Mexico Dreams of Challenging China in Bamboo Market

It can be used to build homes and make deodorant, clothes, and paper. Some industries fuel ovens with it. The Aztecs made flutes out of it.

HUATUSCO, Mexico — It can be used to build homes and make deodorant, clothes, and paper. Some industries fuel ovens with it. The Aztecs made flutes out of it.

China may be the first place that springs to mind when we think of bamboo, but it has long grown wild in Mexico.

Now, a handful of Mexican producers are hoping to turn it into a driver of local industry able to one day challenge the Asian giant in export markets from Europe to the United States.

A pipe dream? It may be, but a small group of growers in Mexico are already talking about turning the tables on China and selling bamboo into its most lucrative markets.

Analysts value the global bamboo market at about $10 billion, with China claiming about half, and they see it growing to $20 billion by 2015, led by U.S. demand for paper.


Mexican bamboo pioneers hope the country could take a piece of that pie, winning back some ground on Chinese manufacturing imports into Mexico and key export market the United States.

Mexico, which sends 90 percent of its exports to its northern neighbor, has been losing U.S. market share to China in key sectors like textiles, televisions, automobiles, and computer parts.

Fight Back

Bamboo is part of the fight back.

"In two or three years we could be ready, we could have an industry," Rafael Guillaumin said in Huatusco, deep in the lush hills of Mexico's Veracruz state. He started planting bamboo on his 100-year-old coffee plantations five years ago amid a global coffee crisis.

Guillaumin has formed a private group to promote the bamboo industry by teaching people how to grow it, process it, and profit from it.

The group, Bambuver, receives government funds and coordinates activities with private organizations and universities. It has already helped build low-income bamboo housing in Veracruz state at about one-third the cost of conventional construction.

Bambuver is also talking with private industry in Mexico about potential, future uses for bamboo in construction, as a fuel, and as the raw material for paper production.

One of Mexico's largest paper-products companies is looking at the possibility of making paper from bamboo or using it for fuel in its plants, Guillaumin said. There is also talk of major reforestation projects.

Europeans like the idea of Mexican bamboo because it would be cheaper than the Chinese variety.

"It's a lot cheaper and less time-consuming to transport," said Rafael Bejarano, an expert in bamboo production originally from Costa Rica, which also has a bamboo industry.

He said it takes 44 days to get a load of bamboo from China or Thailand to Europe, compared to about 11 days from Mexico.

Growers are also looking at niche markets in the United States, for example in the trade of edible bamboo shoots that are currently imported from China and sold in tins and jars.

"They could get fresh shoots from us, instead of buying it in preservatives," said Bejarano, who works for Bambuver.

Bamboo is a type of grass, but it can grow into 100-foot giant timber bamboos as strong as steel and even more flexible.

It grows quickly, in diverse climates, from jungles to high mountainsides, and is environmentally friendly because it conserves water and prevents soil erosion. It takes three years for a farmer to develop a bamboo plantation from scratch.

A Lot of Work to Do

But bamboo growers and promoters have their work cut out for them if they want to create a solid industry in Mexico, in part because they are starting almost from scratch.

"This is as much about creating a bamboo culture as it is about profit," said Bejarano, whose job it is to teach people how to become bamboo farmers.

It is not clear how many commercial plants there are in Mexico, though Guillaumin says Bambuver has helped supply about 400,000 — some 400 hectares worth — in this nation of mountains, plains, jungles, and tropical beaches.

"There is so much land that could be turned to bamboo that is not being used in Mexico because people think the land is useless," said 79-year-old Guillaumin.

Enrique Lopez, an 80-year-old coffee farmer from the hills surrounding Huatusco, has planted Guadua bamboo, a hardy kind used for construction scaffolding, on the fringe of his organic coffee plot. He sells the bamboo to supplement his income and provide a natural shield for his small coffee plantation.

He said a lot of other farmers are following suit.

Source: Associated Press