the Spaniards arrived in the Caribbean in the late 15th century, they didn't encounter any bamboo culture. According to a USDA study in the early 1930s, the first species, Bambusa vulgaris was brought to the island by the Spaniards as late as the 18th or 19th century. Bambusa vulgaris was quickly distributed throughout most parts of the island within a century and remained the only species for a long time. Soon after the Mayagüez USDA station was opened, more species were introduced to Puerto Rico and by 1948, the collection grew to 20 tropical species (the taxonomy for some of these species has changed since then):
Bambusa arundinacea, Bambusa longispiculata, Bambusa multiplex, Bambusa polymorpha, Bambusa textilis, Bambusa tulda, Bambusa tuldoides, Bambusa ventricosa, Bambusa vulgaris, Bambusa vulgaris vittata, Cephalostachyum pergracile, Dendrocalamus asper, Dendrocalamus giganteus, Dendrocalamus membranaceus, Dendrocalamus strictus, Gigantochloa apus, Guadua angustifolia, Guadua amplexifolia, Oxytenanthera abyssinica, Sinocalamus oldhamii.
At the suggestion of Blanton Winship, who was Governor in Puerto Rico in 1934, the Federal Experiment Station began systematic studies of the culture and utilization of bamboo. According to the Station, as many as 50,000 divisions of new bamboo species were supplied to the Forest Service, the Agricultural Extension Service, and the Soil Conservation Service. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these divisons were planted in monoculture type settings, particularly in the Luquillo mountains. In 2000, the Journal of Tropical Ecology published a study that pointed out the problems with (bamboo) monocultures in the riparian areas of the Luquillo Experiment Forest. As the authors of the study correctly point out, when the wrong type of bamboo species is planted for erosion control, it can be undercut by floods and lead to slope failures.
During the 1930s and 1940s, plant material (over 1,200 divisons) was also distributed by the Mayagüez USDA Station to other parts of the Caribbean, Central and South America.
In stark contrast to the late appearance of bamboo in the Caribbean, the first bamboo constructions in the Americas were found by the archeologist Karen. E. Stothert (1988) in Guayaquil, Ecuador and are dated back 9.500 years. Bamboo culture in Central and South America remained strong for thousands of years, particularly in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Ecuador. The largest city of Central America at the time of the Spanish invasion was Guamarcaah in Guatemala. The entire city was surrounded by a bamboo forest (which had multiple purposes, including having close access to high quality construction material) but was soon destroyed by the Spanish conquerors. As the Spaniards continued their occupation of the Americas, most of the advanced bamboo technology was systematically destroyed.
The Spanish invasion marked the end of the last self sufficient cities in the Americas (like Chan Chan in Peru). Many of these cities used adobe constructions, reinforced with endemic species like Guadua angustifolia or G. aculeata. Especially roof structures were commonly made with bamboo and the thatch with totora reeds (Scirpus californicus). By the end of the 16th century the Spaniards had exterminated about 90% of the indigenous population and along with them thousands of years of knowledge and practice of bamboo culture in the Americas. Although only a very small percentage of bamboo species is endemic to the Americas (the vast majority of species originates in Asia), the history of their bamboo culture is impressive. (The best historical account to my knowledge can be be found in Oscar Hidalgo’s outstanding publication, “Bamboo – The Gift of the Gods”).
Due to the efforts of the Experiment Station in Mayagüez, several industries, utilizing bamboo for the manufacture of furniture, lamps, handbags, and other items developed in the 1940s and even more species were introduced (over 100 temperate climate and tropical species when the collection was in its prime) but for some reason, the industry didn’t flourish for long and bamboo disappeared again from the view of the public in Puerto Rico. With the post WWII industrialization booming, other construction materials were deemed to be more important, and the large collection of the Experimental Station as well as the island-wise use began to decline steadily.
It took several decades until private bamboo enthusiasts made another push for popularizing bamboo in Puerto Rico. Surprisingly, and somewhat out of the blue, there was an International Bamboo Conference hosted by the American Bamboo Society, in Mayagüez in 1984. The local bambooseros at that time were Albrecht and Sunhi Weiss, Wolfgang and Gabriella Eberts, Toni Grieb and Yves Crouzet. Several individuals around the island remained dedicated to growing bamboo for various purposes but the popularity of the 1940s could never be reached again.
Another bamboo enthusiast who has kept the bamboo fire alive during the past two decades is Jo Sheer (Bamboo Jo), who wrote a small book on bamboo construction and also built several well-known and beautiful bamboo structures at his farm in Rincon. We’ve become friends over the years and we also held a very well received bamboo workshop in 2009. Soon later, Jorge Perez organized a Guadua workshop in Utuado, which was held by Oscar Montoya, a Colombian engineer, specializing in building with G. angustifolia.
Due to my methodical nature – once something interests me, I try to study the issue as deep as I can – I began to systematically study and collect the most important structural species and I established a small but high quality collection with over 40 fantastic species at my farm in 2007. By 2014, the collection grew to 80 high quality tropical species. Some of the guidance and much appreciated support came from Jim Rehor, a collector, who has one of the best private collections in the Western hemisphere and also decades of experience. Soon after establishing my collection, I opened the first diversified tropical bamboo nursery in Puerto Rico and I have been helping farmers around the island to set up high quality bamboo wind breaks, living fences, erosion control, and I provided bamboos for an innovative vertical farming project in the south coast.
My work as agricultural consultant has allowed me to develop eco projects all over Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, and no matter what project I helped to develop, none of them would have been complete without bamboo.
We are still light years away from having an actual bamboo culture established in Puerto Rico, but the number of interested people is increasing by the day. Dozens of people write to me on a regular basis about their experiences and plans with bamboo, so it seems very likely that this time around bamboo is here to stay. I am sure that there will be set backs and new challenges (anything beneficial that is promoted and in the hands of private people eventually comes under control or attack by unqualified governments or money and power hungry corporations) but it is undeniable that bamboo is one of the most important plant resources on the planet.
Unfortunately, the global bamboo industry is currently being severely exploited by greedy corporations and there is an urgency to decentralize bamboo plantations and make the hundreds of existing species (about 800 species are tropical, about 800 are from temperate climate regions) accessible to small land holders and botanical gardens. Any centralized agricultural industry inevitably leads to monoculture and ecological disasters, while diversified and decentralized small scale industries lead to sustained independence and ecological health. Intelligent bamboo designs are the key to self-sufficiency for a small scale farmer and they can be a major contribution to revolutionizing tropical agriculture to lead us into a truly sustainable future.
© Sadhu Govardhan 2011, 2014