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American Geographical Society

Giant American Bamboo in the Vernacular Architecture of Colombia and Ecuador


Author(s): James J. Parsons
Source: Geographical Review, Vol. 81, No. 2 (Apr., 1991), pp. 131-152
Published by: American Geographical Society
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The Geograp hcal Review

VOLUME 81 April 1991 NUMBER 2

GIANT AMERICAN BAMBOO IN THE VERNACULAR


ARCHITECTURE OF COLOMBIA AND ECUADOR
JAMES J. PARSONS

ABSTRACT. Towering clumps of giant American bamboo are conspicuous land-


scape features of the upper Cauca Valley in Colombia and of the Pacific lowlands
in Ecuador. The bamboo is so closely linked to many aspects of modern life,
especially housing, that a bamboo culture region may be identified; it comprises
two discrete areas separated by a relatively unpopulated wilderness in southern
Colombia. The changing relationships between humans and this versatile, abun-
dant wild bamboo is examined, with special attention to the barrios of Guayaquil.
With the bamboo actively promoted as an inexpensive solution to the staggering
housing problem of areas where the species is most accessible, demand threatens
to outrun supply. Commercial plantations may be a viable alternative.

THE first Europeansto enter the western part of modern Colombiaand


Ecuadorwere struckby the extraordinaryabundanceand luxurianceof
the tall, graceful,clump-forming"canes"that are known today as the
giant Americanbamboo(Guaduaangustifolia, Kunth;Bambusa guadua,Hum-
boldt and Bonpland)or simply caniaor caniaguadua(Fig. 1). "Thickas a man's
thigh,"the bambooprosperedbest on the well-wateredvolcanicand alluvial
soils of the Ecuadoriancoastal lowlands and the middle Cauca Valley in
Colombia.
Earlychroniclerswere awed by the immensity and the extent of these
canebrakesand by the diversity of uses that the native people made of the
jointedculms or stems.To PedroCiezade Leon,the firstSpaniardto describe
the Quindioregion,domainof the sophisticatedQuimbayaculture,the close
bond between the native inhabitantsand the widely distributedguaduales
was an indication of a large Indian population in past times (Patino 1957,
1975-76)."Allof this province,"he wrote,"is full of big and dense canebrakes
that one only can move through with great effort"(Ciezade Leon 1864).In
no part of the Indies had he seen canes of such size and abundance.The
entangling stands were so dense that one could easily become lost in them.
Fromthe Rio Caucato the primitiveSpanishsettlementof Cartago(modern
Pereira)the thickets of this majesticwild bamboo,known to the natives as

* DR. PARSONS is an emeritus professor of geography at the University of California,


Berkeley, California 97420.

Copyright ?) 1991 by the American GeographicalSociety of New York

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132 THE GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW

R' E~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

FIG. 1-A dense stand of Guadua angustifoiza.(Photographs by author except as otherwise noted.)

guadua, extended unbroken for some ten leagues and hid the small town
from view until a traveler was upon it.
Alexander von Humboldt passed through the canebrakes in 1801 on his
descent from the Quindfio Pass across the Cordillera Central to the foothills

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GIANT AMERICAN BAMBOO 133

of the Cauca Valley. He wrote in his narrative of the journey that "of all the
vegetation forms between the tropics the bamboo and tree fern make the
most powerful impression upon the imagination of the traveller" (Humboldt
1900). In his time the Quindio, a zone of rolling hills mantled by recent ash
from the nearby volcanos, was almost unpopulated, the aborigines having
long since been decimated by war and European diseases (Friede 1963).
Today the remaining groves of these elegant canes embellish a humanized
landscape dominated by coffee, sugarcane, and improved pasture from the
department of Caldas southward beyond Popayan within the Rio Cauca
drainage in Colombia. Their extent is undoubtedly much reduced, as it
likewise must be in coastal Ecuador, where shade-grown cacao is also part
of the cropping complex. There, specifically in the rainier foothills of the
Rio Guayas basin north of Guayaquil, the handsome guaduales must have
been no less impressive, but early accounts are few. The denser Indian
populations, and consequently the focus of Spanish interests, were in the
drier areas along the coast and in the lower Guayas valley in environments
lacking sufficient precipitation to support guaduales. Nonetheless, the easy
access by river to the bamboo forests facilitated the integration of the versatile
giant cane into the material culture of the people of the littoral and has done
so for at least five millennia, as is demonstrated by evidence of its use at the
earliest archaeological sites.
Now, as in the recent and distant past, guadua, wherever it is available,
remains the favored material from which traditional rural houses are built
(Fig. 2). In contemporary Colombia, more often than in Ecuador, the dis-
tinctive siding may be coated with mortar and whitewashed, the thatch or
bijao-leafroofs of earlier times replaced by red Spanish tile, corrugated metal,
or composition material. A traveler in the mid-nineteenth century asked
rhetorically, "What would the Quindio be without guadua?" and one might
make a similar inquiry today. In Ecuador, the Montuvio-Manabito culture
area of the Pacific lowlands is neatly defined by the almost universal use of
cana guadua in traditional rural housing (Knapp 1987). In the cities and
towns, too, if sometimes less conspicuously, the native bamboo is the material
of choice for the barriospopulares,the spontaneous shantytowns that have
sprung up in recent decades around Guayaquil, Manta, Esmeraldas,Popayan,
Cali, Armenia, Pereira, and Manizales as well as lesser places (Fig. 3). The
straw-yellow structures that give so distinctive a cast to these barrios are
usually seen by the occupants as temporary shelters, designed to last until
the resources are acquired to replace them with others of more durable and
prestigious materials like brick or cement blocks (Fig. 4).
As modern tastes, technologies, and industrial materials have gained
ascendancy and as urban structures and housing design have become in-
creasingly heterogeneous, guadua has been seen more and more as the poor
man's lumber, the commonplace building material that campesinos live with
throughout their lifetimes. There has been a subconscious tendency, es-

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134 THE GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW

FIG. 2-Street of an Ecuadorian village with stilt-supported guadua houses, with palm-thatch
roofs.

pecially among city folks, to reject this inexpensive and versatile cane as
something associated with poverty, marginality, and lower-class status.
Nonetheless, there are indications that this attitude is changing.
So closely is this striking plant linked to virtually every aspect of life and
vernacular culture in northwestern South America that it seems warranted
to define a guadua culture region, which comprises two discrete areas sep-
arated by unpopulated portions of the middle and lower R'ioPatfiadrainage
of southernmost Colombia (Fig. 5). In the rest of this article I review the
changing characteristics of this association and the recent revival of interest
in guadua, particularly as expressed in the domestic architecture of the urban
barrios, with emphasis on the metropolitan fringe of Guayaquil.
A CONFUSED TAxONOMY

The taxonomy of New World bamboos is in considerable confusion,


especially as relates to the Bambusoideaetribe of Gramineae. Humboldt and
Aim'e Bonpland equated the giant American guadua with similar Old World
bamboos, designating the economically important member they observed in
the Cauca Valley Bambusaguadua in 1806. In 1822, Karl Kunth decided that
it deserved recognition as a separate genus. Using the specific epithet based

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GIANT AMERICAN BAMBOO 135

FIG.3-Invasion barrio of guadua shacks on steep slopes below Manizales.

on the common name, he christened the new genus Guadua,with G. angus-


tifolia its most characteristic member. After extensive studies, F. A. McClure
(1967, 1973), the acknowledged modern authority on the Bambusoideae,con-
cluded that the only significant difference between the American and Asian
members was the well-marked geographical one and proposed a return to

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136 THE GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW

~~~~~~~ W, W, W ' '_ ^9T;'WA6


+t>

FIG. 4-House-type succession in El Suburbio of Guayaquil. A new brick facade obscures the
bamboo siding.

the Humboldtian Bambusaguadua. He urged a subgenus category for this


important New World bamboo so that the familiar G. angustifoliabinomial
might be retained. Most recently, other Smithsonian Institution taxonomists,,
associates of McClure, have determined the American guaduas to represent
a clearly demarked genus on the basis of further comparative morphological
and anatomical studies (Soderstrom and Ellis 1987; Soderstrom and Londonfio
1987).
Some thirty distinct species of the erect, robust, clump-forming Guadua
genus or subgenus have been recognized in the Americas, with a range from
Mexico to northern Argentina., but none appear to approach either the size
or the abundance, and hence the utility, of the guaduas of western Ecuador
and Colombia. All are more closely related to Old World Bambusathan to
any other New World bamboo group. Moreover, taxonomic distinctions,
based more commonly on vegetative characteristicsthan on flower structure,,
are obscure. Exactly how far G. angustifolia,distinguished for its luxuriance,
its erect clumping habit, and its close association with humans, ranges beyond
the guadua culture region of Colombia and Ecuador is unclear. Despite the
wide but disjunct distribution of the genus throughout the American tropics,
no other form of guadua compares in economic importance with the one
discussed here.
The country people of Colombia and Ecuador whose lives are most in-
timately connected with guadua recognize a disconcerting number of variants

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GIANT AMERICAN BAMBOO 137

800 750

PACIFIC OCEAN Medellin


ANTIOQUIA
4 A
t~~91\
CALC;A~
Bogota'
RISARALDA Manizales
Pereira'
VALLEDEL CAUCA Armena
Cab QUINDIO

-.--Popa?n
,,>
- . .CAUCA

ESMERALDASO;: yo o

*~~~0z ~~
0, Ismeral as _:0
*Quito
MANABI
j M11 QuIye
tQeedo
LOS FRios I
GUAYAS. abaoyo l
0 OR.. ... ie 0
Sta. Elen* R. Guayas

* uaquillas

2 0~~0200
krns
miles10

FIG. 5-Guadua culture region.

or biotypes of this plant, including a caniamansaor hembra(shorter, broader


leaves, and easy to work), a more resistant and harder caniabrava(with axillary
thorns), a vallecaucano type (short internodal sections), a macho or rayada
(green culms striped with yellow), a milagro(continuously flowering), a cebolla

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138 THE GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW

(soft, easier to work), and a macana (spindly culms). Some of these will
probably be recognized eventually as distinct species or subspecies.
The geography of the American guaduas is notoriously irregular and
much modified by human action. Toponyms like Guaduas in Colombia,
Guasdalito in Venezuela, or Chigorodo, which is Choco for guadua, may aid
in tracing their distribution. Although the sparser stands of giant bamboo
in the Oriente of Ecuador, in the upper Rio Magdalena valley, and on the
margins of the Colombian Amazonia and Llanos have been assumed to be
eastward extensions of G. angustifolia,only a taxonomist can give an au-
thoritative opinion. Because of their size, as well as the extreme irregularity
of bamboo flowering, the genus is the bane of the collector's existence. In
other areas, in any event, it seems to be of distinctly secondary importance.
Eastern Honduras and Nicaragua, where bamboos of similar growth habit
are used to some extent for house construction among the Sumu and Miskito,
may represent a partial exception. An extensive stand of giant bamboo (ta-
bocal),identified by radar imagery in the Brazilian state of Acre (Sombroek
1966), has been determined to include three different species, none of them
G. angustifolia.
The upper limit of the guaduales of the Andean foothills and coastal
plain of Ecuador and of the middle Cauca Valley in Colombia appears to be
close to 1,700 meters, but they are more abundant and luxuriant at substan-
tially lower elevations. Though tolerant of almost every kind of ecological
niche where rainfall exceeds 1,500 millimeters, guadua may do well on much
less in riverine habitats with sufficiently moist soils.
GROWTH RATES, HARVESTING, AND REPRODUCTION

Growth rates of guadua are astonishing, though somewhat less than those
reported for the fastest-growing Asiatic bamboos (Marden 1980). Under nor-
mal conditions and in periods of greatest development, they add eight to
ten centimeters in twenty-four hours and in extreme cases substantially more
(Rincon Sep'ulveda 1977; McClure 1973). The culms attain their maximum
diameter, to twenty centimeters, very soon after initiating growth and reach
their full height in eighty to one hundred days. Only then do branches and
leaves begin to develop. During their flush of growth, the glossy green stalks
are soft and lacking in resistance, but they gradually harden as they yellow
and die. In their mature glory, the feathery guadua stems reach heights of
twenty to thirty meters, with an extreme of thirty-seven meters reported
(McClure 1973). The mass flowering at long and irregular intervals, followed
by death, that is so characteristic of many Asiatic bamboos, seems not to
occur in this American species.
Where exploited on a sustained-yield basis, the bamboo has a harvesting
cycle of three to five years. The jointed, hollow culms are cut by machete
directly above the first node to avoid the accumulation of water that might
lead to rotting. Peasant wisdom has it that guadua should be harvested during

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GIANT AMERICAN BAMBOO 139

a waning moon and at early hours in the morning for maximum resistance
to insect damage. Soon after cutting reproduction is initiated by sprouts from
the intricate tangle of surface rhizomes that form a sort of collective root to
support the stalks. The large, shedding sheaths from the rapidly emerging
shoots are lined with prickly brown hair that can make movement difficult
in the guaduales.
A GUADUA CIVILIZATION
Guadua was the great ally of the native populations. The early chroniclers
confirm its all-purpose role among the tribes of both the Cauca Valley and
the Ecuador coast. Nowhere were the stands of this prodigious plant so
extensive or its role in the life of the aborigines so crucial as in the inter-
montane basin traversed by the middle Rlio Cauca, especially its northern
extension in the ash-mantled hill lands of the Quindio (Patifno 1957, 1975-
76). Almost every aspect of native life involved this giant bamboo, which in
both areas supported what has been called a guadua civilization. Houses of
guadua were surrounded by defensive palisades. Lances and knives were
made from guadua. It served for the construction of aqueducts, bridges,
fences, river rafts, and an infinite variety of household utensils and furniture.
The young shoots were eaten. When cut at the right time, the cane's hollow
internodes provided drinking water as well as containers for maize and chicha.
Guadua poles were used to exhibit the heads of enemies and to enclose prison
compounds. Tubing of guadua was even inserted into deep-shaft tombs to
carry chicha beer to the honored dead.
So widespread was the use of guadua among the indigenes and so obvious
was its unmatched utility that the Spaniards quickly adopted it. It became
an integral part of the evolving culture of the Montuvios of Ecuador, as it
did among the Antioqueno colonists who swept southward in the late nine-
teenth century through the empty mountain lands that were to become the
department of Caldas, from which Quindio and Risaralda were recently
detached, to implant a new coffee economy in the former territory of the
Quimbaya. Good frontiersmen, they quickly adapted the abundant guaduales
to their housing needs and introduced other uses: livestock corrals, chicken
houses, coffee- and cacao-drying trays, banana props, musical instruments,
and eventually poles for telephone and power lines as well as supports for
TV aerials. Long sections of the native bamboo, halved and spliced together,
made possible the easy movement of water from wells or springs for irrigation
and for domestic use.
The Quindio attracted the attention of the conquistadors for the rich gold-
working tradition of its early occupants and the wealth of their graves. With
the demise of the Quimbaya the area was abandoned for almost three hun-
dred years, until its reoccupation by the Antioquenos toward the end of the
nineteenth century. Today it is the most productive coffee-growing district
in Colombia. The rich volcanic-ash soils and the abundant guadua were as

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140 THE GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW

decisive for this colonization and settlement as they had been for the aborigi-
nal populations. Guadua facilitated the rapid establishment of frontier aldeas
and was a factor in nearly all aspects of everyday life (JaramilloUribe 1963).
The ease of cutting, transporting, and handling hastened construction
operations.
Nonetheless, modernization was to take its toll, especially in the cities,
as more elegant brick and cement structures gained in popularity. Two
successive fires in nearby Manizales at the beginning of the century, which
devastated well-to-do neighborhoods that included some of the best examples
of traditional architecture, seem to have hastened the abandonment of bam-
boo construction there. Fire-resistant cement blocks were used in rebuilding
the central city and its grandiose cathedral, which at the time it was erected
was asserted to be the largest concrete structure in the world (Velez 1990).
In Ecuador the pattern differed little, although the abandonment of bamboo
was partial and later. Before the 1940s, cement had to be imported from
expensive sources, which contributed to its prestige value. The austere, mas-
sive institutional structures of central Guayaquil in European architectural
styles reflect this bias (Bock 1988).
GUADUA IN CONTEMPORARY BUILDING
Rural folk housing provides the most conspicuous expression of the
influence of guadua in the contemporary landscape (Dicken 1966; Rubbo
1977). Hand-harvested by machete and then transported by mule, truck, or
balsa raft from readily accessible growing areas, guadua involves none of
the costs of conventional logging and milling of lumber or of cement or steel
reinforcement. In the case of Guayaquil and the cities of the Cauca Valley,
especially Cali, navigable waterways provide a natural, if underused, means
of moving the smooth, green guadua culms to market (Fig. 6). In addition
to the ease of harvesting, transporting, finishing, and handling, high tensile
strength and resistance to compression make the giant bamboo ideal for
building. To these advantages, and its availability and low cost, may be added
the ease of maintenance of guadua structures, their adaptability to steep
building sites and to wetlands, and their remarkable resilience during seismic
disturbances. The aeration afforded by their elevated ground floors in Ecuador
and the slit-and-flattened boarding used for siding contribute further to the
practicality of guadua houses as well as to their architectural distinctiveness.
The siding for housing is typically fashioned from green bamboo culms
split longitudinally with an axe at several points on each node and flattened
in unfinished, boardlike planks about twenty to twenty-five centimeters wide
(Fig. 7). These are fastened to the frame with galvanized wire or nails. In
Colombia the siding is usually aligned horizontally, but in Ecuador it is
customarily placed vertically, idiosyncratic cultural preferences without ap-
parent explanation. Windows, especially in rural areas, are small and lack
glass; they serve more for looking out onto the passing scene than for illu-

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GIANT AMERICAN BAMBOO 141

:. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~W

FIG.6-Guadua rafts on Rio Cauca near Cali. Construction with guadua is visible on far bank.

mination, which is offered in part by the interstices of the slit bamboo siding
(Fig. 8). These may collectively equal or surpass the area of the windows
themselves and provide welcome ventilation as well as a soft, diffused light
during daylight hours.
Except in some of the new barrios and in the poorer sections of rural
Ecuador, a wattle-and-daub form of construction is employed that is known
as bahareque,an Arawak term, in Colombia and as quinche,a Quechua term,
in Ecuador. In this form, the exterior walls are coated with mud, sometimes
mixed with straw and whitewashed; another variant has double walls, with
the cavity between them rammed full of earth (Nurnberg and EstradaYcaza
1982; Mor'an Ubidia 1987). Less commonly, narrow strips of bamboo may
encase the adobe.
Guadua is the source not only of the siding in such structures but also
of the support poles, tie beams, roof trusses, rafters, and struts. The whole
structure is held in place either by tightly bound liana or by nails, which
bamboo takes well. When the hollow internodal sections of a beam are filled
with cement at appropriate points, resistance to compression and tension is
substantially enhanced, which extends the range of design options (Hidalgo
L6pez 1974).
More often than not, the balloon-frame structures are owner-built with
little or no outside professional assistance. Machetes, skillfully employed in
cutting and preparing the guadua and in carving perfectly fitting joints, may

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142 THE GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW

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7-lteiggengau

be the only tools, nedd Alhuhtesrcueja perweul


unstble the geeal suvv witou daaetefeuntogerh
qae thtcacerzetipato the cninet

May pehp_ot ftebmo ose fcatlEudrsado


hig stlt or pils, usully ofguadu,withthe flor asmuch a threemeter

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GIANT AMERICAN BAMBOO 143

-~~~~~~~~~~~~~~6L

FIG.8-Guadua siding on a house, showing window arrangement.(Photographby JorgeMoran


Ubidia)

above the ground and reached by stairway, notched log, or ladder. The
obvious intent is to avoid dampness or flooding, to which much of the
Ecuadorlowland is seasonallyprone,and at the same time to providestorage
spaceforcrops,tools,machinery,and boats.Toavoidcontactwith the ground,
supportpillarsare generally mounted on concreteblocks.Such raisedfloors
are also found in areas not subjectto flooding, as on the arid Santa Elena
peninsula. They appearto representanother regional culturaltrait or pref-
erencethat reflectsno directenvironmentaladaptation,exceptinsofaras the
practicemay improve air circulationand so assure a somewhat less humid
interior(JacomeBohorquez1987).
Such pile dwellings are much less commonin Colombia,where the floors
of poorerhouses may be either earthenor made of slats of bambooor other
wood supportedby beams resting directly on low cement slabs or blocks.
On steep slopes,as in some barriosof Manizalesor the small ridge-toptowns
of Caldasand Risaralda,the intricatesubstructureof bamboothat supports
the house platform may reach a maximum height of eighteen meters, the
equivalentof a four- or five-storybuilding. Some of these buildings are true
works of engineering;for others it strainsthe credulitythat they can even
stand.
At the regionalcommercialcenter of Babahoyo,Ecuador,some sixty-five
kilometersupstream from Guayaquil,both sides of the Rio Babahoyoare
lined with guadua houses mounted on floating balsa rafts connectedto the

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144 THE GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW

shore by adjustable ramps. Such viviendasflotantes,which rise and fall with


the river, were an earlier feature of the Guayaquil embarcadero. The minutes
of the cabildoin 1775 refer to the numerous balsas along the waterfront, each
with many residents. The rafts were later outlawed as harboring delinquents
and undesirables.
Apart from the employment of guadua for housing is the widespread
use of the guadua poles as scaffolding and temporary floor bracing in con-
struction projects, which is especially conspicuous in districts of multistoried
commercial structures in the cities. The poles are also used effectively in
building bridges and bullrings.
AN UNAPPRECIATED RESOURCE
That the potential of this prodigal member of the grass family should
have been so little appreciated by the more literate, policy-making class is
perhaps not surprising. For the common people of coastal Ecuador and the
Cauca Valley, it has been so much a part of daily life that it has been taken
for granted. Cajnahas been considered a synonym for the commonplace, the
antithesis of progress and incompatible with modern life and modern systems
of construction. The very term bambuhas been seen as exotic, of Oriental
origin. Most people do not associate the term with their humble cafnaguadua.
It has even been denied, by persons who might be expected to know better,
that bambu exists in South America. When the stigmatized material began
to be used in a few public-housing projects, it was often in an inappropriate
manner that worsened its already poor reputation. The hurried desperation
of people involved in "land invasions" on urban peripheries often led to the
haphazard construction practices that tended to give the material a bad name.
Foreign-aid agencies like the Agency for International Development (AID)
or the World Bank have generally favored endless rows of brick or concrete-
block houses or apartments, which lack both comfort and aesthetic appeal,
over the more practical and traditional ones of guadua.
In the last several years there has been an awakening to the promise and
potential of guadua as a low-cost, easily accessible building material. Pro-
fessional architects and housing authorities in both Ecuador and Colombia
have been active in promoting its use and in developing new ways of
blending traditional and modern techniques to encourage the use of bamboo
and to help remove the stigma attached to it (Hidalgo Lopez 1974, 1978;
Moran Ubidia 1987; Velez 1990). A swelling stream of student theses and
technical reports as well as experimental model houses of bamboo are being
produced at the universities of Manizales, Bogota, and Guayaquil. There is
an emerging new pride in this autochthonous resource and the distinctive
building style associated with it as symbols of regional identity.
The adaptability of the bamboo to hillside construction sites is often a
considerable advantage. In the northern part of the guadua culture region,

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GIANT AMERICAN BAMBOO 145

especially the montane Colombian departments of Caldas, Risaralda, and


Quindlo, Antioqueno colonists tended to site their towns on knifelike ridges
above the coffee fincas for better ventilation and to avoid malaria (Parsons
1949). The spillover from these settlements, often as illegal invasions onto
the precipitous downslopes on either side of the main street, was much
facilitated by the availability of this lightweight building material. Land-
slides, started by tropical rains, have been very destructive to colonists on
unstable volcanic-ash slopes such as those in the city of Manizales, where
between 1960 and 1987 the slides destroyed 1,468 houses and killed 193
persons in eighteen separate events (Klooser 1988).

GUADUA AS A CROP
A French traveler in 1855 in what is now Caldas observed that almost
every farmhouse had its own bosquecilloof guadua, one of the most distinctive
features of the landscape (Saffray 1948). For domestic needs and occasional
off-farm sale, many peasant farms still keep a plot of bamboo, but it rarely
seems to be intentionally planted. On some of the large haciendas of the
Cauca Valley substantial stands, the only break in the monotony of the
endless fields of sugarcane, serve as windbreaks and as an erosion control
along minor streams and drainage ways descending from the adjacent cor-
dilleras. They are harvested either for use on the property or for sale to a
Cali manufacturer who makes quality paper from a mixture of 20 percent
guadua pulp and 80 percent sugarcane bagasse.
In the past, supplies of the native bamboo were considered inexhaustible,
but increasing demand, coupled with the removal of numerous guaduales
for competing landuses, have raised the specter of future shortages. Com-
mercial plantings are beginning to appear. Afforestation, including inter-
planting of guadua with coffee, plantains, and yuca, is being promoted in
Colombia by regional-development agencies and by the National Federation
of Coffee Growers (Perez Palacio 1980). The relative ease of vegetative prop-
agation and the remarkable growth rates should make the planting com-
mercially viable. Reproduction by tissue culture, permitting selection of su-
perior strains of guadua, and the low-cost propagation of planting material
offer additional potential (Manzur Maclas 1990).
A healthy, properly thinned guadual may yield up to one thousand poles
annually that might be worth the equivalent of U.S.$1.00-$1.50 each on a
farm. The harvesting of guadua is controlled in Colombia by regional agencies
under authority delegated by INDERENA, the central government's natural-
resources agency. Formal requests must be approved to cut mature culms.
Air patrols have occasionally been used to detect clandestine activity. In 1982,
the Quindlo corporation, for example, authorized the cutting of 147,000poles
by some 1,600 permitees with another 1,400 units for on-farm needs. Taxes
on this harvest were the equivalent of $75,000. The guadua industry is

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146 THE GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW

estimated to support some five hundred families in Quindlo alone. The


Colombian coffee federation has seen guadua as an alternative crop well
fitted to the diversification program the federation is promoting.
The extent of the reserves of the giant grass has received little attention.
It is ignored in agricultural and forestry statistics for Colombia and Ecuador.
A 1970 Colombian atlas of coffee growing (Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros
1976) reported 6,856 hectares of guaduales in forty-one randomly selected
coffee-growing municipios, most of them in Caldas, Risaralda,and Quindio.
Landuse maps show them aligned along streams and on steeper quebrada
slopes on the lands least suited for coffee. The high prices that drove the
frenzied planting of coffee trees in the early 1970s have since led to a sub-
stantial reduction of the guadua hectarage (Hidalgo Lopez 1978).
In Ecuador no similar policies to rationalize production or to conserve
the resource base have yet been initiated, although a paper mill to be supplied
with plantation-grown guadua was once proposed (Acosta Solis 1960). A
detailed inventory by AID reported 14,619 hectares of the giant grass in some
75,000 stands defined as commercially accessible. More than one-half of these
stands were in the high-rainfall foothills north and south of Quevedo. The
survey, using the Bambusaguadua binomial, somewhat optimistically esti-
mated that at a 20 percent thinning rate the country could produce 4.5 million
units annually, more than twice the current domestic and export demand.
EL SUBURBIO OF GUAYAQUIL
In the guadua story, Guayaquil is a special case. This great port city of
almost two million inhabitants originated and matured from wood and bam-
boo. The city has expanded, amoebalike, westward from the banks of the
Rlo Guayas into the vast mangrove swamps that originally hemmed it tightly
against the riverfront. In 1650 the cabildo was already asking vecinos to
provide a corvee of black slaves to clear the manglaresfor reasons of expansion
and health. The lands being encroached on were forested mudflats at low
tide, but at high tide they were flooded by several meters of water. Structures
on such land had to be lightweight to prevent their sinking into the mud
and had to be built on piles to avoid the twice-daily surge of saline water.
Such stilt dwellings, then as now, were often interconnected by a labyrinth
of flimsy, elevated catwalks of guadua. Eventually the municipal authorities
would fill in the streets and, later, the interior of the poorly drained, insa-
lubrious blocks that they enclosed. Seen from the air, the scene suggested a
system of nerves branching from common points where street filling ended
(Fig. 9).
Guayaquilefios have always been strongly attracted to building with
native bamboo, delivered cheaply from up-country sources on balsa rafts.
Recent dismantling of many old inner-city structures, at first glance made
of concrete or brick masonry, has revealed much original guadua framing
and siding, still structurally sound and in good condition, a testimony to the

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GIANT AMERICAN BAMBOO 147

..

FIG.9-View of a portion of El Suburbio from the air. Narrow guadua catwalks above the
mangrovemudflatslink houses with tierrafirme. Most of the streets were filled in and the catwalks
removed after the photograph was taken in 1977.

durability of the material when properly used. Its principal drawback was
its extreme combustibility, especially when left without a mortar coating, as
was common in earlier times. The records of the cabildo of Guayaquil list
numerous reports of disastrous fires that repeatedly desolated the city. Those
in 1692, 1707, 1761, 1896, and 1902 were among the worst. An 1822 fire
ordinance, reaffirmed on later occasions, prohibited thatch roofs and required
that guadua siding be covered with mortar, but such rules were enforced
indifferently (Hamerly 1973).
For four centuries the growth of Guayaquil was gradual, but since 1945
it has been explosive. An enormous area of detached guadua houses known
as El Suburbio has arisen in the past forty years on the partially inundated
manglares west and south of the old city center, a product of recurrent
invasions by the landless poor who have been granted squatters' titles by
the municipality on the basis of the makeshift structures they have erected
(Estrada Ycaza 1973; Crooke 1974; Rodriguez 1980). The practice is common
in Latin American cities, but in Guayaquil it has been facilitated by the
availability of cheap, easily handled guadua, the construction material of
choice in these land aggressions. The houses built by these urban pioneers
tend to replicate the cafnadwellings of the smaller towns and countryside
from which many of the settlers emigrated.
A 1976 report, based on extensive sample surveys, found that 45 percent
of the houses in this vast suburban development were of canfa,and another

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148 THE GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW

41 percent were a combination of caiia and other materials such as cement


block, wood, and rammed earth (AITEC 1976). At that time 381 hectares of
the 1,800 hectares that constitute the present-day El Suburbio remained to
be reclaimed from the mangrove. Except on its outermost fringes, the streets
and even the interior of the rectangular blocks have been mostly filled in
by the municipality from giant quarries on the hills to the north. This work,
carried out by numerous small contractors, has provided badly needed em-
ployment. Also, and importantly from the cabildo's viewpoint, the filling,
street by street and block by block, has allowed successive councils to reward
specific groups among the population with land and services.
In-filling has been indispensable not only to protect against floods and
diseases associated with stagnant, polluted water but also to transform the
area into tierrafirme suitable for streets and additional buildings. During the
1960s foreign-aid consultants from the United States prepared an ambitious
scheme for reclaiming the entire area using a massive system of dikes and
drains not unlike the Dutch reclamation of the Zuider Zee. Though tech-
nically feasible, the scheme was rejected because of its high capital require-
ments, which presumably would have had to come from foreign sources.
Almost one-third of the population of Guayaquil lives in this seamless
urban landscape of rectangular blocks that has now met its physical limit at
the broad, tidal Estero Salado and its tributaries. Most recently, a perimeter
highway has been completed through the mangroves beyond (Fig. 10). It
cuts across the extreme toe of the peninsula occupied by El Suburbio with
the aid of two bridges. Along this modern, paved highway further invasions
on municipally owned terrain are under way, specifically on the newly
accessible Isla Trinitaria.
A strong community spirit seems to prevail in most barrios of the sort
from which El Suburbio has been formed. The settlers, in effect, do their
own planning. Typically several blocks organize into cooperatives that func-
tion both as a socializing force and as a political pressure group to bring the
attention of municipal authorities to the neighborhood's infrastructuralneeds.
Perhaps the most basic need is potable water, which must initially be brought
by truck to a central distribution point.
The small-scale impresarios who have generally organized invasions such
as those that produced El Suburbio have been careful to stake out hypothetical
streets that would carry future services and along which house plots, even-
tually to be registered as freehold properties, would be surveyed (Crooke
1974). In the first stage the structures may have only one room, sometimes
subdivided into separate sitting and sleeping quarters,with an outdoor privy.
As the barrio consolidates, the original bamboo dwelling is likely to be
replaced by a two-story structure of brick or cement block, perhaps with
some commercial use on the ground floor facing the street. Or the original
guadua building may be covered with mortar to extend its life.
Some, who are unable or unwilling to spend money on long-term im-
provements, may sell to others who are better off or better situated to make

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GIANT AMERICAN BAMBOO 149

FIG. 10-Air view, taken in 1989, of El Suburbio showing perimeter highway and surrounding
mangrove.

full use of the property. The sellers may use the money to move to a new
peripheral development or to take part in another invasion and initiate a
new cycle of settlement. Speculators of this type, who play a crucial role in
the first stage of urban development, have been called true pioneers (Crooke
1974), who gain new income that they could hardly hope to earn by other
means. Many, perhaps the majority, retain title to their original lots and
benefit from the increased values derived from whatever improvements they
may have been able to make. In certain situations owners may give the
property to other family members to whom they feel indebted and then,
with the benefit of their previous experience as an invader, move to some
promising newly opened community.
On a walk through the streets of El Suburbio, it is difficult to realize that
only a few years ago the area was mud and mangrove. Much of the older
city must have passed through a similar transformation in the course of past
centuries. Barrios, predominantly of guadua structures, have recently ap-
peared along the river immediately south of Guayaquil's old core, where the
municipality in 1964 expropriated the extensive Hacienda Guasmo (Godard
1987, 1988). Between 1972 and 1982, almost 900 hectares of mangrove were
converted to house sites for 200,000 people after a series of invasions. Within
ten years nearly one-half of them, originally of guadua, had been converted
to the more prestigious but climatically less adapted cement blocks. Where
international development agencies have tried to upgrade projects, the em-

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150 THE GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW

phasis similarly has been on costly materials, a reflection of foreign values


that are not necessarily indicative of the realities of living in the tropical
sweat-box climate of Guayaquil (Salmen 1987).
New peripheral barrios are also climbing the steep hillsides north of the
city in a seemingly endless race to catch up with the staggering housing
deficit. The straw-yellow of natural guadua and the grays of the standardized
corrugated metal or composition roofs give a distinctive stamp to these
sprawling and usually unplanned residential communities. In 1989 such
houses might be selling for the equivalent of $400-$500, with lots alone
between $40 and $60 in subdivisions with names like El Condor, La Patria,
Santa Adriana, and Bastion Popular. Arrayed in tiers on the shadeless slopes,
these barrios of nude guadua structures may support a lively street life and
even exude a certain hope and vibrancy with occasional TV antennas on tall
bamboo poles and with flower boxes hanging from many kitchen windows.
Although many occupants have come directly from the countryside, others
have staged through the tenements of Guayaquil, attracted by the prospect
of acquiring title to a house of their own.

CLOSING REMARKS
Housing censuses for Colombia and Ecuador confirm the importance of
guadua as a building material in these countries. A 1985 Colombian census
listed 735,000houses of bahareque construction and another 141,000of guadua
or cafia, which presumably lacked mortar coating (Colombia 1986). The total
accounts for 16 percent of all houses in the country. For Caldas it is 38
percent, for Quindio 33 percent, and for Risaralda 35 percent. For rural areas
alone, it exceeds 50 percent in all three jurisdictions, somewhat less for Valle
del Cauca and Cauca. The 22 percent in Antioquia is almost wholly in the
southernmost part of the department bordering on Caldas.
A 1982 Ecuadorian census of housing (Ecuador 1983) records 262,000
residences with cafia guadua-adobe walls in the five coastal provinces, or 31
percent of all viviendas, but the proportion rises to 51 percent for those
classified as rural and to 77 percent in Los Rios province. A previous census
in 1962 reported 49 percent of the country's entire housing stock as of cania
or cainarevestida.It may be assumed that virtually all of these were in the
coastal lowlands.
Research and experimentation in low-cost housing technology using the
autochthonous bamboo are increasingly active. In Colombia several archi-
tecturally designed country houses, clubs, and bars recently built for an elite
clientele used nude, varnished guadua in rich and imaginative ways, an
indication of widened acceptance and broadened demand for the native
resource, so long stigmatized as the poor man's lumber. But the unpretentious
folk housing, reflecting local tradition and cultural inheritance, promises a
practical and economical way to meet the staggering urban-housing deficit
in the regions of Colombia and Ecuador where guadua is most abundant.

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GIANT AMERICAN BAMBOO 151

Intensified rates of exploitation, however, may soon threaten the supply base
of this plant, once deemed inexhaustible. To meet anticipated demands,
attention seems likely to be directed toward more conservative management
practices, coupled with a concentrated program of new plantings of selected,
fast-growing clones.

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