Jerry A. Moles[2]


ABSTRACT: Facing unprecedented changes in global climate patterns, major drainage basins, stable human communities, the distribution of capital resources, and the threat of thermonuclear war; we must acknowledge that the Anthropocene is upon us. In a world of centralized authorities and powerful corporations, the “unintended consequences” of political and financial decisions occur as a consequence of ignoring the diversity across natural resource endowments and human settlements.  To address this challenge, the NeoSynthesis Research Centre (NSRC) was created in Sri Lanka to engage with villagers in establishing more productive and resilient landscapes and financially beneficial practices.  Recognizing that only the managers of the land could effect the needed changes, the NSRC collaborated with villagers in establishing adaptive management schemes, the continual evaluation of farming and forestry practices.  By synthesizing the knowledge of villagers with the analytical perspectives of contemporary sciences, learning cultures were created attuned to household needs and environmental health and stability.  Over a 30-year period, water supplies have been made safe, incomes and food security improved, recovery from a devastating tsunami effected, and a handbook guiding farmer decisions into the future produced in Singalese, Tamil, and English, the three languages of the Island.

Key words: Sustainable agriculture, learning organizations, forest gardens, project design, Sri Lanka.

Vast your calling: Serve everyone.

Small your power: One voice.

Clear your path: Honest words.

Certain your days: Struggle.

Vast your purpose: Make history.

Focused your goal: A mere footnote

                                    that sings.

–Kim Stafford


With the growth of human population; relationships with land, water, food supplies, and the creation and movements of capital are changing at unprecedented rates. An evaluation is required with attention given to circumstances in households, communities, landscapes, and watersheds.   To increase food production and availability while maintaining resource bases resilient to human and natural disturbances is the challenge. Humans determine flows of materials, energy, capital, and information.  To survive and avoid unprecedented turmoil and danger, we must learn to live as part of a rapidly changing planet in the Anthropocene.  The question is can such change be inspired?

The NeoSynthesis Research Centre (NSRC) was established in Sri Lanka in 1982 to integrate farmers’ knowledge in Sri Lanka villages with contemporary biological, environmental, and social sciences including economics. In a sense, the goal was the creation of a new culture that blended the wisdom of past centuries with recent discoveries and interpretations.  The Centre was designed as a catalyst engaging the people who influence the production and distribution of food and other agriculture and forestry products.  The mission was described as establishing self-perpetuating sustainable and resilient environmental and social relationships linked to natural and market forces that did not degrade resources while achieving financial independence for participants. Without solutions in hand, the only answer available was to learn by doing, becoming a learning organization and developing a learning culture with those engaged.

In 1981, I was invited to Sri Lanka by Upali Senanayake and his son Ranil to explore how the people of the island nation could maintain their cultural heritages and traditional wisdom based in over two thousand years of written history. Confronting a dominate global economy based on extracting goods and services in exchange for modern science and technology, there was little questioning of systematic consequences environmentally, socially, or culturally.  Sri Lanka experienced European colonialism, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British.  The country gained independence in 1949 with a parliamentary system of governance guided by Dutch-Roman law.  First coffee and later tea, coconut, and rubber plantations were established providing income for the colonial masters and, after independence, those governing the island.  Once food self-sufficient, the island imported small grains to bolster diets and national leadership was increasingly serving the export sector often at a cost to villagers and an urban labor force.  Trade offs between continued investment in the welfare of the people and investment in economic growth were questioned (Edirisinge, 1979).  As population expanded, the landless moved onto once forested landscapes and the plantation sector went into decline as a consequence of poor management with loss of soils and degradation of water supplies.[3]

Planning agriculture and forestry projects from a distance had proven difficult often resulting in unintended consequences for villagers.[4]   In adopting adaptive management suggested by the resiliency theorists,[5] each management proscription became a testable hypothesis providing feedback separating the permissible from the harmful and destructive.   Recognizing nonlinear dynamics of complex systems with different scales in time and space, and the possibility of multiple causality; on-the-ground study of real consequences in real time is required (Walters, 1986).  Rather than concentrating on controlling natural variability to maintain human en situ circumstances in some perceived optimal state, a wiser option is to focus on alternate system regimes and to avoid thresholds beyond which no return to a stable or resilient state is possible.  Exchanges in dynamic social and ecosystems must be monitored and addressed (Walker and Salt: 122, 1986).  Attention to daily, monthly, seasonal and longer-term outcomes determine successful adaptation.[6] Adaptive management is a fundamental tool in learning cultures.

Bateson (Bateson and Bateson:161,181, 1987) reminds that living systems (learning cultures) are recursive. Reflecting back on what is known as they continually “learn”  through time.  He then separates the realm of the “hard sciences,” that discriminate between parts and wholes from the biology, ecology and other disciplines concerned with living systems en situ. In the latter, there is consideration of parts and wholes and how they compose the environment of wholes (Harries-Jones:182-3, 1995).  In other words, it isn’t sufficient to attend to the things that can be influenced directly but rather to think more broadly in terms of systemic exchanges.  Senge (269, 2006) quotes Bateson as saying, “The source of all our problems today comes from the gap between how we think and how nature works.”  The relationships between mind and nature are fraught with unseen challenges and, in designing the NSRC as a learning organization, we remained cognizant of the systems of which we were a part.

Even with this added sophistication, the understanding of the dynamics that produce observable consequences may not be apparent. It is far easier to separate beneficial from the harmful than to design a guidance system (decision support) to enjoy the former while avoiding the latter.  This requires knowing what to attend to and what can be safely ignored.  This knowing is formed in real time, relying on multiple perspectives and feedback from key systemic indicators amenable to management adjustments.

As a starting point, the NSRC vision was defined as “being realistic in where we are headed with an understanding of the forces that maintain the present as experienced.”

Setting Contexts

The first thing required in creating NSRC was a description of present circumstances. Once interpretative frameworks were agreed upon, the positions of villagers and others influencing the practices of agriculture and forestry could be intergraded.  Following Bateson and citing Korzybski, Harries-Jones (69, 1995) commented that “All order has context and the temporal context in which ordering takes place is expressed as ‘antecedent’ or ‘consequent.’”   For applied scientists, listening to and observing the people engaged make possible the elaboration of contexts.  Blending in understandings of the dynamics of social and environmental systems, descriptions are created. What are the causes and effects of ongoing activities, and how may we best understand our respective plights as we attempt to make a difference beneficial to all involved?

In a sense, this is about the creative and dynamic nature of what we have called “culture” throughout the history of our discipline. The existence of culture is moment to moment; it’s what’s on our minds and the minds of others as we make sense of the past, present, and future.[7]  This does not mean that people agree or even, based upon past experiences, share similar interpretations of the present.  Rather, the search in Sri Lanka was for complementary interests sufficient for joining together to advance the mission.  I’m reminded of a quote by Amos Tversky (Lewis:230, 2017).  “It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.”  We can never see inside the minds[8] of others.  We only know of their presence, and, if they join with us or we with them, we share the same fate.

Finding Place

All I have to share is what I have learned from personal experience attempting to make a difference at ground level engaging diverse communities to maintain themselves through the use of surrounding natural resources and exchanges through existing enterprises. As cultural practices change, the surrounding social and environmental milieu change and new challenges emerge that require continual evaluation and adjustment.  From an ecological perspective, the engagement is multifaceted and requires attentiveness to changes in both resource endowments and social relations.  As we enter the field with certain perspectives, the hope is that we learn enough along the way to make sound decisions through time.  Bateson (505) suggested that “. . . the ecological ideas implicit in our plans are more important than the plans themselves, and it would be foolish to sacrifice these ideas on the altar of pragmatism.  It will not in the long run pay to ‘sell’ the plans by superficial ad hominem arguments which will conceal or contradict the deeper insight.”

As an initial step, the literature on the state of Sri Lanka agriculture was reviewed and, through extensive interviews with Upali, three position papers were written. From the perspective of the National Heritage Trust founded by Upali, government policies were changing traditional cultural values and a threat to the stability and sustainability of agriculture.   The support for greater export of agriculture commodities and increasing farmer indebtedness to adopt green revolution technologies required a reevaluation of priorities.  Taking Upali’s argument that all people have the right to live, the right to use the basic natural and physical resources of Sri Lanka “in ways that protect the rights of all others and provide adequately for themselves,” the focus of the NSRC as the research arm of the National Heritage Trust was set.  The papers were published in the Lanka Guardian[9], a nationally distributed news magazine (Moles and Riker, 1982) and considered “very controversial” by government ministries and university faculty and students.  Having made our intentions public, we proceeded to refine the focus to guide activities into the future.

Starting with Singalese Buddhist villages that Upali knew best, the focus was on the temple, the tank (earthen reservoir for irrigation) and the villagers as a composite whole. The priests (bikkhues) in village temples were responsible for declaring auspicious days for community endeavors including irrigation of the paddy-fields, ceremonies, and other public works.  Further, through their daily rounds with their begging bowls, the bhikkues were current with the state of the larder of each household and, in times of need, organized appropriate assistance.  Each village had a gramaseveka, chief cultivator, who coordinated with the temple the needs of the cultivators and represented the villagers to the outside world.

Within this context, we positioned ourselves as the NSRC. Over the years, there were many discussions about both the principles that guided our actions and what was required to benefit the villagers.  Exploration was constant; on-going experiments on the research station and activities in surrounding villages were monitored as we tried to make sense of what we were learning and how well the needs of villagers were being addressed.

What parts of our formal training in the sciences were relevant to our activities?

Ranil who had experience as an estate owner and manager with a doctorate in systems ecology from the University of California, Davis, offered an overarching perspective attending to environmental circumstances as follows:

  1. Systemics. Capture of solar energy through photosynthesis and its consequences in native, disturbed, and anthropogenic communities and landscapes. All life is dependent upon photosynthesis and the village cultivators make choices of what plants to produce for their own uses and surrounding markets.
  2. Energetics. Exchange of energy, materials, and information among and between species, groups, and individuals. Here the focus was upon the interdependencies of the living entities in landscapes and the cultivators and the choices possible given available capital, labor, and technology. How are livelihoods gained from the local resources?   Answers included the uses of composts, chemical fertilizers, water buffalos, powered equipment, family and hired labor, market information, etc., the list is very long but the emphasis was on the mechanisms (relationships) that held in place the present.
  3. Cycles, The great cycles — hydrological, nitrogen, moon, tides, seasons, etc., — plus the landforms including geological histories that define the basics including soils and slopes that must be respected if what was offered was to endure.

As the social scientist and given that we were thinking in systemic and dynamic terms based upon relationships and exchanges, I defined capital as the capacity to command goods and services.  Conceptually, capital can be viewed as another form of energy.  Looking at the flows of capital, it is possible to evaluate costs and benefits and how wealth is distributed.[10]  At the same time, aware that any description devised is not the territory described, it was essential to engage the targeted beneficiaries to guide us as created descriptions.  Also, we focused upon our experiences in interacting with the villagers, their lives, and their surroundings.  The notion that the people could teach us how we could help them seemed especially relevant.  To reasonably expect any changes in practices, the people effected must realize definite benefits to their livelihoods.  Finally, it was clear that the complexity of the effort was daunting.  Analysis without engagement is one thing, but to actually enter the fray, careful observation of people’s reactions to our efforts was necessary.  The NSRC was and remains a learning organization.

We were engaging with an ancient agriculture representing a culture and landscape evolutionary history of many centuries (Sri Lanka has a written history of over 2,400 years (Geiger, 1912)), it was important to understand the inbuilt wisdom that made food self-sufficiency prior to the colonial era possible (Moles, 1989). The existing intensive hill and paddy agriculture became a reference point upon which to develop strategies and guide experimentation.  The traditional system employed earthen reservoirs (tanks), wirwas (river diversions), and pumps, to spread water perpendicular to stream flows as far as gravity and available energy allowed.  Recognized as monument to ancient understandings of hydrology, engineering, and construction plus administrative skills to organize thousands of workers and animal power, the irrigation systems of Sri Lanka supported major populations and many still function to the present day (Brohier, 1934).  Two rice crops are possible and are often rotated with temperate zone vegetables with high market value.  Steeper slopes that were not possible to irrigate were in forest gardens with multiple canopies, species, and tropic levels providing food, medicine, fiber, and fodder serving village household needs and markets (Everett, 1995).  Requiring few external inputs and labor intensive, the intact hill and paddy systems were environmentally stable and recovered from perturbations quickly whether caused by drought, pests attacks, harvest of trees to meet financial needs, or market fluctuations.  Producing a wide variety of products used by village households, there is little wonder why these systems have endured for centuries.

While there were viable examples of the hill and paddy agriculture and ancient irrigation systems still functioning, a tragedy occurred during the colonial period with effects that endure to the present day; the removal of the montane forests. First came the great Ceylon “coffee rush” often compared to the gold rush of California. Europeans rushed to the mountains removing forests and planting coffee to meet the British and European demand for morning caffeine.  In the mid-1800s there were more than 90,000 acres in coffee plantations.  Then a blight destroyed the industry.  By 1890 most of the coffee had been replaced by tea, as the British adapted to a different morning beverage.  But all was not well.  There followed a period when much of the tea land wasn’t well cared for with erosion removing much of the A horizon of the soils and, in many cases, estates were abandoned.  Depleted soils couldn’t hold moisture and streams perished.  With the growth of a landless population, people occupied many of these lands, moving periodically due to soil exhaustion and the inability to purchase fertilizers to maintain fertility.  To the impoverish population, standing trees represented ready cash; even in the towns and cities, trees were often removed piece by piece to serve as fuelwood.

To rectify these dire circumstances in many locations and with the assistance of foreign aid agencies, the mountains were replanted with exotic species from North America and Australia, primarily Pinus and Eucalyptus. With no native decomposers to reduce litter and no food sources for native fauna, fires frequently swept through these forests making colonization by native species impossible.  Further, food and medical resources that were traditionally harvested from the montane forests were no longer available to villagers and the remaining landscapes could correctly be called ecological deserts.  Top-down planning without considering environmental consequences or the experiences and needs of the villagers created an ongoing disaster.

Water was the lynchpin to anything that might be done to stabilize landscapes and improve livelihoods. Thus, watershed restoration became a key challenge.  Even within established villages, there were needs for secure food supplies, greater financial benefits, erosion control, and protection for the remaining biodiversity.

Aided by a grant from USAID in 1988, research was initiated to explore in greater detail specific locations in mountainous areas of the country. Along with identifying land use patterns, the conditions of landscapes within villages were evaluated.  Inventories of all fauna and flora were mapped for specific villages and estates and ecological functions identified.[11]

A primary interest was to identify keystone species required in maintaining the various tropic levels and structure of the forest gardens. In cooperation with villagers, species used for food, fiber, fuel, fodder, medicines, oils, etc., were identified promoting understanding of how any changes would effect households and forest collectors.  In many localities, there were more than 70 plant species used by the villagers for various purposes.[12]

Concrete Measures of Success

In order to become a learning organization, NSRC selected measures of success against which to judge progress. We asked what were the indicators demonstrating movement in the direction of resilient and self-perpetuating environmental and social relationships linked to natural and market forces that did not degrade the resources while achieving financial independence for participants?  The demonstrable answers were:

  1. Stopping soil erosion. As noted, in many circumstances the A horizon of soils were depleted or missing, with streams and rivers running brown after rains. Planting up riparian zones with perennials plus terracing and channeling would slow and eventually minimized erosion. Rebuilding soils through composting to increase organic content was also an immediate need in many locations.
  2. Clean water and increased availability. With the removal of the forests, soils were less protected from rainfall and less moisture was absorbed into the soils. Many streams dried up and runoff from rainfall was immediate. By revegetating the land, especially with perennials, soils would gain greater water-holding capacity and streams could be reclaimed.
  3. Healthy food supply. Mindful of the dependence of the people on what they produced, the focus was on both households and villages. To what degree were they self-sufficient with adequate nutrition?
  4. Improved incomes for cultivators. This required an understanding of existing marketing opportunities and of activities that could be undertaken to generate greater benefits.
  5. Protecting indigenous biodiversity. In dealing with an ancient system of human-environmental interactions, it was important to understand the threats to the present mix of plants and animals and how this flora and fauna could be protected into the future. With inventories, baselines were set.

With limited staff[13] charged with engaging the people in evaluating their resources and discovering alternatives to meet these measures of success, cultivators’ lands were mapped noting soil quality, water availability, vegetation, management styles, etc.  We remained aware of the specific parcels as parts of larger landscapes.  The mapping process gave both staff and cultivators opportunities to share understandings of the resources and to build rapport.  We were aware that changes in agriculture and forestry are long-term ventures and progress should be judged not only on seasonal and annual bases but also over the longer-term.  In some cases, farmers were persuaded to keep financial records to determine the benefits gained from their various enterprises.

Design Features

We knew that the most solar efficient systems in terms of total biomass production are natural forests. Struck by the efficiency of the forest gardens and the range of products generated, we realized that these gardens exhibited the characteristics of natural forests in terms of structure and environmental services.  Erosion was minimal, soil improvements continued through accumulation of leaf litter, water absorption maintained perennial streams, and, with multiple tropic levels, the gardens were biologically diverse.  Using the surrounding natural forests and village forest gardens as models, we focused on utility and marketable species to create tree-dominated ecosystems and called this form of silviculture “analog forestry” in that it was analogous in structure and function to the surrounding native forests.  Later, as we grew to appreciate the complexities of the positions of villagers in serving both household needs and meeting market demands, we began calling the approach “restoration agriculture” because there was often a need to produce annual crops along with rice in the paddy fields that required a more complex mosaic of land-use.  Evenso, the goal was to move to a tree-dominated ecosystem as much as feasible and, as recent research has shown, the forest gardens produce more for household consumption and greater financial returns than other land use alternatives (Melvani,2018).

In our contacts with farmers, we avoided any criticism of traditional practices but rather offered positive alternatives, giving realistic hope for improvements in livelihoods. Program costs had to be modest given the limited resources of the cultivators plus the numbers of people to be served.  Finally, the rewards to be gained were to be based upon the energies expended by the beneficiaries.  In some cases in order to create examples in villages, we leased the lands of particular cultivators paying significantly more than what could be expected from continuing current practices.  We also paid for the labor expended in transforming their gardens.  The before-and-after benefits were there for all to see as the land was returned to the owner after the demonstration period.

Getting On With the Job

Ultimately, finding solutions to the cultivators’ problems must be in terms of their perspectives. It is their decision to ignore or join in.  Within and across villages, cultivators had different resource endowments, access to capital, labor availability, and household needs, so solutions had to be found to fit their particular circumstances. As noted, in the targeted villages, cultivators’ parcels were mapped and designs created to introduce new cropping systems.  The NSRC staff was faced with synthesizing information at ground level with our understanding of possibilities and opportunities that included improving current practices, adopting new crops, and responding to market demands.

An initial challenge was finding the planting materials required to implement the designs agreed upon by the cultivators and staff. The solution was creating village nurseries with a mix of utility trees and other perennials plus annuals that could generate quick income.  With funding from a variety of sources, many nurseries contained more than 70,000 plants and, after demonstrations, were turned over to villagers.  In addition, because of the demand for organic tea and other products, NSRC created and implemented management programs that meet the requirements of international certification agencies on behalf of large tea estates encompassing several thousands of acres (including Thomas Lipton’s first estate).

There are numerous examples of success where households stabilized landscapes while increasing incomes, in some cases by over 700 percent, and became more food secure; two examples demonstrate the utility of meeting major challenges from a learning perspective. The first concerns the infiltration of nitrites and nitrates into wells from the application of chemical fertilizers that resulted in spontaneous abortions and methaemoglobinaemia (blue baby syndrome) in infants.  The second is the recovery from the impact of the 2004 tsunami on the coastal town of Kalmunai, where 3,000 of 30,000 lives were lost. As noted with the creation of nurseries, the means of addressing challenges whether concerning the environment, finance, or personal health, was through vegetation management using specific plant species to address human needs while stabilizing landscapes and watersheds.

Clean Drinking Water for All

Along the Kalpitiya Peninsula, a sandy abutment into the Indian Ocean on the northwest coast of Sri Lanka, agriculture is practiced with large applications of inorganic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. With concentrations of nitrate, nitrite, chloride and potassium in the ground water, 77 of the 171 wells tested failed to meet World Health Organization (WHO) safety standards. When people have a high nitrate intake, the oxygen carrying capacity of blood is reduced resulting in methaemoglobinaemia. This condition impacts infants more frequently than adults because the higher pH of the gastrointestinal tract in newborns favors the growth of bacteria that convert nitrates to nitrites, cause of the disease.  In a study of infants on the peninsula, 64 percent had methaemeglobin levels above the normal range (Melvani and Moles).

In 2001, the Sri Lanka National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB), with the support of the Asian Development Bank, initiated 12 community-based drinking water supply schemes. Many were soon abandoned because of the contamination of water with nitrates and nitrites. The drinking water well tested in the village of Nawakkaduwa was the most effected.

In 2003, the NSRC proposed to the NWSDB that bioremediation around the wells could possibly remove contaminates and a contract was signed to start a research and demonstration project in Nawakkaduwa. A tree-dominated landscape design was created that included the cultivation of annual crops using strictly organic regimes as a means of producing immediate food and cash returns. The efficacy of the experiment in bioremediation was assessed periodically by measuring the levels of the contaminants in the water.

Concurrent with the increase in maturity of the vegetation was a decrease in contaminant levels, specifically nitrates. The WHO standard for nitrate nitrogen in water is 10 milligram (mg) per liter. When testing began in early 2004, the level in the Nawakkaduwa well exceeded 58.5 mg per liter, but by February 2008, levels had dropped to 12.1 mg per liter.  Through bioremediation, nitrate contamination was reduced in four years to safe levels providing safe water for the surrounding community.

Once the demonstration proved successful, the program was extended to 85 wells in the region along with the introduction of improved home garden management that included trees and annual crops. Calling the approach “Total Ecosystem Management,” the program was extended to the wells and lands of 20 schools on the peninsula and included the training of an “environmental cadet corps” to further extend the management techniques.  Based on census figures, water was made safe for 1,511,612 people.

Tsunami Recovery in Kalmunai (Melvani, 2011)

In December of 2004, a tsunami struck Kalmunai, a town on the east coast of Sri Lanka, with heavy loss of life, catastrophic damage to property, and contamination of land with seawater. In January 2005, with the assistance of a number of international aid agencies, the NSRC began the relief work distributing food and drinking water, cleaning wells, constructing toilets, and providing school supplies and livelihood assistance to craftspeople. This effort benefited 8,616 adults and 8,009 children. Equally important was reclaiming land through revegetation and restoring farmlands to arability.  In communities protected from the tsunami by forests, damages were minimal compared to the unprotected communities.  Thus, a three kilometre conservation forest was planted along the coast to buffer any future tsunamis and protect against predicted sea level rises.

Based upon the experiences with bioremediation along the Kalpitiya Peninsula, microwatershed surrounding 1,001 wells were planted with perennial and annual species. Given the results of demonstrations in reclaiming land into village gardens, regenerative farming models were established for 250 households.

Five years later, farmers in this area were food-secure and generated income despite a severe drought. Soils regained arability, and the coastline was protected by a wall of native vegetation.  The NWSDB Laboratory random sampled 26 of the 1001 wells and found safe potable water with decreased amounts of nitrate and chloride.  Twenty-eight thousand two hundred and ninety-two plants and shrubs of 74 species were established in the home gardens between 2005 and 2010.  Organic methods were used to create secure food supplies for families in a region severely challenged by 21 years of ethnic conflict and provided for local markets.

Based upon successful demonstrations in other places, raised beds were constructed and compost of water hyacinth, paddy straw and cow dung was covered by the existing sandy soil, creating ideal conditions for vegetable cultivation. This soil was found to be rich in organic matter and its capacity to retain moisture in times of drought.  Paddy straw plus coconut and Palmyrah leaves were used as sheet mulch to further retain soil moisture.  This released large quantities of carbon increasing soil moisture and creating habitat for soil fauna.  To further improve soils, green manures were combined with other raw materials, (e.g., cow/goat dung, rock phosphate, dolomite and granite dust).  Liquid fertilizer made from tree species, Azadirachta indica, Gliricidia maculatum, Pavetta indica and cow dung proved effective and mixtures of Sida spinosa, Andrographis paniculata, Garlic, Ginger, Chile, Castor Oil and cow urine were used to control pests and fungal diseases. Vermicompost and vermiwash made in farmer’s gardens also facilitated plant growth. With improved habitat, apiculture was introduced to 29 gardens which supplied honey for home consumption and the local market. At the end of five years, farmers were harvesting over 30 vegetable and 5 fruit crops.

The farmers in Kalmunai formed 21 participatory rural appraisal groups to continue monitoring the organic farming activities, waste management, and maintenance of the coastal forests. In addition, microfinance schemes were established and funds were collected from the farmers for loans to members, eliminating the dependence on commercial banks.

Handbook for Regenerative Agriculture 

As can be seen in these two examples, the NSRC staff engaged both people at ground level and international aid organizations, local government agencies, elected officials, craftspeople, marketers, religious leaders, other NGOs, etc., to address challenges at ground level. The learning process not only involved determining what to do, but also who was willing to assist and in what ways.

Based on 30 years’ experience with NSSRC and with support from USAID, Kamal Melvani (2012) assembled a Handbook for Regenerative Agriculture, a synthesis of what had been learned and what was directly relevant to village farmers. The book was based upon the on-the-ground exchanges between staff and farmers in guiding farmer decisions.  Published in Singalese, Tamil, and English, the book was written from the farmer’s perspective.  It starts with the farmer identifying her/his economic, social and ecological needs and then moves to an assessment of resources including crops, soil, water, tree cover, vegetation and weeds, biodiversity, light, wind, waste, and manpower. At this point, the process of mapping the farm garden is underway.  The farmer is directed to consult with family members to discover their needs.  These additional perspectives help identify the diverse components of the land and expand the farmer’s awareness of the environmental function of each including how current uses contributes to household wellbeing.  Seasonal changes, access to water, slope, spaces used for non-agriculture purposes, plants to be used, available materials for composting, etc., become part of the garden plan.

Next comes the implementation of the plan, starting with land clearing, fencing, land preparation, and moving on through composting, seed propagation, laying out the design on the ground, locations of annuals and perennials, deciding what and how much to plant, thinking in advance of rotating crops, intercropping, companion planting, etc. As part of the process, maintenance of the garden with available labor must be considered.  In 88 pages (including photographs), the farmer proceeds putting into practice what is presented in the Handbook while guided by what carries forward as part of the farming tradition, the paramparawa passed down directly through ancestors from many generations past.

Often with less land available than for earlier generations, the Handbook guides a farmer through a transition, addressing new circumstances whether by cultivators on abandoned lands once in forests or tea and coffee estates, or on village land purchased or inherited. New market opportunities were found for speciality crops such as organic black pepper, vanilla, and syrups from the coconut and fishtail palms that require new interpretations of present circumstances to devise beneficial strategies.  The example of forming new groups to work together to gain benefits otherwise not possible in the tsunami recovery in Kalmunai demonstrates the shared learning by both staff and villagers.  Here, collaborative marketing bypassed the traditional mudulalies (middle people) and returned greater incomes to the cultivators.

The Handbook for Regenerative Agriculture is a synthesis by the NeoSynthesis Research Centre.  Through years of identifying and clarifying the results of our efforts and working tirelessly to help farmers understand, accept, and integrate those practices with their traditions, relevancies and irrelevances were separated and ways of understanding the context of agriculture accepted.  Changes can be seen in the practices of cultivators and in the crops grown, land and water resources protected, food available for families, and produce marketed.  The value of the Handbook is demonstrated when villagers turn out in numbers to receive their personal copies and when copies are requested by members of Parliament, government agencies, NGOs, mudulalies who purchase specialty crops from cultivators, and international aid agencies.  Kamal Melvani and her staff have demonstrated how they have established a learning culture relevant to the Anthroposcene.

Part of the success of the NSRC is the extension of its influence into the wider world. Beyond the focus on the village, there is continual exploration for markets for items that can be produced in an environmentally safe way and that return benefits equitable to the energies invested.  There is continuing experimentation in converting small watersheds to organic production and increasing financial returns.  Revegetation of an abandoned tea estate recently completed is a model of restoration agriculture that also serves as a tourist destination.  More recently, the NSRC has been asked to buffer the odors from an improperly place sewage treatment plant through vegetation management.

It’s a Matter of Paying Attention

In addressing complex problems, success comes from paying attention to what matters, what makes a difference as we change and adapt to those changes over the coming decades and centuries. It’s about the definition of contexts out of which we function as people in each and every location around the Earth.  It’s about appreciating our ignorance — how little we do know– and a willingness to learn as members of communities finding our ways.

Rather than continuing as a traditional ethnographer recording and ordering my observations, in NSRC I became a mediator, facilitating exchanges of information in learning about present circumstances in order to discover next steps in problem resolution.

Science is a logic of justification, of answering the question of how we know what we claim to know. We make assumptions, make assertions about the nature of the world, and create and answer questions demonstrating whether or not our assertions are valid in an experiential world.  We then report our findings in various formats to students, colleagues, and others who might find what we have discovered useful.

In Sri Lanka as part of the NSRC, the justification of what I knew took on a different sense. Bateson (Harries-Jones:53-55, 1995) thought in terms of gestalts as related to “wholes” as opposed to “units of information” derived from empirical inquiry.  Here we’re beyond theories of data where the concern is the relationship between the concept and the item observed and are focused on “aggregates of information which appear to be grasped in shifts from static to temporal sequences (Ibid:54).”

From a hypothesis-testing perspective where tests of significance are expected, the reflecting back to the people what was learned falls short of acceptable. On the other hand, the NSRC test of significance is the consequence of the reflecting back and the continual adaptations that have resulted in cleaning nitrates out of wells, recovering from the tsunami, and other successes.  Keep in mind that we’re dealing with nonlinear dynamics of complex systems with different scales in time and space and the possibility of multiple causality so understanding exact cause and effect is difficult if not impossible.  People respond for many reasons and we can only “see” their behavior on the ground in three-dimensioned spaces.

At first I took copious notes but it was soon apparent that there was more to learn than could be recorded. Making sense of things became an all-encompassing challenge.  Understanding how things fit together in some comprehensible form was beyond what I was capable of doing alone.  The “reality” was generated by those involved through ongoing experiences and conversations including visits to villages, chats with members of Parliament and the brother of the President, and meetings with bikkhus and Swami Siva Kalki who, as Mike Wilson, had been the partner of Arthur C. Clarke.  International aid agencies had ideas of what should be done to relieve suffering, avoid environmental damages, and move Sri Lanka toward a “modern economy.”  Employees of the Ministry of Agriculture shared their understandings, and workers in urban slums reported on tragic consequences for villagers who moved into cities.  A representative of the National Water Supply and Drainage Board explained that no water of good quality remained on the Island.  Faculty from the Agriculture College of the University of Peradeniya shared their research, and representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture visited the research station.   Ultimately, it was up to the NSRC staff and the villagers to determine what was useful in deciding future courses of action.

Bateson (1978:277-78) explained that “The business of thinking, the business of learning, becomes very much like the business of evolution when you realize that it is all the time partly experimental – feeling, grasping, exploring (exploring is perhaps the word). It’s called trial and error (it should be called success and error, shouldn’t it?) among which you then find your way.”

I settled on understandings that worked for me, and contributed to the synthesis to catalyze and facilitate a movement towards resilient landscapes and sustainable natural resource care. I summarized what I was learning and shared this with others for their modifications, corrections and additions. Once accepted and integrated into operational plans, we proceeded open to future changes as we continued to learn.  And this takes us back to Bateson and his approach to anthropology as recursive epistemology.   “. . . if epistemology is the study of how people or systems of people know things, and how they think they know things, then in studying the relation between humanity and the biosphere ‘anthropology becomes a critical study of epistemology’ (Harris-Jones:11, 1995 also citing Bateson in Keeney, 1977).”


As we reflect on our work in Sri Lanka, the initial focus on the temple, tank, and villagers remained. Thinking in terms of systematics, energetics, and cycles placed us ecologically in each village and assisted in defining contexts on landscapes and in watersheds. Envisioning capital as the capacity to command goods and services required sensitivity to returns to both labor and agriculture and made possible the discovery of ways of reallocating resources to take advantage of new economic opportunities.  Beyond the villages were other contacts with members of Parliament and a number of bureaucracies, businesses, international aid agencies and local government agents and many contributed time, finances, and expertise.  All of these experiences served as a backdrop to Kamal Melvani as she created the Farmers Handbook.

A remaining issue is that of the time required for agriculture and forestry practices to change. What is to be done must benefit the people whose behavior must change on the ground in real time.  Funding organizations, agencies, NGOs, and others wishing to facilitate changes often don’t appreciate the time required for sustainable implementation and promising starts are too frequently abandoned.  Projects planned for only one, two or even several years often end before the contexts of circumstances can be understood and communities mobilized.   Realizing that adaptation is a never-ending process, the practices developed must be designed to endure, and this requires never-ending learning.


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1978    Intelligence, Experience, and Evolution. Re-vision 1 (2) Spring, 50-55.  Adapted from a lecture delivered March 24, 1975 at Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado.  Readapted from the original tape recording for publication in A Sacred Unity, Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Donaldson:271-281).

Bateson, G. and M.C. Bateson 1987    Angles Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Brohier, R.L. 1934    Ancient Irrigation Works in Ceylon.  Colombo: Ceylon Government Press.

Carr, M.N. 1975    Tractors in Sri Lanka: A Case of Inappropriate Technology. Seminar Paper, Institute for International Development Studies, University of Sussex.

Churchman, C.W. 1968    The Systems Approach. New York: Dell.

1971    The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organizations. New York: Basic Books.

Donaldson, R. E. (ed.) 1991    Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Gregory Bateson. New York: A Cornelia & Michael Bessie Book, HarperCollins.

Edirisinghe, N. 1979    Welfare or Growth?  Sri Lanka’s Problem in Peasant Agriculture.  Cornell Agricultural Economics Staff Paper N. 79-18.  Ithaca: Cornell University, Department of Agricultural Economics.

Everett, Y. 1991    Homegardens in Sri Lanka: Patterns and Change in the Highland Landscape.  Paper presented at conference on integrated land-use and biodiversity in tropical China. Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, China.

1995     Forest Gardens of Highland Sri Lanka- An indigenous system for reclaiming deforested land. In D. Michael Warren, L. Jan Slikkerveer and David Brokensha (edss) The Cultural Dimension of Development – Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd.

Geiger, W. (translator) 1912    The Mahávamsa or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon.  New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Harrison-Jones, P. 1995    A Recursive Vision: Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Keeney, B.P. 1979    Glimpses of Gregory Bateson. Pilgrimages 7 (1), 17-44.

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2012    Handbook for Regenerative Agriculture. Polgasowita, Sri Lanka: NeoSynthesis Research Centre, (ISBN 978-955-0939-00-8).  Available at http://www.silc.com.au/2012/09/19/handbook-for-regenerative-agriculture-by-kamal-melvani/

2018    Forest Gardens and Farmer Livelihoods in the Intermediate Zone of Sri Lanka. Doctoral dissertation. Darwin: Research Institute for Environment and Livelihood, Charles Darwin University.

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[1] An earlier version was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology on March 31, 2017 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Courtland Smith, Roberto Alvarez, Ted Downing, Yvonne Everett, and Deborah Tilson Clark have given beneficial advice improving this manuscript immeasurably.

[2] Chair of the Board, NeoSynthesis Research Centre, Sri Lanka; Secretary, Blue Ridge Plateau Initiative, Central Appalachia, USA; Facilitator, Grayson LandCare, Virginia USA.

[3] A description of circumstances at the time can be found in Moles and Riker, 1982.

[4] At the time, the consequences were documented including the settling of soils and breaking of the hard pan by tractors reducing the effectiveness of irrigation (Carr,1975), reduction of soil quality through the application of pesticides (Abeyesundare, 1980), changes in the carbon-nitrogen ratios due to loss of organic materials (Penabokke, 1967) and the loss of aquatic fauna (Merrill, 1976). Further, the environmental disruptions and indebtedness of both farmers and the nation caused additional hardships (Senananake, 1984).

[5] A useful introduction to resiliency theory can be found in Walker and Salt. For additional information see the Resilience Alliance Website http://www.resalliance.org/index.php.

[6] In the late 1960s, C. West Churchman (1968, 1971) was writing on the importance of learning systems for improving management and planning in government, business, and industry. Since then the ideas have been further elaborated.  Peter Senge’s popular The Fifth Discipline and Stanley McChrystal, et. al., in Team of Teams, New Rules for Engagement for a Complex World. demonstrate the use of learning systems in both business and warfare.

[7] Of course it is we anthropologists who have created and elaborated upon the notion of culture as useful in describing and explaining the differences we see within and across different groups of people. Yet, as Jung has pointed out, history is made by individuals, not vice versa (Waterfield:102, 1987).  We are the creators of the cultures we report upon.  As Einstein noted, physics isn’t the science of the physical world.  Rather physics is the science of measurement because humans, with the apparatus used, create the results found.

[8] Following Bateson (Harries-Jones:74-75), mind is not inside the head but rather “. . . a synonym for a systemic combination of pattern, information, communication, and ideas.” While the complexities are beyond our understanding, we can detect bits and pieces to the point where meaningful exchanges are possible.

[9] Because of the critical stances taken by the Lanka Guardian, pressure from both government and financial interests eventually forced its closure.

[10] Very interesting in a cash starved county, when paying local vendors returned checks would have signatures from top to bottom on the back with the check serving as the currency it represented paying outstanding debts.

[11] While there have been calls to publish the information, the size and complexity of the datasets are great and remain in NSRC offices. Our concern has been the synthesis of this information and, throughout, our objective has been the training of an informed and capable staff. Action takes precedent over publishing.  The data is available for interested scholars.

[12] In 1983, Kamal (Kamy) Melvani joined the NSRC and has directed the on-ground activities since that time. Much of the success is due to her insightful leadership and practical mind.  Ranil Senanayake, a co-founder, left the organization in 2004 to set up another NGO, Rainforest Rescue.

[13] Staff size varied from 6 to more than 30 and was determined by funding for specific projects.

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