Entrepreneur sees bamboo boost for Haiti
AGranada, Nicaragua rmed with sacks of bamboo seeds, Ben Sandzer-Bell arrived in post-earthquake Haiti earlier this year with a plan to offer an eco-friendly way to bring housing to the estimated 1.5 million left homeless by January’s 7.0-magnitude temblor.
Sandzer-Bell sees a business opportunity in Haiti: low-income prefabricated bamboo houses, which are less costly to build than con- crete dwellings and less likely to crush people in earthquakes and hurricanes. He believes demand for them could spur the development of bamboo plantations and, thus, reforestation of a sort in the most environmentally degraded country in the Americas. “There’s a complete and instant rethink for many Haitians about how they are going to build their next house,” says Sandzer-Bell, a French-American and for- mer aerospace executive, noting that many Hai- tians continue to sleep in tents.
As vice president of strategy for Chicago- based AAR Corp., Sandzer-Bell led a push under which carbon credits were purchased to make AAR the first carbon-neutral company in the U.S. aerospace industry. He also helped roll out a GPS-based air-traffic system for Boeing that allows more direct routes and more planes in the same airspace, reducing overall emissions.
Prefab housing planned
His company, CO2 Bambu, grows bamboo on Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast—ranked by the International Monetary Fund as the poorest part of Nicaragua, which is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere behind Haiti. The concept for the fledgling business is to use bamboo from the plantations to build bamboo-plywood prefabricated housing for the low-income market.
Efforts to get Haitian homeless out of camps in public spaces and into temporary wooden structures strong enough to survive the hurricane season have faced a hurdle—lack of space amid the rubble. Edmond Mulet, a spe- cial United Nations envoy to Haiti, has said that the quake and its aftermath pushed many Hai- tians into areas vulnerable to landslides.
Unsustainable farming practices and intense pressure for firewood and charcoal have left Haiti with just 2% of its forest cover, one of the highest levels of deforestation in the world, according to a U.S. State Department report. Seventy-one percent of fuel consumed in Haiti is wood or charcoal, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. The resulting soil erosion, meanwhile, has left much of the land unfit for farming and unstable during natural disasters.
Like many Latin American countries, Haiti had native species of bamboo; but these suffered in the colonial period, says Gib Cooper, former vice president of the American Bamboo Society and CO2 Bambu’s director of bamboo science. There are 19 species of bamboo native to the Caribbean and West Indies.
“European countries don’t have a bam- boo culture and in the Americas wiped out all signs of bamboo culture except in Ecuador and Colombia,” Cooper says.
An attempt to reintroduce bamboo in Haiti in the 90s by the Organization for the Rehabili- tation of the Environment, a Haitian nonprofit, fell short on account of a variety of problems, among them grazing by feral goats, inadequate care in the dry season and lack of income dur- ing the growing period, Cooper says.
There are still small-scale bamboo planta- tions in Haiti, mostly to produce handicrafts or furniture. Cooper says the bamboo housing push will face cultural challenges. “Bamboo has always been in the Americas but not con- sidered something modern,” Cooper says. “The status symbol house is concrete or concrete block with a wood-supported steel roof.”
Though that view is shared by Haitians, the earthquake might have changed minds, says Regine Laroche, a Haitian architect. “People are wary of concrete construction, after experienc- ing its potentially deadly power, and looking for lighter alternatives,” Laroche says. “Bamboo construction is affordable—a major factor in an economically challenged economy.”
Bamboo builders will have to find ways to improve resistance to fire, he adds, pointing out that concern about fire is one reason Hai- tians tend to opt for concrete block. To address that issue, CO2 Bambu has a plaster-based fin- ish with fire-retardant material in the works.
Sandzer-Bell has grown and harvested Guadua bamboo (Guadua angustifolia), a thick South American species, for two years in Nica- ragua. As a pilot project, CO2 Bambu planted 60,000 Guadua seedlings on 54 hectares (133 acres) last year. Sandzer-Bell hopes to expand to 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres) by 2016, and to use the plantation to generate carbon credits.
At a renovated factory and headquarters outside Granada, CO2 processes bamboo into a three-layered plywood that resembles regu- lar plywood. Sandzer-Bell plans to sell the ply- wood in prefab housing kits, and hopes to ship several containers of the housing to Haiti as early as next month. “We are creating detailed [instructions] which make it possible for any reasonably trained builder to assemble our kits in the field,” he says.
Director of Bamboo Science CO2 Bambu Gold Beach, Oregon Tel/fax: (541) 247-0835 firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.bamboodirect.com/
Ateliers Laroche Port-au-Prince, Haiti Tel: +(509) 3402-5838 email@example.com
Founder CO2 Bambu Granada, Nicaragua Tel: (888) 848-6212 firstname.lastname@example.org