Sri lanka: Healing colonialism

Sri lanka: Healing colonialism by reconnecting with lost forests

In the five hundred and twenty three years since Columbus’ world changing voyage, the biodiversity of our planet has steadily been slipping away from us. It is becoming widely acknowledged and understood that the so-called 'green revolution', that has dominated global agriculture policy and practice, is steadily stripping away the diversity in the human and natural realms. GENOA Ambassadors, Trudy Juriansz and Sion Zivetz, report on the restoration of nature in the wake of colonialism.

Twelve out of fourteen of the world’s biodiversity hotspots - that are the origins of our food crop diversity - are located in what we now call the Global South (Asia, Africa and Central and Southern Americas). It is also in these places that Northern powers colonized and duly corrupted the genetic heritage of the planet’s life support systems. It was through the practice of moving desirable crop species from one part of the planet to another and cultivating intensive monocultures that led to the annihilation of the cradles of biodiversity and, ultimately, the widespread global phenomenon of crop failure and famine.
Examples of this include the Irish potato famine of 1846, rice crop failure in Indonesia in 1974, and in 1869, a compete failure of the coffee crop in Sri Lanka. It took a short 15 years for the coffee plantations to completely fail, but the British colonials were quick to replace large-scale coffee plantations with large-scale tea plantations. Today the legacy remains in the hills of Sri Lanka where mountaintops are covered by monocultures dominated by carpets of green leaf tea bushes.
Though devastating, the legacy of monoculture plantations is overshadowed by lesser known, but perhaps more sinister, colonial acts in Sri Lanka’s history. One such event was the Uva Rebellion of 1818, which is cited as the first attempt by Sri Lankans to overthrow the British colonial powers. The people of Sri Lanka became restless under the rule of the British king and the tyranny of his chief commander, Governor Robert Brownrigg. In an attempt to quash the momentum of the growing rebellion in what is now Uva Province, Governer Brownrigg issued a decree stating that all those who participated in the rebellion would be condemned as traitors and have their land and assets seized. Homes were burned, and most males over the age of 18 were slaughtered.
In an attempt to completely destroy the people, Governor Brownrigg ordered centuries old irrigation systems, which represented the fabric of Sri Lanka’s agricultural system, destroyed and paddy fields set ablaze. To ensure that the cultural legacy of the people of Uva was destroyed, an order was put forward to level any standing forests. As a legacy of these actions, many of the once lush hills of Sri Lanka still stand bare, left to erode with the yearly monsoon. It is this legacy that has created the space for monoculture and chemical intensive agriculture to take root in what was once called the “lungs of the island”.
How do we begin to heal these wounds, the scars that have cut deep into the heart of Sri Lanka’s natural and cultural heritage?
The healing sounds insurmountable, but we start with the simple act of planting trees. We begin by offering an alternative that slowly cuts back at the continuing systematic destruction of our natural heritage. It begins with an abandonment of external and harmful inputs, like agri-chemicals, and it offers a glimpse of abundance in support of the planet’s life support systems. We begin with design and intention, with a deliberate path of resistance, and the goal of restoration of what has been lost.
Here’s a story that offers hope and a practical simple way forward.
In Uva province, thirty years ago, 165 years after Governer Brownrigg erased millennia old ecosystems, Sri Lanka’s first systems ecologist, Dr. Ranil Senenayake, bought a 17-acre degraded tea estate, assembled a team, and began testing a theory of forest restoration that he called Analog Forestry. Dr Ranil saw and felt a continuing threat to life and a continued mismanagement of the land. But through observations of Sri Lanka’s punaragamas (ancient villages), he saw a system that offered space for both humans, plants and animals to co-exist in abundance. These systems became the cultural inspiration that blended with a scientific approach, leading to the restoration of degraded landscapes.
Analog Forestry is an ecological restoration tool that helps to restore the life support systems of the planet – represented by healthy, biodiverse ecosystems.
Analog Forestry is based in interventions for small farmers and indigenous communities to maintain and restore their forests while improving their income and livelihoods.
With the help of a hard-working and dedicated team, the Belipola Arboretum was designed and planted and the concept of Analog Forestry was set to trial. The NeoSyntehsis Research Center (NSRC) was subsequently created to run the site, and used to research Analog Forestry and Traditional Medicines of Sri Lanka. Dr. Ranil describe Analog Forestry as a way to “identify and respond to the factors threatening the Life Support Systems of the Planet”.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Belipola was a hive of activity, as a site of training and research, to a model forest garden, but as Analog Forestry began to spread to many other countries around the world, the human activity slowed down and almost ceased at the site. NSRC also left Belipola and began to work in other parts of Sri Lanka, refining the techniques of Analog Forestry. So, people left, but the forest kept growing and thriving. Today over 160 tree and plant species flourish, 60 species of birds visit the forest, and an array of mammals such barking deer, monkeys, wild boar and amphibians have also made their home here. And, humans have once again returned to live on the land, finding shelter, food, medicine and spiritual comfort under the canopy.
Belipola is an oasis in an area where the surrounding lands have been completely stripped of their native forests, where once pristine watersheds are poisoned daily by agrichemicals and where unsustainable land use has left the future of this region in questionable health. The constructed wetlands at Belipola have raised the water table and also filter and purify the streams that flow through the land. Seeing Belipola with all its colours and diversity is like seeing a work of art that is so magical and full of the beauty. It is testament to the amazing healing capacity that we carry within us all.
The road ahead that we see for Belipola is that of rejuvenation and revival, to bring it back to a place of living and learning, of sharing and connection. The task is to reconnect human culture and the abundant gifts of forest and create mutually beneficial exchanges between them. We envision Belipola as a sustainable community demonstration and training centre, one where approaches such as analog forestry, permaculture and ecovillage design can be offered for local, regional and international communities. We offer a space where researchers and interns can stay and study biodiversity and the practice of restorative action.
Belipola will be open to the public in early 2014, for trainings, school and university groups to do educational tours, and for nature lovers to explore the forest. A 2 acre vegetable and herb garden is currently being cultivated using permaculture techniques and fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits are enjoyed by us at Belipola. We had been supplying vegetables and herbs at the weekly natural and organic market in Colombo, The Good Market, but are currently taking a break from the market due to logistical constraints (we hope to be back in early 2014).
The market provides us with a venue to slowly build awareness around forest gardens products and create a network which will help build a sound business centred on organic and healthy living. The third aspect of Belipola which is slowly evolving, is eco-tourism. Ecological structures will be built that fit into the forest landscape and will be offered as places of retreat and rejuvenation to the tired soul.
In a country that has been through over 400 years of colonization, where primary forests were cut down to make way for plantations, and where 30 years of war have left the people yearning for a peaceful and just society, learning to live in harmony with, and in, the forests is something that has been long forgotten. Belipola’s place in Sri Lanka is one of utmost importance as it can demonstrate the possibilities of good governance, healthy and nutritious food, cultural strength and diversity, encouragement of local initiatives, collaboration, and the protection and restoration of forests and native habitats.
As Belipola flourishes, we will keep you informed of our progress and when we will be open for visitors, volunteers, interns and anyone wishing to bathe in the beauty that this place can offer.
For more information on Analog Forestry, visit
(Belipola website coming soon)
With Metta, Trudy and Sion
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