Scientists may have found a way to slow deforestation. Fast growing bamboo can help quickly replenish a forest stripped of timber.
Forests are shrinking globally as people in developing nations seek wood for fuel and more land for farming. The Worldwatch Institute in Washington says Earth has lost one percent of its woodlands in the past five years, an area about the size of Germany.
Ecologists say the environmental damage is alarming. Overlogging and failure to replant cause widespread soil erosion and loss of wildlife habitat.
Deforestation also affects global climate. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Burning trees and rotting wood left by loggers are thought to add to global warming by emitting more of the gas into the atmosphere, where it traps the sun's heat.
Experts say the loss of forests will continue unless alternatives to wood are found.
"Most of the forested areas have gone down by 70 to 90 percent, so we need a sustainable form of farming timber," said water specialist, Chin Ong, at the International Center for Research in Agroforestry in Nairobi, Kenya.
He says one promising substitute for wood is bamboo, a grass with a tree-like appearance. Some varieties grow more than 25 meters tall and 20 centimeters thick.
Ong points out that bamboo can be grown all over the world and has advantages over timber. One is its speedy growth.
"You can harvest after three or four years and then every year after that because it is a grass," he explained. "So when you cut a bamboo down, it will produce another shoot and it is ready for harvest in one or two years. Whereas if you grow a eucalyptus tree, you need five to 10 years before you can harvest again. Another reason is that bamboo has a very high water use efficiency, which is double that of any tree species."
Ong says the plants can be an additional cash crop in areas where sugar cane and coffee are already established. He estimates that in the Lake Victoria region of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, as many as 150 million people can benefit economically.
Plant biologist David Midmore of the Central Queensland University in Australia says bamboo also has environmental benefits.
"In Taiwan, bamboo is grown on the hillsides along the edge of the mountains and it is sustainably harvested for its shoots and for its timber, and it is an environmentally friendly species because it is also preventing any erosion," he noted.
Midmore says bamboo shoots are also an important source of nutrition and can withstand harsh climates.
"It is one of the few species that will produce during typhoons, whereas most vegetable species will get blown away or washed away or rot," he added. "Bamboo shoots continue to thrive in hot and wet conditions."
In addition to providing lumber and food, bamboo plants can clean the environment. Chin Ong is studying how bamboo groves could remove toxins from dirty waters.
"We have been analyzing what are the heavy metals that can be removed by bamboo species," he explained. "The bamboo species behave very similarly to papyrus, with natural vegetation to wetlands in this region. So they take up all these heavy metals and they can clean the water."
Ong says there is an unfulfilled potential for bamboo to protect forests and improve agriculture.