Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 2009   |   Sri Lanka

Ranil Senanayaka

Rainforest Rescue International
Dr. Ranil Senanayake developed a new philosophy in reforestation and farming called Analog Forestry in 1980 and since then it has spread to 13 countries. His idea is that in order to most efficiently…
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This description of Ranil Senanayaka's work was prepared when Ranil Senanayaka was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


Dr. Ranil Senanayake developed a new philosophy in reforestation and farming called Analog Forestry in 1980 and since then it has spread to 13 countries. His idea is that in order to most efficiently and lastingly reforest a plot of land, one must observe the plant and tree species that grew there naturally and replant those species in a way analogous to the original growth. This method seeks to mimic nature rather than follow a man-made pattern. His 17- acre model analog forest in Sri Lanka demonstrates that the restoration and protection of rainforests and natural resources is compatible with the economic well being of rural communities.

The New Idea

Ranil planted his first analog forest in 1981 in Sri Lanka at a time when the country opened its economy and promoted plantation (monoculture) exports unreservedly. His idea of recreating destroyed forests by growing trees and plants that establishes a balance between the ecosystem and livelihood needs of the communities was totally new even outside Sri Lanka at that time. While Ranil was recreating destroyed forests by growing trees and plants that seek to establish a tree-dominated ecosystem, most of forest restoration efforts in Sri Lanka and elsewhere were focused around monoculture.

Today Ranil is considered the father of analog forestry and his idea has been regarded as one of the best practices to rescue rainforests all around the world. The most important aspect of Analog forestry philosophy is that it provides the best way of healing land that was once slashed, burned or grazed. The practice essentially recreates what the forests used to be like and at the same time encourages biodiversity, whereas a normal farm plot would most likely consist of one or two types of trees. According to Ranil if you plant one type of tree you do not have a forest and in monoculture we lose the forest for the trees.

Ranil founded Earth Restoration Organisation in 1987 and Rainforest Rescue International (RRI) in 2002 to spread his idea of biodiversity conservation at the community-level across the region. RRI aims to reintroduce the concept of sustainable livelihood to people living in and around the island's rainforests by establishing commercially viable projects that explore the social and cultural relationships between people and ecology. Through RRI he has established an Analog Forestry Training Centre, a Biodiversity Corridor and couple of Rescue Nurseries and Botanic Gardens in Sri Lanka. RRI also pioneered ecotourism that focuses on the rainforests in the island nation. Through RRI, Ranil has been empowering rural communities to actively restore and protect their own native environments, rather than passively accepting natural resource depletion, deforestation, decreased biodiversity, and other environmental problems in their own country. He gives communities the option to live and work harmoniously with their environment and also improve their quality of life.

Ranil designed an Analog Forestry course in Monash University, Australia, when he was teaching there in 1992. Introduction to Analog Forestry, a book written by him, is considered the bible of rainforest rescuers everywhere. Today, CATIE, Latin America’s forestry school, along with Monash University and CURLA in Honduras offer courses in Analog Forestry modeled on Ranil’s original course.

In 1987 he invented the Forest Garden Products certificate system and incorporated F.G.P Inspection & Certification (Pvt) Ltd in Sri Lanka. FGP IC has an international body of trained inspectors in Sri Lanka, India, Philippines and Ecuador. Through this Ranil aims to find international markets for products derived from Analog Forestry.

In 1996, with the help of his international colleagues, Ranil established the International Analog Forestry Network (IAFN), which works to educate farmers and Community Based Organizations (CBO’s) about Analog Forestry in 19 countries on all five continents. IAFN’s goal is to “restore ecosystems’ environmental stability and biodiversity” through the use of Analog Forestry.

The Problem

Rainforests have evolved over millions of years to turn into the incredibly complex environments that they are today. They represent a store of living and breathing renewable natural resources that, by virtue of their richness in both animal and plant species, have contributed a wealth of resources for the survival and well-being of mankind. These resources have included basic food supplies, clothing, shelter, fuel, spices, industrial raw materials, and medicine for all those who have lived in the forest. However, the inner dynamics of a tropical rainforest are intricate and fragile. Everything is so interdependent that upsetting one part can lead to unknown damage or even destruction of the whole. Sadly, it has taken only a century of human intervention to destroy what nature designed to last forever.

The scale of human pressures on ecosystems everywhere has increased enormously in the last few decades. Since 1980 the global economy has tripled in size and the world population has increased by 30 percent. Consumption of everything on the planet has risen- at a cost to our ecosystems. In 1950, about 15 percent of the Earth's land surface was covered by rainforest. Today, more than half of that has disappeared. In fewer than fifty years, more than half of the world's tropical rainforests have fallen victim to fire and the chainsaw, and the rate of destruction is still accelerating. Unbelievably, more than 200,000 acres of rainforest are burned down every day. That is more than 150 acres lost every minute of every day. More than 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest is already gone, and much more is severely threatened as the destruction continues. It is estimated that the Amazon alone is vanishing at a rate of 20,000 square miles a year. If nothing is done to curb this trend, the entire Amazon could well be gone within fifty years.

Massive deforestation brings with it many ugly consequences-air and water pollution, soil erosion, malaria epidemics, the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the eviction and decimation of indigenous tribes, and the loss of biodiversity through the extinction of plants and animals. Fewer rainforests mean less rain, less oxygen for us to breathe, and an increased threat of global warming.

The biodiversity of the tropical rainforest is so immense that less than 1 percent of its millions of species have been studied by scientists for their active constituents and their possible uses. When an acre of tropical rainforest is lost, the impact on the number of plant and animal species lost and their possible uses is staggering. Scientists estimate that we are losing more than 137 species of plants and animals every single day because of rainforest deforestation.

Today, an estimated 98 percent of the primary rainforest in Sri Lanka has been destroyed over the last century and a half as a result of the expansion of agriculture. This has affected the endemic flora and fauna (including species extinction) as well as local communities. During British colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries, the country’s forests were cleared to make way for profitable coffee, cinnamon, rubber and tea plantations. Since then, deforestation in Sri Lanka has only accelerated, increasing by 25 percent in the 1990s, and continuing to rise at an unsustainable pace as economic profitability outweighs environmental concerns. But such depletion of natural resources across the country is not simply an environmental problem; it has social and economic consequences as well, especially in rural communities.

A few of the negative effects of deforestation include decreased biodiversity, species extinction, soil erosion, increased floods, and decreased water quality, all of which together create ecological instability. These affects are a major concern in the agricultural sector, contributing to rural poverty, health issues, and economic instability. Approximately 72 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, or 14.2 million people, live in rural areas where agriculture and farming are the main sources of income, and are adversely affected by deforestation. In addition, rural farmers are often uneducated in the most environmentally friendly techniques, destroying their land in the process of farming.

Currently, deforestation is happening so quickly that forests cannot regenerate naturally. In order to achieve full ecosystem stability, forest protection and restoration efforts cannot just include planting trees, which is what happens with monoculture. Ninety nine percent of biodiversity in forests include the plants, shrubs, animals, insects, and micro-organisms that live there. They, too, must be paid attention to; thus leading to the need for analog forestry.

The Strategy

In 1980 when Ranil was working as a consultant to the Minister of Mahaweli Development (the Mahaweli is Sri Lanka’s biggest river) he vehemently opposed the idea of introducing an oil palm plantation in the catchments areas of this river. Even though Ranil succeeded in blocking this project, his career with the government came to an end. He sold his ancestral property in Colombo, moved to Bandarawela (in the hills) and obtained a 17-acre plot that was abandoned due to excessive use of chemicals. With the help of the locals, Ranil planted his first Analog forest. Today Ranil has demonstrated to the world, through 20 years of hard work, that with careful observation and commitment one can recreate a rainforest with its natural habitat (biological diversity) and ecosystem. This analog forest grown by Ranil today serves as a model for many students, researchers and environmentalists around the globe. The 17-acre land now hosts many varieties of trees that benefit the locals who live in and around this land and is also home to some of Sri Lanka’s most endangered rainforest species such as fish, snakes, reptiles, lizards, frogs and birds. It also has a creek that took its natural root after Ranil recreated this rainforest.

Ranil and his organization, Rainforest Rescue International (RRI), have developed a set of programs that facilitate both the restoration and protection of rainforests and natural resources, and the economic well-being of rural communities within Sri Lanka. RRI’s rainforest restoration process includes community education, research, advocacy, development of sustainable livelihoods, and ecosystem restoration. He engages people in community-oriented activities that are also economically useful, including teaching sustainable agricultural techniques, facilitating group restoration projects, and providing training in analog forestry techniques. RRI focuses primarily in training rural communities in analog forestry techniques because unlike agro-forestry, a system of forest regeneration that has the main goal of increased economic production, with analog forestry the conservation of biodiversity is as important as economic gains. For this, Ranil developed several programs and one of them is along the eastern coast line (the area hit hard by the 2004 tsunami). RRI has introduced a program to restore mangrove ecosystems in nine fishery communities. The program consists of many workshops and simulations. Through these, community members were educated about mangrove ecosystems surrounding lagoons and the mismanagement of local resources, built teamwork skills, and taught lagoon management skills. The communities have planted 105,000 mangrove plants and trees, and are equipped with the knowledge and skills to continue to monitor their growth and replantation as required.

The Rainforest Corridor Program initiated by Ranil is a second ecosystem restoration program, which focuses on restoring and protecting biodiversity in Sri Lanka. Since 2002, RRI has been working in the habitat between the Sinharaja World Heritage Forest Reserve and the Kanneliya Forest Reserve in Sri Lanka, an increasingly fragmented and vulnerable region. The Rainforest Corridor Program includes corridor mapping, agricultural biodiversity development, endangered species conservation, and environmental education. RRI has purchased 18 acres of rainforest land, building an eco-center for research and education on 8 acres of the land while restoring the other 10 acres using analog forestry techniques.

In order to balance economic and human sustainability along with ecosystem restoration, RRI has developed several programs devoted to teaching and securing sustainable livelihoods for rural populations. In the Small Teaholder’s project, a part of the Coastal Communities Restoration Project, RRI established a hand-rolled, high-quality, specialty tea with small tea farmers, working with them to convert their land to organic farms. To ensure that the project is also a sustainable source of income, RRI is currently doing research on other high quality products that can be locally produced and sold.

Through his International Analog Forestry Network Ranil has spread his ideas in the Philippines, Australia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Canada, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Ranil has vigorously campaigned with his international colleagues through IAFN for several forest restoration initiatives. As a result, his work has had a global impact. In Canada, the government has sponsored a project called “Model Forests.” Another major project in Costa Rica was established by the Titi Conservation Alliance, a group working to extend the bio-corridor to preserve the Mono Titi (squirrel monkey) species. IAFN work spans along the Rio Naranja and its tributaries where IAFN has planted more than 31 thousand trees of 22 native species using Analog Forestry practices. Ranil has promoted his idea as the Co-Executive Director of the Environmental Liaison Centre International (ELCI) in Nairobi and as a key member of local organizations such as FURARE (Ecuador), Othaya Organic Farmers Association (Kenya) and the Neosynthesis Research Centre (Sri Lanka).

In his effort to give sustainable livelihoods to forest community Ranil developed the Forest Garden Product Inspection System (FGPIS) which has been in operation for over 20 years. This inspection service certifies products as 'beyond organic', in compliance with all environmental and social concerns, in addition to its organic origin. The standards set for social, biodiversity, landscape and carbon criteria, ensure that producers are responsible and effective in restoring their ecosystems. Standards addressed under this certification are clean, organic production, increasing farm sustainability, ensuring fair social equity, building back biodiversity and reducing the carbon footprint. This system has developed an impressive history and understanding of the factors involved in the restoration of ecosystems and method of monitoring. Today it has become an international force. In Colombia, for instance, Ranil has worked with Ashoka fellow Catalina Cock-Duque (founder of ARM) in setting up standards for the certification of responsibly-mined gold.

Ranil’s Conservation Carbon effort encourages companies that might normally conduct business in a manner detrimental to the environment to change their operations to meet a more environmentally friendly standard. Ranil says if the forest is producing and generating revenue, it is going to stay there and his Analog Forestry keeps the forest there. By combining conservation carbon and forest garden product certification Ranil is reaching out to private companies that are becoming environmentally conscious in Sri Lanka. For example, Ranil is currently working on seeking partnership possibilities between the Sri Lankan private sector and his Conservation Carbon Company which was established in 2008. CCC promotes conserving carbon to restore lost biodiversity, assists rural farmers to develop sustainable agriculture, builds stocks of global biomass and cleans polluted waterways in addition to locking up climate threatening gasses as sequestered stocks. Ranil sees this initiative as part of his larger effort to protect biodiversity and provide security for local populations by ensuring the protection of forest products and ecological processes.

In addition to this, Ranil served on UNEP's committee for the production of the Global Biodiversity Assessment and serves as a consultant to the World Bank and UNDP. He has held many international positions such as being the Executive Director of the Environmental Liaison Centre International (ELCI) in Kenya, the Senior Scientist of Counterpart International in Washington D.C. and senior lecturer at Melbourne and Monash universities in Australia. Furthermore, he has published numerous research articles and books on Environmental restoration. In addition to all of this, Ranil serves as an advisory board member of Living Planet Foundation with eminent environmentalists Peter Bunyard and Romulus Whitaker.

The Person

Dr. Ranil Senanayake comes from a family that has been politically active for many decades in Sri Lanka. His grandfather F.R. Senanayake, Ranil’s role model, fought for Sri Lankan independence and initiated the temperance movement. His granduncle, D. S. Senanayake, was the first Prime Minister. His father C.U. Senanayake was instrumental in developing the Sarvodaya movement (the largest people movement in Sri Lanka) and the national heritage movements of Sri Lanka.

Ranil grew up as an animal lover and worked with Arthur C Clark in rescuing rainforest species like snakes, fish and frogs. He started his career as a planter in 1961 and worked for a British company. Working for plantation companies was a highly privileged occupation within Sri Lanka’s post-independence society. As a planter Ranil understood the dangers of Sri Lankan forests vanishing due to monoculture plantation estates and started writing to the news papers and to the authorities stressing the need to preserve the rainforests. However many newspapers did not publish his articles and authorities did not care since they were heavily influenced by British plantation companies. He quit his job and went to the US to pursue his higher studies. He studied at Berkeley and San Diego and was trained as a systems ecologist at the University of California, Davis. After spending 10 years in the US he came back and joint Ministry of Mahaweli Development as a consultant. This was a turning point in his life.

Ranil studied and researched for much of his career at the University of California, receiving his B.A. in Oceanography in 1975, M.A. in Ecology in 1977, and PhD in Ecology in 1980. During his educational career, he began working in zoology, on projects including species preservation projects, planning and establishing marine and animal exhibits, and several aquarium designs.

Throughout much of the 1980s, Ranil served as a consultant for various private and public institutions and corporations, including the Aquaculturists' Association of Sri Lanka, National Aquatic Resources Agency of the Government of Sri Lanka, and the Tropical Fish Exporters' Association of Sri Lanka. From 1995 to 1997, he served as a consultant at the World Bank, the United Nations Environment Program, and the United Nations Development Program.

This shift from the national to the international scale allowed his research and work to become an important part of the global effort to restore rainforests and protect biodiversity, reaching beyond the borders of Sri Lanka. Throughout his career, he has worked in many countries, Kenya, Australia and the United States, and in several forests. Additionally, Ranil is also a keen diver, with interests in marine archaeology, an ichthyologist and a herpetologist.

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