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Planting: A Personal History

Text Armand Limander

With Apologies to Don Quixote, not every slayer of giants is delusional. Some, like Linda Gardland, also known as “The Queen of Bamboo”, are on the right track.

The Ubud, bali–based former interior designer Linda Garland became a leading promoter of the material she calls “nature’s miracle” in the early 1990s. Now, even while battling pancreatic cancer at age 63, her outreach and investment work continues through her Environmental Bamboo Foundation in Bali, Indonesia. A multihyphenate networking and training organization, the EBF connects growers to designers and manufacturers, donates plants, and spreads know-how throughout the world, especially to Indonesian farmers, with the goal of aiding reforestation and bamboo research and development one pretty little shoot at a time.

“We seek to stabilize social and economic life, and the environment,” says Garland’s son Arief Rabik, 28, who works with his mother to promote as much mixed-use bamboo forestry as possible. These are lofty goals, but the two harbor no doubts. In fact, they’re smitten. “Bamboo has a funny effect on you,” Garland says. “You sort of fall in love with it.”

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When Garland first got her hands dirty with the stuff, she was, she says, “a completely dyslexic Irishwoman halfway up a coconut tree.” But that’s not quite the whole story. Born in Northern Ireland to a peripatetic family, Garland studied bullfighting in Spain and then started what would become a spectacularly successful interior design career by hauling market finds back with her from wherever she traveled: Asia, the Philippines, Mexico, the Caribbean. The nomadic autodidact settled down in Bali in 1974, and her resourcefulness and rich-gone-native style eventually snared her such clients as David Bowie, Richard Branson and Island Records magnate Chris Blackwell. (Garland has been featured multiple times in Architectural Digest, including a coveted spot on their “AD 100” list of the world’s most influential designers.)

While in search of giant bamboo trunks for her custom furniture, “I’d fly over all these incredible rainforests in Indonesia,” Garland recalls. “The next time I’d pass over, it would be like they had gotten crew cuts. I felt devastated by what was happening.” In 1991, an illness forced her to slow down her design practice, and she took a research trip to try to figure out how to protect her bamboo furniture from beetles; what she discovered was a solution to some of the most vexing environmental problems in the area. Growing bamboo can help reprime denuded land for reforesting quickly and beneficially. Because bamboo has a hyperabsorbent root system, it restores exhausted water tables many times faster than trees. Bamboo roots also hang on to more soil to repair erosion. “And once you have soil,” Rabik says, “more plants and animals come, and then the ecosystem starts up again, much faster than with planting only trees.”

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The plant’s superfast photosynthesis means that it sucks more carbon dioxide out of the air, and faster, than other green species, acting like a particularly muscular natural filter. (It drowns out sound, too: In Jakarta, bamboo groves help cut down noise pollution by half, Garland says.) Due to its long, perfectly straight tubes, bamboo has an unusually efficient internal cooling system, allowing it to thrive with minimal effort both under hot sun and in temperatures as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on the species), and from sea level to an altitude of 13,000 feet. The plant’s shoots are an antioxidant-rich food source, and due to its versatility at each step of its maturation, bamboo accompanies just about every part of traditional life in Asia. Expanding the bamboo trade, if done right, can help revive indigenous societies now threatened by agribusiness gone wild.

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A few years into her bamboo conversion, Garland’s enthusiasm was such that the Indonesian government handed her the International Bamboo Congress, an outreach fair that attracted scientists, manufacturers and various other boosters to cross-pollinate and grow the cause. She turned her first one, in 1995, into a sort of happening, with musicians and performers on stilts. By the year 2000, representatives from 37 countries were participating, and Garland became the first foreigner to win the Upakarti Award for selfless contribution to the country. At around the same time, the Environmental Bamboo Foundation was born, financed out of Garland’s pocket.

Wood and cloth are the hottest areas of development

To discuss the state of bamboo research and development now with Garland and Rabik is to be drenched by a torrent of information. The two can discourse for hours on advancements like bamboo charcoal water filters, or a new technique that processes bamboo into fabric while avoiding toxic chemicals. Flooring gets Rabik even more excited, as he now splits his EBF consulting duties manufacturing strand-woven bamboo planks, which have the look of hardwood but with greater durability, at around half the price. “Bamboo distributes weight loads more efficiently,” Rabik explains, “so as flooring, it’s much stronger.” Though there is still the problem of the formaldehyde-based glues used in the planks’ production, Rabik’s company uses a compound that produces no evaporation of harmful chemicals into the atmosphere.

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“Right now, there is no perfect solution,” Garland explains, citing the higher cost of some bamboo textiles. There are only better solutions, made better still with every profit dollar that is reinvested into greener bamboo research and development. Indeed, money always talks, and the more successful these new technologies become, the more easily Rabik and Garland can convince on-the-fence farmers to consider giving bamboo a go in the first place. Though it’s a traditional material in their daily life, investing in it as a cash crop is another story, and conversion is still half the battle. “A farmer’s first choice is whether to grow bamboo at all, which they’ll only do if they can get a good price,” Rabik explains, noting that farmers can also choose to plant single-crop plantations of trees like acacia and oil palm, which undermine, if not outright destroy, the natural ecosystem. “Monocultures mean dips in biodiversity, and land acquisition and control by larger corporate interests,” says Lafcadio Cortesi, the forest campaign director of Rainforest Action Network, who advocates for the kind of mixed-use forestry that the EBF teaches and promotes. All the more reason not to let up on developing more kinds of fabrics, floors and fibers.

While Garland is the first person to poke fun at her own bamboo obsession—“I have dreams about the stuff,” she says, laughing—no significant change is born of a part-time approach. So what if her other son, Karim, once sent her a birthday card that said, “Die, Bamboo, Die!”? Garland celebrates what she’s helped bring about so far. “When I started this out, people thought I was crazy. But now when I travel around and see the old disbelievers, they tell me it’s incredible what’s happened with bamboo.”

Archive images of Linda Garland and the Environmental Bamboo Foundation Team. Bali, Indonesia, c.1974-1999.

Courtesy Environmental Bamboo Foundation and Linda Garland. (bamboocentral.org and panchoran-retreat.com)

Photographic Documentation Zoe Ghertner

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