Creating bamboo jobs in Myanmar

U Than Win, chairman of the Myanmar Souvenir Entrepreneur Association, shares his experiences in training communities to make value-added bamboo products

Can you tell me about yourself and how you are involved with bamboo?

My name is U Than Win and I am the chairman of the Myanmar Souvenir Entrepreneur Association (MSEA), which distributes and selling bamboo souvenirs in Myanmar. Everyone who produces bamboo products is organized within a group, which means they can distribute and sell these.

Timber or bamboo?

MSEA ensures the full use of bamboo and avoids timber in any way possible. We prefer the full utilisation of bamboo as it grows naturally in all of our fourteen states and regions. It is also used traditionally by many people living in rural areas, for personal consumption but also livelihood support. Lots of people use bamboo for housing. Some people also grow bamboo to sell poles commercially; others add value to it by selling bamboo souvenirs such as lacquerware.

Can you tell me more about MSEA’s involvement in rural communities?

Bamboo products on sale

We teaching rural communities how to produce bamboo souvenirs from scratch. If any community from our fourteen states is interested in training, they have to inform us. We will then plan training in these communities and provide it free of charge, thanks to the support of the Ministry of Tourism. Once [these communities] have completed the training, they are of able to make products themselves, and we also choose certain products of theirs and sell them. Although we wish to involve everyone in the community, we see that most of the time, women are particularly interested.

Besides bamboo souvenirs, are there other value products that derive from bamboo in Myanmar?

Yes, of course. Bamboo shoots, for instance, are consumed in our country. We eat them in large quantities and varieties: cooked, raw and dry. When put into water, they become bigger and are commonly eaten with fish, beef, and pork.  For dried bamboo shoots, we cut the shoots very small and leave them in the sun. This adds value to the shoots. We then either consume them ourselves or export them to other countries like China.

As well as this, we are also engaging in bamboo charcoal production, although at the moment only in limited quantities. We are using Japanese methodologies to produce the charcoal.

I’ve seen a lot of bamboo surrounding the highway from Yangon to [Myanmar’s capital] Nay Pyi Taw. Is this bamboo sourced for charcoal and shoot production?

Finely cut bamboo shoots drying in the sun

In Myanmar, we have rainy and sunny seasons. With the end of the rainy season in October, we start to cut bamboos in the forests, rather than around the highway that you saw.  Our rule is to only cut bamboo that is at least three years old. Because bamboo is so important to our communities, it is treated like our children. Bamboo provides us money and shelter and whenever bamboo is cut, new bamboo is planted!

At the moment we only have a limited variety of bamboo species and we look into growing different species for different purposes. Some people are looking into introducing new bamboo species from Thailand and Indonesia. Others have been to Indonesia to learn about bamboo utilization and species. We have already used some experiences from Indonesia on our coasts, through the building of new types of bamboo housing. With new bamboo species and thanks to the help of the government, we are able to establish more plantations.

At the same time, we are facing a few barriers. Most bamboo grows on hills and mountain areas. Not every villager is allowed to use every bamboo, as the growth area is allocated to specific villages. Although there is no specific governance yet, every villager is still able to source sufficient bamboo, and overall bamboo can be taken from any mountain. Because of its fast growth, there is also never a shortage of bamboo.

This also makes me think that there are a lot of opportunities for bamboo. For instance, we had some mountain areas that were deprived of timber; this made the land less fertile and unable to use. Government efforts helped us in being able to grow bamboo in these areas and increased land fertility and value again.

How is the bamboo transported from mountainous areas?

In terms of transportation, we don’t have an advanced infrastructure in the mountain areas, but we greatly benefit from our rivers, on which bamboo is transported. By transporting the bamboo on rivers, we also treat it automatically – by the time it arrives at its desired destination, it will be resistant towards insects. (This method is also known as leaching a traditional bamboo preservation method).  It is a way of water treatment which is used in many of our communities. It is cheap and works well, as it is sustainable and we do not need to add any chemicals.

This is incredible and very inspiring to me, especially the way you integrate water treatment and transportation into one process. I would like to thank you for the time and appreciate your knowledge that helps us all to see how important bamboo for its multiple uses.

Created by U Thanh Win

Interview by Ann-Cathrin Joest.

Originally published here by INBAR