In India's Mizoram, Bamboo Mean Dreams, Nightmares
Author: Simon Denyer
In 1959, in this hilly outpost of India's remote northeast, bamboo flowered and rats feasted on small green bamboo fruits and bred in their millions. When the fruit was exhausted, they swept like a plague through paddy fields, leading to widespread food shortages.
In 2007, the government hopes to be better prepared.
"In 1959, we forewarned the state government of Assam that there would be starvation, but they did not heed us. They said it was a tribal superstition," Mizoram's Chief Minister Zoramthanga (one name) told Reuters. "The next main flowering... is going to be a big challenge."
Mizoram was a part of neighbouring Assam state until it became a separate state in 1986.
Zoramthanga knows he cannot afford to fail. The last bamboo flowering gave birth to the Mizo National Famine Front, an organisation set up to meet food shortages, which ended up fighting the Indian government for independence.
The minister was one of the leaders of that rebel movement, renamed the Mizo National Front, which, after 20 years of war and close to 3,000 deaths, won for Mizoram recognition as a separate state but not independence from India.
Today, he is already being nicknamed "the bamboo minister" -- for this short, sprightly man is dreaming not just of fighting famine but of building a new prosperity for Mizoram out of bamboo.
"After the bamboo flowers, it dies and is finished," Zoramthanga said in an interview in Aizawl, Mizoram's capital. "Unless we harvest it, we are going to waste billions and billions of rupees. We have to make roads into the jungle and harvest it as soon as possible."
The state government has bought two machines from Taiwan to process the bamboo into sheets, which he hopes will start production next month. Like a bamboo salesman, he takes out his samples and thumps them.
"It is very, very strong. It can be used for flooring, for walls and ceilings, for furniture. It is better than timber."
Bamboo chippings for paper mills, bamboo charcoal for fuel, bamboo "vinegar" to nourish the soil, the minister's list is endless. So too, he says, is global demand.
Fresh plantations of more economically profitable bamboo strains can be sown on the plentiful land of Mizoram's hills. In a decade, he says, remote bamboo-rich Mizoram could become India's richest state -- but only if private investors follow his lead.
It is too early to say if Zoramthanga's plans will ever bear fruit. Even he admits it will only be possible to harvest five percent of the bamboo before it flowers.
Already, across Mizoram, the small wheat-like flowers and green fruits -- each a little bigger than a golf ball -- have started appearing on bamboo plants.
But officials said vastly improved roads and state food aid will also prevent a repeat of the 19th century famines caused by mass flowering of bamboo forests.
The state government is also encouraging farmers to switch from paddy into cash crops like turmeric and ginger.
But the man in charge of preventing famine in 1959 says the government is neglecting the main task in hand.
Chawngthu Rokhuma shows old snapshots of thick piles of rats tails from the time he was in charge of the anti-famine effort. Instead of dreaming of new strains of bamboo, the government should concentrate on training villagers to poison rats, he says.
Two million tails were collected five decades ago -- farmers were paid 40 paisa (1 US cent) for each one. "The government is not interested in rats," the old man laments.