Watch: It all starts with the forest – and comes down to the farmer


It is a question of putting life into something. Giving agriculture an honourable image, a proud image, something to be proud of, something that you can go to sleep thinking that you have done something good. Kamal Melvani


It is difficult not be enchanted by Kamal Melvani’s positive energy. When she says “it is possible”, looking into the camera with the brightest smile one can imagine, one wants to believe her. And hasn’t she shown that it is possible? Although what she describes sounds rather unlikely.

Photo: Courtesy She Oakes Films

Kamal Melvani is the Managing Director of the Neo Synthesis Research Centre in Sri Lanka and in her experience even the most degraded piece of land can be turned into a tree garden within four to five years. Analog Forestry is the rather technical term for this wholesome concept of landscape restoration that benefits the environment and provides income to local farmers. For the World Agroforestry Center, Kamal Melvani has written about her work as an example of regenerative agriculture.

Large-scale land restoration is also the topic of a Discussion Forum organized by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the CGIAR Research Programme on Water, Land and Ecosystems, led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s Analog Forestry is one of many success stories included in the Australian documentary Rediscovering the country: A journey into Landscape Restoration, produced by the Australian Forest Growers and She Oakes Films.

Ian Penna who coordinated the film project came across the landscapes.org during his online searches. He likes the way the website shows some of the global diversity in landscape restoration activities that integrate commercially production and environmental protection roles. “This ties in with the perspective of one internationally active landcare organisations in Australia – the Secretariat for International Landcare that also plays a part in the film.”

Most case studies come from the state of Victoria in Australia and showcase how conservationists and farmers work together to restore landscapes and reforest areas that have been overly damaged by intensive farming.

The problems in Australia and Sri Lanka are similar: deforestation, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, economic pressure on farmers. And all the projects have been successful because they did not tackle each problem separately, but saw them as interlinked and found a solution that was beneficial for those involved, especially farmers and land owners.

“There is not enough money in the world to fix the environmental problems that we are facing,” says Victoria Mack, a voluntary director of the non-governmental organization Secretariat for International Landcare. Therefore any solution for “environmental repair” depends on the working with the people on the ground who also depend on the land – in the case of Victoria State – on private landowners who owned most of the land.

So the take away is the same both in Sri Lanka and in Australia: the farmers need to be convinced so that things can change. Kamal Melvani understands that the farmers are less concerned with “one butterfly” than with their livelihood. “No matter what we do, in the final process … the farmer will maintain what he thinks, what his family thinks, is valuable. That decision of what he will maintain and what he will continue with, is beyond us…. It is what he thinks is worthwhile that matters.,” she says.

Geoff Park, a director of the consulting firm Natural Decisions, made a similar experience. Farmers are overall good stewards of the land, he says. But they are in the dilemma of having to increase their production and at the same time improve their natural resource base. Therefore society should not have unreasonable expectations and impose their goals for conservation on them, but look at how their needs can be met.

All the projects in the film did exactly that. Land restoration, says Geoff Westcott, Associate Professor at Deakin University, Melbourne, is a way of  “marrying the production of food … with enhancing biodiversity by using endemic species to link large parts of the natural land and …capturing carbon.”

tangleRediscovering the country gives spectators hope that landscape approaches are no longer a topic merely for scientists. And the positive examples of the film also show that the human perception of forests has changed fundamentally within half a century. The documentary starts with the promotional video “Ball and Chain” which only in 1957 glorified the merciless clearing of forests for crops. “The age-old tangle of shrubs, trees and vine must be beaten” was the verdict from the voice over that will send a shiver down the spine of any spectator in 2014.


 Large-scale land restoration is the topic of a Discussion Forum at the Global Landscapes Forum 2014 in Lima, on 7 December 16.00-17.30

Also see the youth blog Analog Forestry and Integrated Landscape Management in Sri Lanka


Success stories from Rediscovering the country: A journey into Landscape Restoration

Jigsaw Farms created natural corridors between the properties of different farmers for re-vegetation, wetlands, and agroforestry. With the integration of farm forestry, permanent re-vegetation and high input pastures, the farmers doubled the amount of food and fiber produced on the same size of land.

The Biorich plantation approach integrates newly planted forests with 200 year old trees and so mimics a natural system.

The Norman Wettenhall Foundation gives grants for the creation of habitat corridors for endangered species. A key pillar of the project is peer group mentoring, so that farmers learn from each other. In their Regent Honeyeater Project, more than 28,000 volunteers and 150 farmers have restored nearly 1500 hectares of forest over 19 years, connecting areas of natural habitat. Started to protect endangered species, it has the desired side-effect of also reducing salinity and erosion problems, and improving water quality and natural pest control.

Talaheni farm in New South Wales was a “basket case” of degraded, saline land when scientist John Ive bought it in 1980. He applied scientific methods to bring it back to life, and is now a successful fine wool producer who has nearly a third of his farm under tree cover.