At the International Orgnaization for Migration (IOM)'s bamboo treatment centre in Cox’s Bazar, workers busily transfer the latest batch of green bamboo poles from a six-foot-deep pond to the nearby drying station.

The bamboo has spent seven days in a bath made up of water and borates – a naturally-occurring pesticide. By infusing the poles in the solution – the bamboo’s lifespan is increased from one or two years to five years. 

After a few days drying in the tropical heat – the poles will be trucked off to the nearby Rohingya refugee camps and crafted into shelters and public buildings.

Completed in 2019, the bamboo treatment facility is the largest bamboo procurement effort in the humanitarian world and forms part of a new initiative that could help this isolated region of eastern Bangladesh become a hub for the international bamboo market.

“Bamboo is an exciting material. It is attracting a lot of attention as an eco-friendly building material and industrial product,” said Kevin Rowell an IOM consultant specializing in construction with natural materials.

IOM is working closely with the newly-established Bangladesh Forest Research Institute (BFRI) to improve the quality and sustainability of this potentially lucrative product.

Cox’s Bazar is an ideal place to for bamboo, both because of the climate and high local demand. The tropical heat, high humidity and sandy soil create ideal conditions for growers.

Bangladesh has over 32 species of native bamboo, most notably the muli (melacanna baccifera) and borak ( bambusa balcoa), which can grow 18 inches a day to reach over 65 feet in just two months.

When nearly a million Rohingya refugees arrived in Cox’s Bazar in 2017 in immediate need of housing, bamboo was the natural choice because of its strength and low cost.

Over the ensuing years, humanitarian demand has created a market for readily-available, inexpensive bamboo and more than 24 million poles are estimated to have been harvested for the refugee response.

But with the high demand, questions have come about whether bamboo farms are harvesting plants too early and over-taxing local supplies.

For a time, demand started to outstrip supply and as a result, some plants were being harvested too young. According to BFRI, 80 percent of the nation’s bamboo is grown on private farms, meaning that the harvesting has limited impact on local forests.

But harvesting bamboo prematurely can mean a weaker, more vulnerable product, because the plant needs time to build up its cell structure. Making it viable as a long-term local industry means building the bamboo supply chain into a sustainable industry to outlast the relief effort. “It’s better to harvest during the dry season to avoid damaging the young emerging shoots,” said Rowell.  

For these reasons, IOM is partnering with BFRI to establish a sustainable supply chain that includes training for farmers and bamboo brokers. Participants are taught about sustainable cultivation, harvest and care of bamboo, and are shown the best varieties for their particular areas. The pilot programme will initially target around 30 businesses.

“Bamboo is one of the oldest building materials in the region - so in a way we are resurrecting something that has been here for thousands of years,” said Rowell. That positions Bangladesh to set its sights on the booming international market for eco-friendly materials, estimated at USD 60 billion a year, according to the International Network of Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR.)

Bamboo is being pinned as an alternative to wood for everything from building supplies to cups and clothing fabric. By jumpstarting the local market and enhancing local quality control – Bangladesh could become a significant player.

“Bamboo is more environmentally friendly than, say tropical teak. When you harvest bamboo, you aren’t killing the whole plant. It actually grows in clumps, so you are just cutting a few poles. Bamboo’s rapid growth and, adaptability to various regions and high absorption of CO2 also means it can help regenerate degraded land while offering more benefit for family farms,” Rowell added.