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Going beyond organic: analog forestry

By blending crops into natural environments, analog forestry produces products that go beyond the 'organic' label.

By Eric MarxContributor / October 19, 2009

Obedias Garcia, chief of the Satere Mawi Tribe of Brazil, and Sydney of the same tribe examine a Jatropha curcas plant. Cultivated under a practice known as analog forestry, they hope the plant will be a future bio-diesel crop for their communities.

Courtesy of Ranil Senanyake


Even on his best days in Sri Lanka’s central highland mountains, running the family tea export business, T.P. Letchumana Raj always imagined that he would diversify into other crops. He had seen the tea trade suffer in the late 1980s, but beyond the plantation grounds he had also seen harmful modern land management lead to environmental blight and financial ruin.

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So Mr. Raj turned to organic cultivation – with a twist. Instead of merely changing farm practices, he melded agriculture with the surrounding forests. Carefully selecting tree, shrub, and vine plantings, he created complex ecosystems capable of producing crops for people while providing habitat for birds, insects, and animals. By 1992 his company, Lanka Organics, had become a pioneering producer, marketer, and exporter of certified organic produce – first tea, then cashews, spices, coconuts, mangoes, papayas, pineapples, and tamarind pods cultivated through a now internationally recognized agroforestry system known as analog forestry.

“The idea was to go beyond organic,” says Raj. Lanka Organics sells certified products to Australia, Europe, and Japan, and has marketing plans drawn up for the United States.

Although the trade volumes are minuscule, just a few million dollars’ worth per year, the idea has spread to more than 20 countries, including Brazil, India, Ecuador, and Peru. Soon to appear on European store shelves: tea and chocolate marketed under analog forestry’s certification, called Forest Garden Products.

This kind of restoration ecology has gained momentum in recent years because of a glaring biodiversity problem within many organic agriculture and sustainable forestry systems. Often produ­cers are simply replacing one monoculture – a field devoted to a single crop – with another. The result may be less pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use, but leaders in the organic movement – from developing nations to the US – are beginning to wonder how sustainable that is.

“Organic certification calls for either mixed or intercropped cultivation, but this is not strictly adhered to,” says Deva Vikrnatha, who conducted some of the first internationally recognized organic inspections in China, Indonesia, and Pakistan and is now in charge of Forest Garden Products certification. Analog forestry closes this loophole by broadening biodiversity concerns beyond vegetation to include the impact of soil, water, and tree and plant cover on the ecosystem.

The inspiration for Forest Garden Products was Sri Lanka’s long tradition of “home gardens,” where locals grew a wide variety of food on cultivated land interspersed with forest. Looking for an alternative to monocultures of pine and eucalyptus tree farms, Sri Lankan ecologist Ranil Senanayake in 1982 developed the concept of analog forestry. The big idea: By encouraging villagers to plant carefully selected trees in their farm plots, they could rejuvenate degraded ecosystems and restore biodiversity while growing crops that would feed themselves and, perhaps, command premium prices in developed nations.

One of Dr. Senanayake’s earliest successes was with 50 Maho villagers in northwest Sri Lanka. In the early 1990s, the farmers were living in mud houses on $20 a month and had very little knowledge of sustainable farming concepts, recalls Raj. Senanayake brought in Raj’s Lanka Organics to work with the villagers on developing access to higher-priced organic markets.