- Indonesian President Joko Widodo recently gifted visiting Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese a bamboo bicycle during the latter’s first trip abroad since taking office.
- The publicity from the diplomatic gesture has shone a spotlight on bamboo, a versatile material once commonly used throughout Indonesia, but now largely sidelined by plastic and metal.
During the new Australian prime minister’s first state visit to Indonesia in early June, Anthony Albanese spent a morning planting trees and riding a bamboo bicycle with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Pictures of the two politicians taking a spin around the Bogor Presidential Palace lit up social media. Indonesian environmentalists felt proud of the “bamboo bike diplomacy,” seeing it as presidential seal of approval for the national sustainability movement.
Every part of the bamboo bicycles the pair rode was grown in Indonesia. The bikes were manufactured and purchased from an Indonesian bamboo bicycle company, Spedagi, whose name is an amalgamation of sepeda pagi, Indonesian for “morning bike ride.” The bikes themselves were designed by Spedagi’s owner, Singgih S. Kartono. Craftsmen in a village in Central Java province assembled the bikes’ parts, while villagers on the island of Flores grew the raw bamboo for the bike frames.
According to the Environmental Bamboo Foundation (YBL), an Indonesian nonprofit that worked with Spedagi to create the supply chain for producing the bicycles, the act of riding the homegrown bicycles and then gifting one to the visiting Australian prime minister is a sign of President Widodo’s fondness for village-based bamboo industry, the creativity of Indonesian citizens, and the belief that these elements can be folded into a tool of diplomacy.
“Remembering World Environment Day [on June 5], this bamboo bicycle diplomacy provides an important marker of the ability of Indonesian citizens to use innovative technologies and eco-friendly materials,” Noer Fauzi Rachman, an adviser to former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and now serves as a senior adviser to YBL, said in a press release.
Founded in 1993, YBL runs initiatives in the provinces of Bali, East Java, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and East Nusa Tenggara. Widodo bought the bicycles after seeing them at an exhibition at YBL’s Turetogo bamboo campus in Flores, East Nusa Tenggara.
On the shoulders of giants
Bamboo groves are ubiquitous in Indonesia’s pastoral landscape. Bamboo is traditionally used for various purposes in rural Indonesia, from roofing to toys musical instruments to windmills for deterring birds and even festival ornamentation. Until 1986, houses in some corners of the Maluku islands were built entirely from bamboo.
Recently, though, as cement, plastic and metal have become more accessible, bamboo’s uses have been reduced to primarily fencing and temporary scaffolding, said Aman Wijaya of Arsitek Komunitas, an NGO in South Sulawesi province.
Bamboo is finding many new uses though. And Widodo and YBL are not its only modern champions.
Arsitek Komunitas built an ornate village meeting house with an undulating roof in 2019. Elsewhere, Jakarta-based company Clean Power Indonesia gave a grant to three villages on Siberut Island to build a power plant that burns bamboo to generate electricity for 80,000 people. Every family in the three villages collects bamboo stems according to a communally share agreement. The stems are then cut into smaller pieces and dried for three days before being fed into the power plant.
In Kalodi village, North Maluku province, residents have started to use bamboo again. Growing bamboo helps conserve soil and stabilize slopes locally. “Bamboo roots help us guard against soil erosion. It also offers good building and crafting material,” said Abdurahman, a Kalodi resident. Singgih, the Spedagi founder, agreed. “Bamboo bicycles are strong, visually more beautiful than other materials, and also more comfortable because bamboo can absorb vibrations, making the bamboo cells micro-shocks,” he told Mongabay.
Bamboo also has large-scale carbon sequestration potential. A 2012 study in South Sulawesi showed that a hectare-wide thicket of 5,620 bamboo stems held 72 metric tons of biomass, on a par with the 40-250 metric tons per hectare held by tropical forests in Asia.
One particular species of bamboo treasured for its sequestration potential and tensile strength is giant bamboo (Dendrocalamus asper), known in Indonesian as bambu petung. YBL gives out seedlings and trainings on planting D. asper and two other varieties of clumping bamboo, Bambusa vulgaris (known in Indonesian as bambu aur) and Gigantochloa atter (known in Indonesian as bambu ater).
Widodo bought the bamboo bicycles after visiting the Turetogo bamboo campus in Flores. The campus is a collaborative initiative between YBL and the East Nusa Tenggara provincial government. Since the president’s visit, the campus has also become a center for the Indonesian forestry ministry’s 1000 Bamboo Villages Program, according to Desy Ekawati, a spokeperson for the ministry’s research and innovation division.
The campus is a hub for YBL to teach mama bambu, or village women, how to grow bamboo nurseries and plant out seedlings to grow into productive bamboo thickets. The campus also has a demonstration project for making bamboo laminate, a material with similar tensile strength to wood. YBL executive director Monica Tanuhandaru said she believes East Nusa Tenggara could become a global source for bamboo laminate production.
During his visit to Turetogo, Widodo praised the mama bambu for spearheading the bamboo-planting program. In 2021, YBL supported 388 mama bambu in 21 villages across seven districts in Flores to plant 2.5 million bamboo seedlings. The benefits of planting bamboo near villages include protection of water sources and prevention of soil erosion, as well as carbon sequestration and land restoration.
The 1000 Bamboo Villages Program is a private-public partnership incubator program for community-based bamboo industry. According to forestry ministry spokesperson Ekawati, the program started in 2015 with 10 villages in Flores’s Golewa subdistrict and will end in 2040.
“Bamboo really has the potential to be a solution. We are looking forward to what will happen after this momentum,” YBL agroforestry adviser Rachman said.