The bamboo baron

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Too few in Vietnam know the environmental benefits of building with bamboo, says an American advocate


James Wolf, an American bamboo product designer and his bamboo helicopter toy made in Vietnam

James Wolf would never have imagined that he'd spend his life playing with bamboo.

But after helping design the famous bamboo structures of Allez Boo Restaurant and Bar in Ho Chi Minh City and Mui Ne's Bamboo Village Resort, it's no surprise. He even built a home for himself out of bamboo.

Wolf studied Industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and moved to Japan to study Japanese traditional woodworking and furniture making from a master wood worker in Tokyo when he was only 22.

He became interested in bamboo as an alternative to hardwood in 1995 when he came to Vietnam to engineer the production of hardwood made from bamboo.

Wolf became fascinated by the beauty as well as the practical value of bamboo use in Vietnam. For 16 years, he has been designing and exporting bamboo products like toys and furniture to America and Europe.

"There are close to 2,000 different types of bamboo in the world, and Vietnam has about 200 species," says Wolf. "Vietnam has some of the best quality bamboo in the world."

Wolf hopes to make industrial products from bamboo that can replace more environmentally-destructive forms of flooring, sheet goods like plywood, and timber for furniture.

Wolf also works as an expert at Spin, a project funded by the United Nations that is helping 500 companies in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia design and brand their handicraft products in an sustainable way. Wolf has been helping these companies design safe and efficient energy systems while mapping out sustainability plans.

For Wolf, bamboo is one of the most sustainable materials. He says the bamboo plant makes new poles every year compared to a wood tree that takes 20 to 40 years and can only be cut once.

"A healthy bamboo plant can provide 6 to 10 mature poles every year, plus bamboo has many other environmental benefits," he said.

Bamboo fever

In Europe, America and other developed countries, sustainable and ecologically-friendly products like bamboo have become popular. On the other hand, in Vietnam many people believe that bamboo is a cheap and unreliable material used only by poor people in the countryside. Farmers are also reluctant to grow the plant as they can make much higher profits growing other crops. As a result, bamboo is rarer than ever before in Vietnam.

"Sixteen years ago, bamboo could be found everywhere in the north, central and southern Vietnam," he says. "But now"¦ factories can't find enough mature bamboo."

According to Wolf, Vietnam has three kinds of bamboo that are better and different from those in other countries: Tam Vong, Tre Gai, and Luong. The quality is good, but the price is high, as there is not enough supply to meet demand.

The common forest varieties of bamboo may be abundant in Vietnam, but they have little commercial value other than to use in paper pulp or chopstick manufacturing.

"Here in Vietnam, we need to plant more of the right kinds of bamboo and develop good designs to compete commercially with China and India," Wolf said.

According to Wolf, India and China both have government organizations that help found plantations, develop new technologies for bamboo and find new uses for the products.

To promote the development of the bamboo industry, China and India have encouraged technological innovations. China's bamboo industry has provided more than 35 million jobs, making the sector part of the new driver of economic development with 5.38 million hectares of bamboo plantations and an annual increase of 100,000 hectares.

Wolf says he wants to be part of a movement in Vietnam that uses bamboo to create economic opportunities for the poor while protecting land and rivers, and absorbing carbon.

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