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Rattan in the twenty-first century - an overview

C.B. Sastry

Cherla B. Sastry is Professor (Adjunct),
Faculty of Forestry, and Associate,
Institute for Environmental Studies,
University of Toronto, Canada.

An overview of major issues and needs for the global development of rattan.

Humans have used rattan for their livelihoods and subsistence for many centuries. Although rattan is confined mainly to Southeast Asia, the material has found its way to many other parts of the world throughout history, including ancient Egypt, parts of Europe during the Renaissance period and France during the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XV (UNIDO, 1983).

Furniture is the most popular rattan product; here, rattan furniture awaiting export at a factory in Cirebon, Java, Indonesia


Rattan is sold and used for a variety of purposes besides furniture, as can be seen in this shop in Banjermasin, South Kalimantan, Indonesia, selling mats, baskets, cages and other rattan products


Worldwide, more than 700 million people trade in or use rattan for a variety of purposes. Furniture is the most popular rattan product, but rattan is also used to make carpet beaters, walking sticks, umbrella handles, sporting goods, hats, ropes, cordage, birdcages, matting, baskets, panelling, hoops and a host of other products.

While the rattan industry in Indonesia, the largest producer country, is well supplied with raw rattan, a rapid decline of natural rattan resources is hindering the supply of the rattan industry in other producer countries. This article identifies the major issues facing the rattan industry, and needs for the global development of rattan.

Rattan is a spiny climbing palm with some 600 species; one of the most commonly utilized is the large-diameter species Calamus manan, shown here in cultivation in Sarawak, Indonesia



Rattan, a spiny climbing or trailing palm with some 600 species, is strictly an Old World plant. Its distribution is limited to tropical and subtropical Asia and the Pacific, where ten of the l3 known genera are endemic, and equatorial Africa, where four genera occur, of which three are endemic. The greatest diversity is in the Malay peninsula and Borneo. There is a secondary centre of diversity in New Guinea (IFAD, 1991; Wan Razali, Dransfield and Manokaran, 1992).

Almost all rattan is collected from natural forests. In recent years, uncontrolled harvesting and deforestation have exhausted the desired species in many rattan-producing countries in Asia. Yet only a small proportion of the approximately 600 species of rattan are used for commercial purposes. There is potential to develop some of the currently underutilized and lesser known species. Additional benefits may accrue from intervention in the sector to systematize resource use, management, marketing and processing (IFAD, 1991; Manokaran, 1990; Wan Razali, Dransfield and Manokaran, 1992).


Rattan is one of the most important non-wood forest products (NWFPs) in international trade. However there are no really reliable statistics on the volume and value of trade, either globally or for individual countries. Asia leads all the other regions of the world by far in the production and export of rattan and rattan products.

Among the producer countries, Indonesia dominates the world rattan trade; it has a clear advantage over other countries with its abundant supply of wild and cultivated rattan (an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the world's raw materials). The annual allowable cut from the 11.5 million hectares of the country's rattan-rich forested areas is estimated at 700 000 tonnes. Indonesia's actions therefore will have a large impact on the global rattan market (INBAR, 1998; Soedarto, 1999). The Philippines, Malaysia, China, Thailand and other countries of Indochina are also important contributors to the global rattan trade.

Rattan furniture trade probably represents less than 4 percent of world trade of all furniture. However, in Asia the rattan furniture industry represents substantially more than 25 percent in value of all furniture industry output, and it is growing (UNIDO, 1983; ESCAP, 1991; FAO, 1998).

The markets for rattan consumption in Europe, North America, Japan and other industrialized nations seem to be growing steadily. However, there is an urgent need for studies of the marketing and future prospects of rattan in those countries.

Rattan bundled for export in Indonesia - the leading country in the world rattan trade



The rattan industry is highly fragmented; more than 90 percent of all factories are cottage and small-scale enterprises employing fewer than 50 people. In general, rattan furniture manufacturing is highly labour-intensive, employing at least 1.2 million people in Asia, of whom an estimated 500 000 work in the manufacturing sector and another 700 000 in the collection, primary processing and transportation of raw materials (in most cases on a seasonal basis). The low degree of mechanization and labour intensity of the rattan industry are also reflected in the low average investment per worker in modern rattan factories: about US$2 000, which is about one-tenth of the investment per worker in a conventional furniture plant (UNIDO, 1983; IFAD, 1991; ESCAP, 1991).

In the 1970s and 1980s, the rattan industry in Southeast Asia and China grew at rates between 20 and 50 percent per year in terms of exports. The mid-1990s saw a significant downturn in most of Asia, especially in resource-poor countries, owing to shortages of raw material, restrictive government policies and economic crisis (INBAR, 1998; ESCAP, 1991).

To promote domestic processing industries, while helping to alleviate the depletion of the resource base, governments of major rattan-producing countries in Asia embraced a ban on export of raw cane and/or heavy duties on export of semi-processed rattan products. While there was an initial glut of raw material supplies in resource-rich countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, the shift from the traditional practice of exporting raw rattan to the export of semi-processed and finished products has promoted local industries (ESCAP, 1991). A significant increase (almost 200 percent) was reported in the export value of rattan products (mainly furniture) from Malaysia in the 1990s as a result of the export ban. Indonesia reported a similar experience; export value increased from US$200 million in 1987 (effective date) to an average of more than US$300 million per year in the 1990s (Soedarto, 1999). However, in order to increase its foreign exchange earnings, Indonesia lifted its ban on export of raw rattan in 1999 (Pabuayon, 2000). The Philippines is again sourcing rattan from Indonesia to feed its starving industry and to revive sagging exports. In China and Thailand, however, canes are being smuggled from some parts of Southeast Asia to keep up these countries' industry and exports.


Assessing and managing the resource base

The rapid growth of the industry from the 1970s to the early 1990s led to overexploitation and wasteful utilization of the resource and consequent depletion of the stock, especially of desired species. For some countries, the dwindling supplies of rattan resulting from overexploitation and steady loss of forest habitat have posed a serious threat to the rattan industry, resulting in declining exports and the closure of several operations since the mid-1990s. The countries whose exports have been hardest hit are the Philippines and China (INBAR, 1998; ESCAP, 1991; Abd. Latif, 2000; Pabuayon, 2000; Soedarto, 1999), but Malaysia and Thailand are also affected.

To protect the rattan industry and cope with any increase in global demand for rattan, there is an urgent need for sustainable management. A first step is to determine accurately the extent of the resource. Figures for most countries are approximate or absent (INBAR, 1998). However, a step in the right direction has been taken recently through the joint efforts of the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) and the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) in developing techniques for taking inventories of rattan (Nur Supardi, Hamzah and Wan Razali, 1999).

Forest departments manage rattan stocks by:

Licensing rules vary among countries, but the aim of all is to limit overexploitation. In practice, licensed holders rarely adhere to harvesting guidelines, since they are not strictly enforced by field officers. This is a major reason for the depletion of stock, wasteful harvesting practices and the loss of royalties to governments. To promote sustainable resource management, some countries are exploring long-term tenure control through community-based forest management institutions (INBAR, 1998; Pabuayon, 2000).

A rattan nursery at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM)


Plantation development

Plantations of rattan, either in logged-over forest areas or as an agroforestry crop in rubber or other tree plantations, are needed in order to relieve pressure on overexploited natural forests and ensure stable supplies of desirable species for the industry. Although significant advances have been made in the understanding of rattan as a potential plantation crop, much is still unknown. Apart from a few exceptions such as Indonesia and Sabah, Malaysia, rattan plantation development has been slow because of technical or financial problems (INBAR, 1998; Abd. Latif, 2000; Pabuayon, 2000; Soedarto, 1999; Wan Razali, Dransfield and Manokaran, 1992). Some growers have also reported problems in harvesting small-diameter plantation cane (M.N. Salleh, personal communication). Thus, further research is needed on the characteristics of plantation species.

To date, more than 3l 000 ha have been planted in Malaysia with the large-diameter Calamus manan. Of these plantings, 7 000 ha are in rubber plantations throughout the country. In addition, large plantations of mainly Calamus caesius and Calamus trachycoleus have been established on a total of 10 000 ha. Other rattan species considered for plantation development include Calamus scipionum and Calamus palustris (Abd. Latif, 2000).

An estimated 37 000 ha of mostly high-value rattan species are grown in Indonesia. However, in the Philippines, where scarcity is more pronounced, only 6 000 ha have been planted (INBAR, 1998). China has established more than 20 000 ha of rattan plantations in the public domain, employing both domestic and imported species. In general in the region, private sector cultivation of rattan, in both large- and small-scale plantations, has not been encouraging and has failed to respond to local raw material scarcities.

Policy initiatives (incentives and regulations) to increase small-scale rattan cultivation have had limited impact as government policies and economic conditions make investment in other resources more attractive. In addition to economic constraints, other factors that hinder small farmers and pose high risk for many large investors include the long gestation period of rattan (at least 10 to 12 years), the absence of secure tenure over resources and difficult market conditions.

The financial profitability of industrial-scale rattan plantations in Asia is currently uncertain, as other land uses are more lucrative. Nevertheless, both large- and small-scale plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia have shown some promise. In several countries, governments have initiated interventions to enhance rattan cultivation, justified by the economic benefits that have accrued to rural households in Indonesia and smallholder rubber plantations in Malaysia (INBAR, 1998).

Domestic forest policies can give incentives for rattan plantation development by providing tenurial security to rattan gatherers and planters, credit and technical assistance for plantation development, and favourable harvesting and marketing arrangements. Basic infrastructure such as transport and effective mechanisms to link sellers with local and foreign buyers are also needed in order to improve the profitability of rattan production, processing and manufacturing activities (Pabuayon, 2000).

In addition, incorporation of plantations into community-based forest management schemes, with or without vertical integration in processing, could be an important policy direction. Some lessons can be learned here from the success of the rattan plantations established in Kalimantan, Indonesia, a century and a half ago (IFAD, 1991; INBAR, 1998; Belcher, 1999).

Although rattans are not indigenous to Latin America, there is growing interest in cultivation of Asian rattans in Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago. In recent years, Cuba has successfully introduced rattan from Viet Nam, Malaysia and China in a 2 000 ha plantation with the help of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and INBAR (IFAD, 1991).

It may be too early for Africa to plan large-scale rattan plantations. Rattan is confined to the equatorial rain forests and is of little economic importance at present, although it has gained recognition as an underexploited crop in West Africa (Editor's note: see article by Dransfield in this issue). Kenya and Zambia have received financial and technical support from IDRC for research and introduction of rattan species from Asia. DFID and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), through INBAR, have recently initiated systematic taxonomic and socio-economic research, respectively, on rattan in Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania and Uganda (IFAD, 1991).

Technology issues

Rattan passes through many hands that perform one or several levels of processing before it reaches its final state. In most developing countries, rattan processing is still at the craft level, carried out in a great number of tiny workshops (Aguilar and Miralao, 1985; UNIDO, 1983; IFAD, 1991; ESCAP, 1991). Because of the high labour intensity of the work (i.e. scraping, drying, splitting, sizing, bending, cording and chemical treatments), even when mechanized, good designs and modern technologies are essential to meet standards for export.

In recent years, many technical developments have taken place in the manufacture of rattan products. However, skilled workers and good supervisors are in short supply for higher-end processing. Also, for most small-scale processors, lacks of credit availability and technical assistance limit adoption of modern and efficient technology (UNIDO, 1983; ESCAP, 1991; Abd. Latif, 2000). Large manufacturers dominate the market; with their better, more sophisticated machinery, more contemporary designs and quality control measures they are able to produce high-quality products that can fetch higher prices. In Indonesia and the Philippines, they have also found ways to reduce the cost of production by farming out specific tasks to smaller firms, mainly in the primary processing area, thus benefiting the sector as a whole (INBAR, 1998; ESCAP, 1991; Abd. Latif, 2000; Pabuayon, 2000).

Given rattan's potential as an industrial material, several countries in Southeast Asia have adopted low-cost automation and mechanization to improve the productivity of their factories. Some governments have provided incentives by way of supportive policies, soft loans and tax breaks to the domestic industry. In addition, a few countries, such as Malaysia, have set up service centres at the district level to provide training, technology transfer and other support. In Malaysia a Small-Scale Entrepreneurs Development Unit (SSEDV) has also been created, with financial support from the World Bank and the government, to provide technical and training support to the industry. An Agroforestry Unit established at FRIM has provided training and planting material for rattan planting in rubber plantations by smallholders.

The results of all these efforts are increased foreign exchange earnings and employment opportunities in both the rural and urban sectors (Abd. Latif, 2000; INBAR, 1998; Pabuayon, 2000).

Research and development and information exchange

In addition to INBAR, which is a recent entrant into international forestry research and development, several forest research institutes, national agricultural research centres and regional and international organizations (including the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations [IUFRO], FAO and other UN agencies, institutions of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research [CGIAR], the International Tropical Timber Organization [ITTO] and the Asian Development Bank) are carrying out or supporting research and development on rattan. Regional networks such as the Forestry Research Support Programme for Asia and Pacific (FORSPA), the Asia-Pacific Association of Forestry Research Institutions (APAFRI) and the African Rattan Network are also actively involved in rattan development. A Rattan Information Centre, financed by IDRC, was set up in Malaysia in 1982. It acts as a comprehensive depository of rattan literature and a document and retrieval system, publishes regular news bulletins and disseminates information to interested parties.

National research on rattan is at an advanced level in Asia, with several active projects funded by international agencies. Some progress has been achieved in the past two decades on rattan silviculture and ecology, plantation technology and development of innovative technologies for low-cost mechanization and automation, grading and inventory methods. However, continued effort is needed from governments, industry and international agencies to maintain the gains achieved. Particular emphasis should be given to resource assessment and conservation, socio-economics and marketing and furniture design. Networking among institutions is vital to share knowledge and to benefit the countries less privileged in research and development capabilities.

An expert evaluation of both the informal and the formal INBAR networks, carried out by IFAD, underlined the need for a Regional Rattan Research Centre in Asia. Indonesia is a possible location, given its pre-eminent position in global rattan trade. The evaluation also indicated that there is also a need to establish a rattan seed bank to ensure good-quality seeds of good progenies in order to improve plantation quality and yield (IFAD, 1991; ESCAP, 1991).

In most developing countries rattan is processed at the craft level, involving labour-intensive tasks such as manual removal of silica from the cane prior to splitting and weaving into mats and baskets, as shown here in Sarawak, Indonesia



Rattans were once abundant in the tropical forests of Asia but have become scarce in many countries today, primarily because of overexploitation and shrinking forest area. Natural regeneration seems to be inadequate, and there is a general decline in the planting of rattan because of various technical, economic and policy constraints, including, for example, the long gestation period of rattan, the absence of secure tenure over resources and difficult market conditions. Given rattan's economic, ecological and socio-cultural importance to hundreds of millions of people in the developing world, steps must be taken to ensure its future.

Requirements for future development include the following.

In addition, continuing research and development is needed in response to dynamic changes in markets and to address medium- and long-term objectives. Main areas for research include:

It is difficult to make predictions for the future of rattan in the twenty-first century when the basic data needed for the forecast are utterly lacking. There also remain many uncertainties about the trade and cultivation of cane, i.e. about future patterns of supply and demand, shifts in global rattan trade, economics of cultivation and yields and the policies that affect the sector. There are thus more questions than answers on the future of rattan. 


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