This article was originally published on the blog of the Global Landscapes Forum by Simon Riley, an agronomist and independent researcher with the Global AgroEcology Alliance and a development reporter for the Global South Development Magazine.

With the 2014 Global Landscapes Forum approaching and my residence in Sri Lanka drawing to an end, I took the opportunity to visit the Belipola Arboretum and Forest Garden, a living laboratory where one integrated landscape approach has been quietly developing for over three decades. Upon my arrival in the Central hills which encircle the remote rural village of Mirihawatta, I was presented a panoramic view of two different systems of land management – and two different models of rural development – presented side-by-side in striking relief. The contrast is utterly remarkable.

On the crests of the surrounding hills, the native forests have been entirely removed and pure stands of Eucalyptus have taken their place. Fires are employed to clear the understory of weeds, leaving nothing but blackened stumps of guinea grass below. Further down on the slopes, the land is entirely consumed by small vegetable plots, cultivated intensively by the villagers who rely heavily on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for their production. The severity of soil erosion is visible at a distance, as is the lack of proper terracing, contour bunds, or other soil conservation measures. At mid-day, the sun beats down on dry, degraded soil where once-common birds, mammals and reptiles have now become vanishingly scarce.

Belipola, on the other hand, is a 17 acre oasis in this otherwise troubled landscape, where lush vegetation rises high above the forest floor. The massive broadleaved evergreens, stately palms and various fruit trees support an array of vines, lianas, orchids and other epiphytes, while a host of herbs, shrubs and cycads crouch below. The air is cool and humid; the earth is soft and damp. Majestic Hornbills can be seen perched among the branches. Although it was founded relatively recently, the area very nearly resembles an old-growth tropical rainforest. And this, I am told, is precisely the point.

From left, Sion Zivetz, Trudy Jurianz, and Ranil Senanayake, during a 2014 analog forestry workshop at the Belipola Centre.
From left, Sion Zivetz, Trudy Jurianz, and Ranil Senanayake, during a 2014 analog forestry workshop at the Belipola Centre.

Sion Zivetz, who joined the project in late 2012, explained during a tour of the estate that when it was first established in 1981 by Dr. Ranil Senanayake and the NeoSynthesis Research Centre, the intention was to develop, test and refine the practices which would later be known as Analog Forestry. Briefly, the method consists of selecting forest species – both native and introduced – which are economically valuable while at the same time analogous, in physical structure as well as ecosystem function, to those present in a naturally occurring forest at various stages of succession (in this case, the climax profile of an upland tropical rainforest). In this way, the land serves to support biodiversity and maximize ecosystem services while at the same time bolstering rural livelihoods and promoting food security.

Bearing all this in mind, I began to take a mental inventory of the species present as we walked along the trails. Some of those not recognizable to me as indigenous were introduced to me by Sion, and I gradually came to recognize for myself the striking number fruits, nuts, beverages, spices, timber, fuel, medicines, cut flowers, and other valuable articles which this forest yields. Moreover, I arrived at a time when the need for more sustainable land management practices was particularly vivid: nine months of drought and the near total degradation of the catchment basin’s forests had so depleted the water table that many of the already impoverished surrounding communities had lost access to drinking water.

When I met with Dr. Senanayake at his home in Colombo, this situation was in no way a surprise to him: he explained that he has been warning for years about the likely environmental impacts which would result from the policies of the nation’s forestry and agriculture departments, and how these would in turn harm the local residents. With a combination of wit and fury which made for some highly entertaining conversation, he relayed his frustration with the situation in Sri Lanka. “You visited Belipola?” he remarked with mock surprise, “No one from the forestry department has ever visited. None of the big NGOs has ever visited, either”.

Still, he seemed hopeful – in his own way – at the prospect that today’s generation was increasingly mobilized in support of a landscape level approach to land management, that a holistic approach was gaining greater credence within the development community and that the movement to enact supportive policy frameworks was gaining momentum. When asked for his opinion on “why now?”, the answer was simple:

“It’s about time!”

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