Searching for a delicacy in a vanishing jungle

Thick bamboo forests cast northern Shan State in a deep shade of green.

Today, that picturesque landscape is fast fading. Industrial deforestation and increasing trade in jungle commodities is thinning out the once thick forest.  Now, increasing demand in China for a Shan delicacy, fired-smoked bamboo shoots known as Waboe, is exacerbating the problem.

Villagers have long supplemented their meager plantation wages by foraging for the tender bamboo shoots. When the harvest season is over, many villagers find themselves out of work and the hunt for the shoots intensifies.

“We have to search far and wide. In the village, if we don’t cut them, other people will,” says one bamboo forager.

After the shoots are cut and the casing pruned, they are sliced and smoked over an open flame, in a time consuming and energy intensive process.

“In China, Waboe sells for about 15,000 kyat [US$15] per viss [1.65 kg],” says one local trader. But the shoots shrink as they are smoked.

Once the process is complete, the shoots are a quarter of their raw weight.

“It takes around four viss of fresh bamboo shoots to produce just one viss of the finished product,” the trader said.

He points out the disparity between wages earned by Shan foragers and the prices that their product fetches in Chinese markets.

“Chinese traders buy it from us for 200 kyat per viss,” he said.

“They invest thousands – but we know that their profits are in the tens of thousands.”

The Forest across this area of northern Shan state is thinning out as tens of thousands of bamboo saplings are being cut from the ground. Compounding the problem is the amount of trees that are felled in order to keep the smokehouse fires burning. A huge stockpile of firewood cut from the surrounding forest must be kept on hand.

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“To dry all these bamboo shoots, a lot of firewood is needed. Thousands of trees are cut for firewood, maybe 30,000 to 40,000 trees a year.”

The trader said that his village alone uses three fireplaces to smoke around 3,000 bamboo shoots per day.

“[Foragers] start work in August, and continue through to October. If you consider the total cut down, it is a huge number of bamboo shoots disappearing from the forests.”

Bamboo is becoming difficult to find around the village as the forests are shrinking. That is forcing up the local market price and pushing a once staple product out of the reach of villagers.

The Bamboo boom is undoubtedly adding to the rapid deforestation in Burma’s north. And as the harvest earnings are moving to China along with the staple commodity, many villagers fear they may soon be left with nothing.

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