Building consensus for rattan development in Asia

Haikou, Hainan, China, 9 June 2015. Earlier this month, experts and practitioners from eight nations met to share experiences and ideas of using rattan for development, and define a series of steps to boost the rattan sector in Asia.

Rattan grows in many ASEAN nations where it has been used locally for millennia, and is still widely used to produce furniture for export, which remains popular in both producing and the more affluent countries of the world. As one of the most important Non-Timber Forest Products it adds value to forests and is a strategic forest resource that can be sustainably managed and used to help achieve greener development.

Rattans are spiny, climbing palm trees that grow in the tropical and subtropical forests of Asia and Africa, distributed from the nations of West Africa to the western pacific Islands. Rattan is colloquially known as cane, and has been a source for the cane furniture industry for centuries. It is collected from the wild, mostly in the forests of Southeast Asia, but also in central and west Africa, and is one of the most valuable non-timber forest resources in the areas in which it grows. It provides sustainable incomes to many forest dwellers, providing reliable livelihoods to those who have few alternatives. Although rattan is widely used for furniture, it is also used for matting and handicrafts as well as cordage. Figures of the number of people involved in the world’s rattan sector vary from tens of thousands to millions, but it is known that most work in small or medium sized businesses.

A review of the potential of rattan for development, conducted a couple of years ago for INBAR, stated:

“Rattan is a unique light, strong and durable product with a “tropical” feel, derived from climbing palms. Global demand for rattan products remains strong. New designs for rattan furniture and basketry products continue to appeal to modern consumers.

The rattan sector employs around 4 million people worldwide, many of whom are poor, forest dwelling families living in tropical forests of Southeast Asia and Africa. The sector is estimated to generate global revenue of $10.5 billion annually.

Several factors inhibit the sector from reaching its full potential as a pro-poor value chain. Most of the raw material is still harvested from tropical forests without much management. As a result, rattan resources are quickly diminishing in several source countries. On the other hand, there is a growing demand for certified rattan products, produced in a way that does not damage forests and creates income benefits to poor rural households. Successful pilots of certified rattan are starting to emerge.

The main challenge is to replace the old, depletive production systems with sustainable rattan production, in gardens and community-managed forests. Adding value through certification, innovative designs, value chain development and cleaner processing technologies could lift 7 million rural households out of poverty.

To make this happen, a combination is needed of local actions and international networking. Local producers need to build partnerships with international buyers to establish verifiable, sustainable and eco-friendly production systems. The industry needs to develop cleaner and fairer production systems that pay primary producers a fair compensation for adapting sustainable production systems. Governments in both consumer and producer countries need to adjust trade policies to realize the potential of the rattan sector for fair trade based on product certification” (note: the opinions expressed are those of the authors).

With a view to boosting the rattan sector in Asia, INBAR and its partners organized a consultation seminar in early June to share the latest musings on the state of the rattan sector and on how it’s growth can best be fostered to provide benefits to countries. Organised in conjunction with China’s International Centre for Bamboo and Rattan (ICBR), one of the world’s leading research institutes on the subject, the seminar brought together policymakers, practitioners, technical support experts and researchers in Hainan Island, once at the forefront of China’s burgeoning rattan sector, but now suffering, as are many parts of the rattan world, from overexploitation of rattan resources and the lack of an appropriate investment framework.

The participants raised a wide range of valuable topics that were to inform discussions later in the day. Representatives from three rattan development projects in the region shared their project’s different approaches to rattan-based development, each very successful in its own way:

Luu Thi Binh (Vietnam) and Outhai Vongsa (Lao PDR) of ADB’s Biodiversity Conservation Corridors project noted that Rattan is a strategic NTFP to improve livelihoods and protect forests in their project area in Vietnam and Laos. In Vietnam the project has taken a successful small business approach by offering micro loans of a few hundred USD each to villagers in each commune under the project’s “Community Development Fund” to support rattan enterprises, as well as providing help with business development plans. In Laos, the communities are being helped to promote sale of edible rattan shoots which fetch good process in the local markets, and supplying semi-processed rattan canes to local processors to earn incomes as part of an integrated commercial crop-use strategy.

Tam Le Viet, manager of WWF Mekong’s  bamboo, rattan and Acacia project explained how the value chain approach taken in the project has brought significant benefits to the communities already. The project is moving from a rattan supply chain that involves harvesters, raw rattan sellers, processors and markers towards sustainability and promote green business partnership. The project has enabled community groups and CoC SMEs to be the first ever FSC certified for rattan, and 40 SMEs are now selling to Europe.  Over 200 SMEs have access to cleaner production guidelines, and eight have banded together to form the new Rattan Association of Cambodia (

Philippe Lyssens of SNV’s EU-Switch funded PROSPECT Indonesia project “Promotion of Sustainable and Clean Rattan Production: Voluntary adoption of sustainable standards”, said that consumers in affluent (usually western) markets now want to know the “how” of production of the items they purchase. Consumers are becoming more demanding on price and the origin of the products, and the major retailers, such as Ikea and Walmart, require suppliers to fulfil minimum requirements for sustainable production in terms of the environment, and social and working conditions. The project works with producers to help them understand these requirements and to make the changes necessary to meet them, with the longer term aim of helping the rattan industry in Indonesia adopt a series of minimum production and workers standards.

Representatives of two of the largest rattan companies in China gave a private sector perspective:

Andy Chan Sik Cheong of Hello Hobby Rattan Co noted that a lack of stability in the upstream parts of the industry has also created a lack of confidence in the downstream parts, an as a result investors are unwilling to invest in the downstream industry to develop new production technologies due to supply instability. The rattan furniture market has begun to shrink due to high costs despite the large potential market and the success of the rattan industry as a whole will require more than the efforts of one or two innovative companies – Mr Chan proposed a national organization as one means of supporting the development of the Chinese rattan industry.

Wu Shaohong of Hainan Sino Rattan Technology Co.,Ltd. explained how the serious lack of raw materials available on the Island are hampering efforts to grow the sector there. Long-term destructive harvesting, plus the deteriorating of the eco-environment, has depleted the rattan resources, but demand for rattan products is increasing – the price of raw rattan has doubled in the past ten years.  Ninety five percent of all rattan used here is imported, but current (young) stocks could supply over half of this if left to mature suitably. In Hainan, rattan management and harvesting can yield over 12, 000 USD per hectare in incomes, particularly to the poor forest dwellers who live with rattan. He suggested raising awareness of the importance of rattan development with decision makers at all levels, producing and implementing a rattan development plan, better linking producers to village collectors and primary processors, and even establishing a Rattan Industry Park to provide focus and technical and marketing support.

Some of the world’s most respected rattan researchers and innovators shared ideas from the research and innovation perspectives:

Prof Yang Shumin of ICBR explained the latest research into the anatomy and the physical and mechanical properties of the rattans of China. Calamus manan is one of the strongest canes – denser canes have more desirable mechanical properties. Many of the commercially used rattan have high variability in their properties, and this means that structural properties are also variable – not a desirable trait. She also introduced her work on rattan carbon-based materials for energy storage, electromagnetic shielding, eco-ceramic materials and high conductivity polymer composites.

Abie Abdillah of Indonesia’s Rattan Innovation Centre, PIRNAS, highlighted the variability in properties and quality of the raw rattan materials available in Indonesia, and called for more standardization, noting that determination of quality of poles was currently based only on their morphology and consequently not as ideal as it could be. He also noted that supply and marketing chains of rattan need to be improved, and that current designs find it hard to compete in the international markets. He explained that one of the reasons PIRNAS was established was to start to address these problems and find innovative solutions to them. PIRNAS brochure here.

Dr. Li Rongsheng of China’s Tropical Forestry Research Institute said that China’s rattan industry is valued at about 1bn USD per year, of which 100 – 200 million USD comes from exports. Cane production has fallen to almost nothing these days from over 10, 000 tonnes per year in 1960, and about 5000 in 1980, with Hainan supplying over 90% of the nation’s locally-grown rattan canes throughout – almost all smaller diameter canes for webbing and light framing. In 2014, over 25,000 tonnes of cane were imported to supply the industry, following a continuing decline after a peak of 63, 000 tonnes in 2003 – these are mostly larger diameter canes for furniture frames. He noted that more and more species in China are overharvested and threatened and need protection status, and that much more and better managed rattan plantations are needed to meet national demand.

In his overview of the state of China’s rattan resources, Zhou Lijun of China’s State Forestry Administration explained that there were 46 species of rattan in three genera in China, with about 20,000ha of managed rattan in 2000, though that figure has declined in the intervening years and in fact, these days it’s not clear how much rattan China has. Additionally, the costs of harvesting rattan are high, and the benefits derived from it are limited especially compared to a few decades ago. Rattan development policies in China’s 13th five year plan aim to provide leadership and commitment at high levels to promote rattan, though subsidies for replanting rattan have proven difficult to implement thus far. New technologies under development include cultivation of thornless varieties, growing on degraded lands and improved harvesting techniques.


The seminar produced the following summary conclusions/recommendations:
1. We need to have an inventory of the resource base, as we do not know where bamboo resources are, what species exist, what opportunities there are.
2. We need to develop a reliable supply of rattan for the global market.  This has two aspects: one the one hand we may identify natural resources in existing supply countries, and one the other hand we should promote the planting of new supplies.
3. The market for bamboo products consists of traditional furniture and handicrafts.  Designs improvement will broaden this market.  But there is also a new market opening up with potentially high-value new products.
4. Consumers in Europe and USA are demanding sustainably produced products, and want to know how “green” the production process is.  We will need to think about certification or verification of the production methods, and we need to set clear standards for products.
5. This means introducing sustainable management practices, cleaner production systems and better marketing arrangements through cooperatives or associations.  Training and capacity building is needed, but also awareness-raising.
6. The effects of national policies on the rattan sector are variable and often un-monitored. Reviews of the effects national policies both at national and international levels would help inform and quantify for governments how they are helping, and if not, provide a basis for policy reform to support rattan business development.
7. A sustainable rattan industry will require healthy natural forests, as most rattans are collected from the natural forest.
8. Internationally, clear and more Harmonised System codes would help us monitor and promote international trade in rattan.
9. Collaboration between ASEAN nations would be good, and more regular meetings like this seminar would help.  An INBAR Regional rattan project is supported, as long as it builds on, and is linked to, on-going initiatives by ADB, WWF, SNV, and others.  We should also liaise with ASEAN Secretariat and China-ASEAN Centre.



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