GUADUA, a sleeping giant

Ximena Londoño
Colombian Bamboo Society

Guadua culm, old and new.Introduction

Guadua has been with humanity from early times, but we think that only in the XXI st. century will it go from being a local use, low cost material to an industrialized product with global acknowledgement.

Many of its multiple uses have been developed historically and are still currently applied. It is an excellent renewable resource able to make an economic contribution and bring many benefits to the rural economies. However, in most Latin American countries, it has been restricted to native and farm communities with primitive technologies. Only in countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and more recently Costa Rica, Guadua has had an industrial use, specially in the construction field, in manufacturing furniture and handcrafts, and in paper making (Brazil) performing a conspicuous role in local economies such as the one in the coffee central region of Colombia, or in the Guayas and Manabi provinces of Ecuador.

Botanical features and Distribution

Taxonomically Guadua belongs to the Poaceae family, the Bamsuoideae subfamily and the Guadua genus. Species in this genus can be differentiated from the other bamboos mainly by their long and thorny culms, by the white hair bands in the nodal region, and by the leaves that have a triangular form. However, its strongest features are the presence of the keels winged in the palea of the spikelet, the presence of three feathery stigmas at the end of the style and 6 stamens.

When we mention the word Guadua in the Colombian coffee region, we immediately think about the specie that dominates the landscape of the interandean valleys, known by the scientific name of Guadua angustifolia. However, Guadua is a much wider word including an approximate total of 30 species growing in all Latin American countries with the exception of Chile and the Caribbean Islands. Guadua in America is found from 23° latitude North in San Luis de Potosí, Mexico, up to 35° latitude South in Argentina.

Guadua angustifolia, that giant grass growing up to 30 mts high and with a diameter of 22 cm, is considered to be the third largest bamboo of the world, surpassed only by two Asian species, Dendrocalamus giganteous and Dendrocalamus sinicus. It has been selected as one of the 20 species of prioritary bamboo in the world due to its physical and mechanical properties and the durability of its wood, that make it an excellent building material.

Guadua angustifolia was identified first by botanists Humboldt and Bonpland as Bambusa guadua; they collected it in their trip to the New World early in the XIX century. Later, in 1822 the German botanist Karl Sigismund Kunth furthered the studies of this bamboo and created the genus Guadua, using the native word "guadua" from the native Colombian and Ecuador communities to call this bamboo. Kunth re-baptized the specie with the name Guadua angustifolia, where the specific epithet means "narrow leaf".

Guadua angustifolia is found in its natural state in Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, and it has been introduced to several Central America and Caribbean countries, and even to Asia (EBF Bali). The species G. angustifolia includes two varieties that so far have only been recorded in Colombia: Guadua angustifolia var. bicolor and G. angustifolia var. nigra. Guaduas known as "cebolla", "macana", "cotuda" or "castilla" are only ecotypes or forms responding to specific climatic and soil conditions.

Comparative Advantages

Notwithstanding its size, the natives of the region where it grows have undervalued this species. The truth is we have been blind to the benefits of guadua. Below I will point out the multiple comparative advantages of this resource vs. other natural resources.

Guadua angustifolia
is a renewable and sustainable resource. That means, that differing from a lumbering tree, this specie is self-reproducing, the same as other monocotyledons such as plantain (Musa paradiciaca) or "chontaduro" (Bactris gasipaes). It grows very quickly, growth of 11cm in height per day have been reported in the Colombian coffee region. It reaches its maximum height (close to 30 m) in 6 months. This is hardly surpassed by lumbering native species of the region.

Today productivity by hectare of this species is of 1350 culms/ha/year; however for guadua to become a competitive and profitable crop it's necessary to increase its productivity without getting into excessive exploitation. Chinese scientists have shown that by using technical management, productivity of bamboo has notably increased in the last fifty years. We, with Guadua must increase productivity through a sustainable management of the crop so that the resource is always available without being over exploited.

In Colombia this specie covers an approximate area of 51,000 hectares, of which, 46,000 ha. are native guadua grooves ("guaduales") and 5,000 ha. have been planted.

The tropical forests are known as the lungs of the world. That is, they are huge carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestrators. We also know that Guadua can be regarded as a species that fixates CO2. Even if we only take into account the fact that after exploiting it, its lumber suffers a transformation process becoming housing, furniture, crafts, etc. and therefore, the CO2 absorbed by the plant during it's respiration process is not liberated into the atmosphere but is fixated into the housing and fixtures.

It is known that the industrialized countries must reduce the emission of green house effect gases. In the Kyoto Protocol the flexibility mechanisms allowing them to meet the goals agreed to at the least possible cost by the years 2008 - 2012 were established. Since Colombia is a developing country, it does not have commitments about the reductions of green house effect gases, however it has the huge advantage of having a large portion of its area covered by forests allowing it to benefit from the international trade of carbon emissions. This is why it is a priority to develop a methodology based on scientific principles to allow for the measurement and accurate verification of carbon fixated by new and existing Guadua angustifolia planted areas, as well as carbon retained by its products. The Colombian Bamboo Society and the National Coffee Research Center-CENICAFE are joining efforts to develop a project to approach this issue.

Modern society in many ways is a non-sustainable society. Just observe the enormous amount of plastic, iron and concrete used as basic materials in the manufacture of products. Today's concept of durability is reached by consuming high amounts of energy and an exaggerated amount of raw materials, as well as by using inefficient manufacturing processes. Fortunately guadua has very strong natural fibers that allow us to develop industrialized products such as composites, laminates, floors, panels, mats, pulp, and paper. They are high quality products that can be offered both at the domestic and international markets competing with plastics, iron and concrete.

It is important to point out that by using guadua in industrial processes, the impact on the native forests would be reduced, because guadua would become a substitute of lumber reducing thus pressure on tropical forests.

Guadua plantations for these industrial projects in the rural zones of Colombia already exist as was stated above. Therefore the project of industrializing guadua is feasible. For example, agglomerates made out of Guadua angustifolia are water tight and stronger than triplex.
We must come into the XXI century thinking about industrializing guadua and offering this option for development to the rural zones of our country, which are the most deprived economically and socially.

The species Guadua angustifolia stands out within the genus because of its structural properties such as its strength/weight ratio, which exceeds that of most woods, and may even be compared to steel and some high tech fibers. Capacity to absorb energy and allowing for higher bending strength makes this bamboo ideal for seismic-resistant constructions.

Guadua can be used to erect monumental buildings such as the ones designed and built by architect Simon Velez, or low cost constructions, esthetical, safe and built quickly, thus reducing the serious housing deficit affecting many countries in Latin America. The cost of building with Guadua is much lower than the cost of building with traditional materials.

Many countries in the world are interested in guadua. Some like Mexico or Costa Rica have already established crops for commercial exploitation, because they see in guadua a development option. Countries like Colombia and Ecuador have a comparative advantage. The crops are already there, and the resource is abundant, we only have to think about adding value, either by exporting the material and the technology developed throughout the years and the specialized labor that has been trained to handle guadua or otherwise. A perfect example is the construction of the Zeri pavillion in Hanover 2000, in Germany, where the design, materials and labor were shipped from Colombia.

Guadua has over 1000 daily use applications like making cups and saucers, jars, containers, spoons, and hundreds of kitchen utensils. As well musical instruments from our folklore are made of guadua, for example "marimba" and "guasá" in the Pacific Coast. It is also used for furniture and decorations.

Our guadua handcrafts, derived from the traditional uses and incorporating modern and innovative designs have a very high quality. They might become one of the significant Colombian export products, as in the case of Taiwan, where their exports of handcrafts and furniture are more than 150 million dollars per year.


The guadua resource has huge development potential. It is an abundant resource in our country, and even though it is one of nature's giants it is undervalued. It's time to work together to wake up the giant that could surprise the world and even surprise ourselves.