Just like a forest

Analog forestry mimics a forest to create an economically productive and ecologically diverse landscape

By Aditya Batra
Published: Wednesday 15 June 2011

Just like a forest

It’s afternoon and wisps of clouds have already enveloped the Sora Muni shrine that keeps watch over Sri Lanka’s Horton Plains massif. Here, Tamil workers of the Thotulagalla tea estate in Haputale offer a sacrificial goat to the deity following the annual pruning of tea bushes.

It is ironic to see principles of analog forestry being piloted in a tea plantation. In its intent and design this silvicultural practice cocks a snook at the country’s monocultural plantation economy, a vestige of the colonial landscape.

Analog forestry attempts to create an economically productive and ecologically diverse tree-dominated landscape ‘analogous’ in structure and function to the nearest stable forest. It draws inspiration from the home gardens of rural Kandy which are highly productive, intensively farmed small plots that produce food throughout the year.

  Kamal Melwani  
  “You know you are getting somewhere when you spot frogs, butterflies and dragonflies in your new forest”  
  —Kamal Melwani,
managing director, Neosynthesis Research Centre
The term was coined in 1987 by eminent ecologist F Ranil Senanayake who later founded the non-profit International Analogue Forestry Network. Membership of the network, really a movement, today extends to 15 countries across Asia, Africa and North and South America.

Kamal ‘Kamy’ Melwani, the managing director of Neosynthesis Research Centre (NSRC), a non-profit working on research and ecological restoration work, champions this approach. NSRC’s water project in Haputale town is touted as a first in the country to have roped in tea estate workers in a watershed restoration project. The project’s goal is to restore the degraded catchment of the Kalkanna Ganga, a sub-catchment of the Walawe watershed, the country’s largest river basin after the Mahaweli.

“The 23 tea plantations control all the 103 river systems in Sri Lanka.

To be sure we have to work with them,” says Melwani. Analog forestry has to be good for land, good for biodiversity and good for people. “It is easy enough for a biologist to get excited about recreating a forest, but at the end of the day, people will ask me how much money they’ll make,” Melwani says.

The project diversifies monoculture tea plantations with tree crops that have economic value, such as cinnamon, cloves and avocado. It treats the riparian zones of gullies, the point of origin of many springs and streams, and replants mountain ridges with useful trees, mimicking the species found in the small 14-hectare (ha) patch of native cloud forest in the neighbouring Lankem group’s Pitarathmalie estate—the only climax cloud forest in the entire valley.

imageOn its part, the management of Thotulagalla tea estate, part of the Greenfield Bio Plantations, a leading organic exporter of tea and spices, is supportive. The project helps recharge the several local streams that course through the estate, a vital source of water in the dry season.

Plantation workers are heavy users of agro-chemicals on their 6.8 ha of home vegetable gardens located inside the 85-ha Thotulagalla estate. Misuse of toxic agro-chemicals occurs at the source of the streams, while the run-off contaminates the reservoir of the Pitarathmalie estate downstream. The project’s phytoremediation component—using plants and trees to naturally rid water of nitrates and other common contaminants—is useful on this organic tea estate.

Mimicking a forest

From late 18th century till the 1860s, Sri Lanka was known for its coffee. British planters switched to tea after a devastating bout of coffee rust and blight diseases in the mid-1850s. Today, tea, rubber and coconut plantations account for roughly 15 per cent of the country’s GDP.

FAO data shows only 28 per cent of the country’s land is under forest cover, of which about 10 per cent is natural forest. Between 1990 and 2010, Sri Lanka lost an average of 24,500 ha of forest cover, or 1.04 per cent each year.

“How does a forest grow?” asks Melwani, rhetorically, “through ecological succession—from grasses to forest. Analogue forestry tries to shorten this process, to recreate a forest in a shorter period.” In practice, the process entails a close study of the nearest stable forest for its canopy density, soil type, flora and fauna, and seeks ways to replicate that. It is important to introduce a ‘keystone’ species. “Like a ‘mama tree’,” explains Melwani, “one that supports biodiversity and attracts bats, birds and primates that eat berries.”

At the Thotulagalla estate, the choice of what to plant where and when is a meticulous exercise. Bu kande saplings are planted to catalyse biomass and nourish other plants. Plantings are dense along the stream to provide shade to other saplings. ‘Neelu’ is planted for its hirsute leaves that trap moisture from the perennial clouds that waft through the hills, tea estates and forests.

“You know you are getting somewhere when you spot frogs, butterflies and dragonflies in your new forest,” says Melwani, pointing to a small pond at the head of a rejuvenated spring.

“It is not tea management alone but labour unions too that you have to work with,” says Melwani, referring to the Left-leaning Lanka Estate Workers Union. Union leaders were early sceptics of the project and unwilling to reduce their reliance on cheap agro-chemicals. So the project works with their children in local schools. But here too there is resistance. Workers want their children to focus on school curriculum, a sure-shot way to a better life outside tea estates, instead of spending valuable study time on learning how to become more responsible farmers.

As with any participatory restoration effort, it is imperative to get a buy-in from local communities. Open cattle grazing can trample the carefully planted saplings. In May, Melwani brought together grama sewaks, union representatives and cattle herders, and convinced them to stop open grazing on the project site, and stall-feed cattle instead.

Food year-around

In the lower part of Uva province, in the central highlands, efforts are under way to transform Chena—slash-and-burn agriculture—land into a tree-dominated one that earns farmers steady income throughout the year, reduces the inherent risks of monoculture plantations, uses no agro-chemicals and heals the scarred land in the process. This is analog forestry in another avatar, one that privileges economy over ecology.

At Veersingha’s 0.2-ha plot, you need to watch your step while walking through the dense patch of undergrowth to avoid trampling the saplings of 120 varieties of grasses, plants and fruit trees. This landscape was earlier dominated by Chena lands.

Veersingha, 40, bought the plot in 2008, soon after his discharge from the army following an injury—he lost a leg in a landmine blast in Killinochi in a combing operation against the LTTE in 2000. He has taken to analog forestry like a veteran.

imagePrabath Kumara, chief coordinator of the Future In Our Hands (FIOH), a non-profit that works with the rural and plantation poor, is the chief proselytiser of analog forestry in Uva province.

“As a habit, every August people got involved in Chena as they believed ash has nutrients. We found it’s a disaster, as this practice burns everything, both good and bad; it exacerbates soil erosion. In fact, the aim is to recycle biomass,” he says. FIOH roped in 50 farmers to participate in a pilot project. Today, analog forestry is widely practiced in the intermediate dry zone of Uva Province.

It takes some years for analog forestry to turn a profit. The scarred, degraded and seemingly discarded land first needs to heal. Soil is treated by shed covering through banana, pineapple, papaya bounded by a “live fence” of Gliricidia sepium, a nitrogen-fixing plant.

Planting involves elaborate mapping and planning. The concept is simple and ingenious; there is value in every strata of a forest. Timber, latex and bark from the tallest canopy; fruits, nuts or building material from shorter trees; berries, coffee, tea, bamboo from shrubs; herbs and vegetables from the herbaceous and ground layers; root vegetables from the shade-tolerant rhizosphere layer; and spices from the climbing vines.

Canopies of varying heights must be separated by at least 6 metres so that they do not compete for sunlight. There’s shade, moisture and valuable leaf litter for green manure to consider. Shorter plants must yield early returns before the canopy of the larger trees close overhead. The first canopy in Veersingha’s farm comprises pineapples that bear fruit within a year-and-a-half; they also help bunch soil.

The 40 banana trees have already yielded a dividend of 4,000 Sri Lankan Rupees in the second year. The farm has 26 coconut trees, 150 pepper vines, 20 cinnamon trees, and dozens of yams that take 18 months to bear fruit, 12 orange trees, 40 coffee bushes, in addition to dozens of mango, jackfruit and papaya trees.

Veersingha’s logbook meticulously records all farm-related activities, including yields and the notional value of the yield for each crop.

Other activities are also recorded, such as the trainings he attended, together with advise jotted down by FIOH field staff on their periodic visits to the farm. Close to 200 families in this area alone have adopted tree gardens in this undulating land.

Analog forestry emphasises soil health. The dark chocolate colour soil, due in part to the copious amounts of compost put into the soil, is in striking contrast with the pale sandy soil from the fallow Chena land that abuts Veersingha’s plot. Agrochemicals are anathema here. A mixture of two parts cow dung, a handful of drum stick leaves, two parts green leaves of Gliricidia sepium, one part higuru (lantana) leaves and one part cow urine fermented for three weeks in shade and stirred daily, and diluted with three parts water serves as a useful substitute for urea and pesticides.

Still, it is difficult to convince farmers to adopt a new form of agriculture. “Farmers with small landholdings may be reluctant to dedicate precious land to forests,” admits Prabath Kumara of FIOH. Finding markets for projects that produce small yields of many kinds of crops is difficult. Traders find the high transport costs and the inconsistent supply of products daunting.

FIOH has tied up with Green Tech Pvt Ltd, a Sri Lanka-based specialist in organic foods, to explore new markets for produce derived from analog forestry projects. An independent, government-recognised “forest garden certification” evaluates not only the organic credentials, but also whether the produce from analog forestry projects complies with social and bio-diversity criteria.

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