Rekha Dey wasn’t always passionate about bamboo, but after touring an innovative production facility, she saw its potential. With the right business model, bamboo could be used to provide high-quality, environmentally friendly housing across India.
Unfortunately, the country’s regulatory regime made it nearly impossible for private citizens to enter the bamboo business. According to the Indian Forest Act, passed in 1927 by India’s British colonizers, home-grown bamboo was still classified as a tree instead of a grass, which brought a range of restrictions on those who wished to grow and trade their own crops.
In a short film from Dignity Unbound, a project of The Atlas Network, we learn more about Rekha’s journey from idea to enterprise, as well as the various ways governments can help or hinder human ingenuity on the path to environmental stewardship and social transformation.
“There were many obstacles before in the bamboo business,” Rekha explained. “There used to be a lot of paperwork. To manage your permissions, you had to actually travel from one office to the other, and often those offices would be located in different states … You’d order something and got either mixed material or got a different species. To bear it all was frustrating.”
Due to a 90-year-old naming classification, the Forest Rights Act was singlehandedly preventing a bottom-up bamboo market among India’s rural population. “It made bamboo completely inaccessible to the tribal communities who were directly dependent on bamboo as a source of their livelihoods,” said Bhakti Patil of the Centre for Civil Society, a New Dehli-based think tank focused on economic empowerment and political accountability.
Patil’s organization would eventually launch the Bamboo Is Not A Tree Campaign, a targeted advocacy effort aimed at ending the onerous restrictions. The campaign proved successful, and bamboo was eventually reclassified to open new opportunities for individual ownership.
One year after the change, Rekha’s business accelerated, bringing a wide range of benefits to her community — economically, socially, communally, environmentally, and otherwise.
“All our workers are from nearby villages and we promote bringing maximum people from nearby villages,” Rekha said. “We conduct trainings there for skill development so the locals understand that there is a possibility of business here, and they can get employment. And for the skills that are needed, we impart them there. I would say it’s a magical product.”
For Rampal Singh, one of Rekha’s bamboo craftsmen, the business brings people together and weaves creative opportunities into daily life. “We feel good when we come on-site, to know that this is the work we are supposed to do,” Singh says. “It feels great, and with time, designs also change. You build family-like relationships with people. That is how it should be.”
Rekha is also a firm believer that “bamboo can save the environment.” In turn, she continues to reimagine their approach to building materials, and believes such a goal is entirely compatible with the global expansion of India’s bamboo trade. “My dream is to take bamboo to a sophisticated furniture level like Ikea, where export-import is possible, and India becomes an export-based country by using bamboo as a raw material,” Rehka said.
Rekha’s story of ingenuity and perseverance has lessons for us all. Like Rekha and her workers, all of our labor is simply the process of applying our God-given intellect and creativity to transform matter into usable things. In doing so, we bring restoration to the world and meaning to life.
“Humans are created as co-creators with God, to complete creation, to steward it, to cooperate with it, and improve it through the use of our reason,” says Michael Miller in Episode 2 of Acton’s The Good Society. “Farmers will tell you that wild trees and wild vines don’t produce good fruit. Nature must be cultivated.”
In highlighting India’s regulatory regime, Rekha’s story also demonstrates some of the systemic strongholds that we are bound to face throughout our co-creative journeys. When faced with legal obstacles to our economic endeavors, the fight for freedom is essential if we are to fully cultivate the soil we’ve been given and empower others to do the same.
Overcoming those obstacles doesn’t just benefit our own enterprises, but it helps us better meet the needs of the broader communities we serve.
“Just as we cooperate with nature, we also cooperate with each other,” Miller explains. “We are social beings, and no man is sufficient unto himself. We are designed to live in community, and through interaction with others, we realize our needs and take care of ourselves. Through work, we earn our daily living, but we do more. Through work, we realize our vocation to serve others and build civilization and culture.”
When we look back to the garden, we see God partnering with Adam and Eve as co-creators in nature, calling and empowering them to complete it, steward it, cooperate with it, and improve it using their reason, creativity, and spiritual discernment.
Just as Rekha uses her gifts to transform bamboo into modern housing, we, too, can use our creativity and stewardship to transform and redeem creation, each and every day. As intangible and unwieldy as the modern economy may sometimes feel, it presents us with an abundance of new opportunities for planting and watering – for cooperating with nature and neighbors to transform creation for God’s glory.