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  Young Forester Award: Courtney Johnson in Sri Lanka

Courtney's work diary

October 6th

My final days at Rainforest Rescue International have been occupied by collection and identification of plant samples, completing the tropical forest register for plots on the Hiniduma lands and report writing.  Through detailed examination and documentation of the flora we have laid the foundations for further monitoring.  Due to the short duration of my stay there has been a focus on successional planning and the responsibilites of people into the future.  I have held GIS workshops to pass on some of my knowledge and increase the capacity of employees in the use of computers and digital mapping programs. 

Rainforest Rescue International also begun their extension work with the local community through a seminar on the benefits of the rainforest , the need for conservation to ensure that these values continue for all people to enjoy and the programs that RRI offer to schools.  I gave a brief presentation on my work at Hiniduma and introduced some of the scientific concepts and the hypotheses we aim to test. 

After saying goodbye to my new collegues, I set out on a study tour of some of the forestry sites of interest in Sri Lanka's hill country.  I have been able to observe a variety of forest mangement techniques targeting a number of end uses.  This includes homegarden plantings in tsunami affected areas, untouched rainforest of the Sinharaja, 20 year old analogue forestry plots of the hill country and the pine and eucalypt plantations of Nuwara Eliya.  
At times human manipulation of the natural environment seems to me to be all encompassing.  Even lowland montane forest areas that are included in the forest reserve system and excluded from timber or non-timber forest product harvesting still show signs of encroachment by humans in terms of species mix remaining and weeds present.  This highlights that there is an ongoing need to limit edge effects and provide resources to ensure adequate protection. 
Analogue forestry continues to make sense in countries where subsistence living is common, and is able to provide an alternative land use to high input agriculture.  For the uninitiated, analogue forestry has its foundations in permaculture.  It can be likened to polyculture forestry but also gives considerable attention to ecosystem structure and function and species selection for maximum benefit for the grower (e.g. medicinal and food species).  It aims to restore ecosystem function but is still largely untested in terms of whether it achieves this - however we did see a cobra in one of the plots!  
As for the insights I will take away from this experience they are both in the personal and professional field.  This type of investigation aims to better facilitate environmental restoration whilst fulfilling all economic, environmental and social objectives.  I have come away with a positive feeling of contributing to long term research and encouraging change in environmental thinking and practices.   I like to think that my time in Sri Lanka has broadened my appreciation of other cultures and increased my levels of tolerance and acceptance.  I have been able to make a temporary truce with the heat and the leeches and other interesting animals that come with working in one of the most beautiful and diverse areas of the world. 
I would like to thank the staff at RRI that helped to make my time as interesting and productive as possible.  I feel that there has been great exchange of ideas and only regret that I cannot stay longer.  I am happy with the work achieved to date and know that RRI will continue to grow and work to help the people and environment of the area. 


September 16

Sorry for the delay on this update.  I have either been traveling the countryside and away from a computer or stuck in the office doing computer work with nothing too interesting to report.  Feels like the time is flying by now and my list of things to do before I depart continues to grow.  I have accepted the fact that I will do some work on my return.  In reality there are some things, like a literature review, which would be made much easier when I have access to more resources back in Australia.   I have had a few humorous moments (either laugh or cry situations really) in my travels and was even enticed to sing when surrounded by a group of curious women. 


The past 10 days have given me a good overview of extension and education methods in operation in Sri Lanka.  I have attended inspections of new nursery sites, taken a role in the communication and organization of a distribution of home garden plants to tsunami affected families and met many interesting people more than willing to share their story.    It seems that most people have a general knowledge of the culinary or medicinal plants such as gotu kola, spinach, rampe and lemon grass, but may still benefit from some more information about cultivation and composting. 


There are multiple benefits to the homegarden program as towns are revegetated, plant recipients are able to supplement there diet or income with the plant products and RRI has a starting point from which to provide the community with more training and resources.  Over the years there has been the realization that a handout of plants is not enough to promote ongoing care for the environment; somehow people need to feel a sense of ownership for the plants and the program.  This program helps to make that link.  A large number of plants are now ready for distribution in the Kalmunai region.  It is just a matter of reaching appropriate community members and waiting for the first rains of the monsoon. 


It is great to see so many members of the community keen to access utility plants but as with extension programs worldwide there is an ongoing issue with maintaining community involvement.  I have gained a new understanding of community consultation through observing the process in its initial, tentative stages.  It starts as a brief meeting between council officers, school teachers and other people with positions of respect within the community.  It can be a low key event that takes on more significance weeks afterwards but is essential for the success of long-term projects. 


I have also had a chance to make many comparisons between Sri Lanka and Australia.  In taking photos of nursery techniques for the graphics component of a new extension training manual, I have seen differences in nursery techniques of a pine and eucalypt nursery in Australia and a rainforest and homegarden species nursery here.  I have become acquainted with the wet, intermediate and dry zone ecosystems.  There is a stark contrast between the two sides of the island, in terms of the extent of tsunami damage, plant species, forest structure and religious influences. 


As for the field work at Hiniduma…….The fauna and litter layer sampling component has now been finalized with students at the University of Ruhunu.  Unfortunately access to the permanent plots at Hiniduma has been temporarily halted by heavy rains in the mountains and flooding of the river. I have spent some time sorting and identifying plant samples in the office and finalizing the map.  It looks like the skies are clearing now and all is ready for next week.  


August 31

This week has really taken me to some of the more remote locations of Sri Lanka.  I am constantly the subject of many stares, smiles, ponting fingers and double takes as the locals become accustomed to my presence in Hiniduma.  We are staying with a couple in town and I am feeling well fed and looked after.  On Friday some of the children even waited at the river for more than an hour (we usually swim during lunchtime but today we were a little late) just to try and talk in English and offer my co-worker and myself the juice of the young king coconut. 


Assessing site suitability for research has gained new meaning as any movement off the current beaten path is fraught with difficulty.  We attempted to trample through the understorey to run a tape out and set up a 25m by 25m plot.  After some time of stabbing the lianes and other creepers with the corner post I was set to get in the ground, pushing through with my whole body weight and periodically checking my boots and pants for leeches I politely requested the use of a machete.  Much to my surprise and gratitude the tool and someone to help us wield it appeared.  A considerable time latter we had established a narrow path through the understorey and closed the plot with only small error.  It is with fascination that I await our encounters with untouched rainforest as the site we have been working on is only long abandoned tea land that has developed secondary forest characteristics. 


Much of the time has been spent learning new species and collecting plant samples for identification when we return to the office.  I feel as if I am on my way towards rapid assessment of tropical forest environments.  Site mapping is proceeding apace and this coming week I will devote to office work with ArcGIS.   



August 22

The first week was spent familiarizing myself with many of the RRI activities and projects and visiting the lands at the Baddegama nursery site and Hiniduma.  I have traversed the extent of the first site (with only a few minor leech encounters) and  I am working to obtain base data for mapping and looking to train some of the staff in the many uses of GIS. 


It seems that there is much potential in terms of eco-tourism, education, research and community development at Hiniduma.  It is a tropical paradise surrounded by rivers on three sides and accessible only by boat.   The house on the site is still being developed so we will be staying with a local family in town in the initial stages of the research.  The permanent plots to be established will aim to compare the soils, plant structure and cover and biodiversity over time for montane forest, analogue forest, riverine areas, pinus and tea plantation. 


As for my first impressions, Sri Lanka seems to be a land of contrasts.  There is little town planning so that you can see random run down shacks next to air-conditioned four storey office buildings.  Things tend to happen a little more slowly than in Australia and I seem to be adjusting to the pace and the temperature with ease.  Driving any distance has a new dimension in this largely pedestrian country.  I have quickly learnt that a blast of the car horn can mean “hello, thankyou, I am behind you, I am overtaking or watch out”.   There have been many moments of wishing I had a greater grasp of the Sinhalese language but I have been enjoying the practicality of eating with my fingers, taking my shoes off whenever entering rooms, and of course consuming copious amounts of tea.


I will try to get some photos for the next installment.  Otherwise all is well at Rainforest Rescue International in Galle.


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