Who’s Afraid of Exotic Species, Gene Pirates and Government Babus?

Dr Ranil Senanayake, photo by Janaka Sri Jayalath

In this second part of a long interview, South Asia’s first systems ecologist Dr Ranil Senanayake shares his views on many facets of biological diversity. He looks at the challenges involved in in-situ and ex-situ conservation of plant and animal species on our already crowded and slowly warming planet. He takes stock of the Convention on Biological Diversity, adopted by governments of the world in 1992, and laments the narrow vision of old school foresters and Sri Lanka government bureaucrats who “literally miss the forest for the trees”.

Dr Senanayake obtained his PhD as a Systems Ecologist from the University of California at Davis in 1978 and has had a long and illustrious career as a researcher, university teacher and activist. Author of numerous scientific papers, media articles and presentations, he has served on the UN committee that produced the authoritative Global Biodiversity Assessment.
Systems Ecologist Ranil Senanayake in conversation with Science Writer Nalaka Gunawardene. For Part 1 of this interview, click here.

Dr. Senanayake is the originator of the environmental restoration system known as Analog Forestry, which mimics the natural forest and strengthens rural communities. This is now practised in many tropical countries but still officially ignored in its country of origin – Sri Lanka.

Undaunted, he continues his life’s work through Rainforest Rescue International, a non-profit organisation based in Galle, Sri Lanka, dedicated to protecting vulnerable environments through ecosystem restoration, development of sustainable livelihoods, education, research and advocacy.

In March 2012, he gave a long and reflective interview to science writer Nalaka Gunawardene, which is being published in two parts. Part 1 of this interview, published on 3 June 2012, included a critique of Sri Lanka’s sustainable development choices during the past four decades, and high external input farming that literally costs the earth.

Nalaka: You’ve long been concerned with biodiversity –  both the wild species and cultivated species, as well as their habitats. What is the status of biodiversity in Sri Lanka, the way you see it?

Ranil: I have worked with the Convention (on Biological Diversity, or CBD) and even before the convention with the ICCBT for a long time. I am one of the editors of the Global Biodiversity Assessment.

But all through the work I have pointed out that we have to identify a fundamental difference in biodiversity between anthropogenic — which is the biodiversity created by humans, where humans live — and natural. We still haven’t done this. And this is crucial. Why? Because in a human ecosystem, an anthropogenic ecosystem, exotic species are a part of the critical biodiversity of that area. For instance, potatoes, chillis, brinjals whatever, is exotic to an area—but serves humanity as critical anthropogenic biodiversity.

And we are now unfortunately focusing on native and natural biodiversity as biodiversity per se. Totally wrong! It then allows us to rush around and say “Oh, this species is endangered, and only that endangered species is biodiversity”…

That is wrong. Biodiversity means the VARIABILITRY of life at any given spatial-temporal point. It doesn’t say it’s exotic, it doesn’t say it’s native or anything else.

So that is how biodiversity should be seen. Unfortunately, internationally as well as nationally — it’s even worse nationally — there is no comprehension of this reality of what is biodiversity. They take the word, then they take some conservation ideas, they link the word biodiversity to conservation ideas and off they go chasing some imaginary problem… God knows what!

Nalaka: A little learning can be a dangerous thing?

Ranil: Biodiversity has been discounted. The whole concept of biodiversity has been discounted and unfortunately we haven’t been aware enough at the international fora to be affective in using that Convention for our protection as a consequence.

Now let me demonstrate how. In terms of biodiversity, when the Convention was been framed. We have framed Article 8 (h), which states – every country has an obligation to ‘Prevent the introduction of, control or eradicate those alien species which threaten ecosystems, habitats or species. The words are “alien species”. So here we are: chasing behind the Salvinia and chasing behind whatever and whatever, is exotic and spreads fast. Fair enough.

But the Convention on Biodiversity says, biodiversity means “species, genes and ecosystems”. When it comes to 8(h), they conveniently dropped out the genes and the ecosystems. And there was nobody to cry foul!

Sri Lanka should have got up there and said ‘foul’. But there was no country to cry foul. As a result we have GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) which are exotic (alien) invasive genes — which should be controlled under 8(h), but no; it’s not done. Why? Because the framing of the Convention left that out.

We have huge oil palm plantations which are exotic (alien) ecosystems. We don’t question that. Why? Because the people who were doing the Convention consciously left those two critical parts of the Convention out when they were framing the terminology.

So in this Convention of Biodiversity the terminology is what is important. And when you send bureaucrats without a single understanding of what this thing is about, there is no possibility that these people can perform in our defence. So in terms of biodiversity, fundamentally, in terms of the law, in terms of the Convention, we have failed to understand what biodiversity really represents.

Nalaka: The Convention on Biological Diversity is completing 20 years this year. Has it met the original expectations?

Ranil: When it was started, the Convention, we had a great hope that the Convention could influence governments to make a change and be respectful and be responsible by their biodiversity.

Then what happened was: there was no funding or funding mechanisms available for any programmes or anything to extend this knowledge. So we got together and created the GEF, the Global Environmental Facility, I was one of the people who were in the Cartagena meeting in Columbia to create a potential for the convention to manifest itself. But again, what has happened is, because fundamentally we haven’t questioned: what is biodiversity? The funds move in directions which sometimes are not in the interest of biodiversity per se.

Secondly, we have the same phenomena that happened in Sri Lanka happening everywhere: which is bureaucratisation. I think bureaucratisation is the greatest danger to this planet!

Because the bureaucrats get on board, then they have the terms and their jobs, because they can use the terms without any understanding of what they mean, but they control the money; they create these monsters, these Frankenstein monsters like using biodiversity or endemic or other words which really have no meaning independent of all the goals of the Convention. So while there has been a lot of public awareness on the subject, in terms of policy and in terms of implementation of that policy, I think there’s a lot lacking.

Nalaka: But even the public understanding is a bit patchy. For example, a constant activist claim is about bio-prospecting, bio-piracy — especially in species rich countries like Sri Lanka. Is there enough evidence for this?

Ranil: Yes, bio-prospecting or bio-piracy where the resources of one country or one place is taken and privatized by somebody. It is happening, it is indeed real. But, in my perspective, the problem is not the fact that somebody has taken a thing from some place and taken it somewhere else. The problem is when somebody tries to be the only person that can benefit from it.

After all, we have tea (Camellia sinensis), rubber (Hevea brasiliensis), our vegetables, potatoes and everything that we grow. They are all from somebody else’s place! Are we bio-pirates? No, we are not! There has been an exchange, they in return got coconuts, they, in return got rice. All this happened openly in the past.

I believe that this is the spirit we should be looking at. We have been dragged by the nose by those people who were interested in profit. In this country, we have a concept of Dana, or giving. Internationally, there is a concept called public domain. It belongs to everybody. If we strengthened the legalities of putting things into public domain, where a single person couldn’t make money from it, then there is no problem. We share it with everybody.

It’s just this wanting to make money at the expense of everyone else – whether it be an indigenous tribe somewhere, or whether it be a multinational corporation somewhere, “only I want to make money on this” — that is the problem. The greed factor!

Nalaka: Now when you look at the 20 years of the Biodiversity Convention, how many specific instances have there been of proven bio-piracy?

Ranil: When you say bio-piracy, its taking something that belongs to some country and its taking it elsewhere to patent or privatize it. There’s been many, many — including soil organisms from Sri Lanka that has been patented in Japan. Medicinal plants from the Amazon been patented in the US. There are many examples of this happening, without the people there getting a benefit from it. Yes, there have been examples around the world of people stealing and patenting things.

There’s also been a response and resistance, for instance India has challenged a patent on Neem and broken the patent and stopped it. But then again, in the international system, unless you are a government and have those resources, there is no way that you can take these issues to international courts and challenge them. As a consequence of this situation, many large corporations and investors feel free to go out and start privatising material that really belongs to others.

Now again, in a network I work with, when people exchange seeds with each other, there is a legal contract we sign where I — if I am giving you seeds — give you all the rights that accrue with the seeds. And you, on a legal contract, in accepting all the rights of the seeds that I give you, accept them and release these rights to the public domain. So then you have accepted your rights and given it all into public domain. That is what we should be looking at — placing our biodiversity in public domain. Not trying to privatise to make money only for a single person or corporation.

Nalaka: Has any country in the global south that done this successfully?

Ranil: Countries haven’t done it because countries and governments are also interested in making money! They are not interested in helping their people or anybody else. They are all interested in making money. But some international networks have voluntarily done this thing.

Nalaka: Can you cite an example?

Ranil: The International Network for Analogue Forestry (IAFN) head quartered in Quepos, in Costa Rica.  They have created a contract document which all their members, when they exchange seeds, sign and release that material into public domain. So if ever there was a case, there is somebody in the future wants to capitalise and patent something from that or those particular species… well, way behind there is a contract, a legal contract releasing it to public domain. Which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for them to patent it!

Nalaka: Another recurrent debate is native species vs. exotic species. Where do you stand in this debate?

Ranil: When we say native species and exotic species, what are we talking about? Are we talking about a species that has evolved over time in a given place as a “native” species, and a species that has come relatively recently to an area as an “exotic” species?

If we do that, then we look around and if we look at ourselves – the Sinhalese: we are exotic because we came from India to Sri Lanka! If we look at the species around us, there are exotic species that came here at that time when humans came, at the time of the ancient Kings. Mango (Mangifera indica) from India, Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) from Malaysia. Now do we consider these exotic species? They came here about a thousand or two thousand years ago. Now are they exotic species? Here is the question.

Then you go into a village any where in Sri Lanka and you look at the home gardens. I have done research on this and I have found that in all home gardens in Sri Lanka, trees in the home gardens of Sri Lanka, exotic species account for 70% to 80% of the species found in the average home garden in Sri Lanka.

So, to me, this sort of setting up, this dichotomy between exotic and native is a false dichotomy. It is for certain people, who I would say are poorly educated, to have a theme to jump on or to get excited about. We should look at it dispassionately. And that is, in human dominated, human ruled ecosystems, exotic species is a feature of life and are essential to our well being.

In a forest and natural area, where we are conserving for the future and for ourselves, then exotic species are an anathema, we don’t want them we only want native species.

But we don’t look at it like this. We say exotic species and throw our hands up and everything that’s around and exotic should be thrown out!! We should have no potatoes, no chillis, you know…how are we going to live?

NG: As a matter of interest, what might we be left with if we did that?

Ranil (laughing): And if we got rid of Mango and Jackfruit. If they went out, what we would have in this country is basically the coconut (Cocos nucifera), we would have some bananas, we will have the Mee trees (Madhuca longifolia) to get the oil, Kitul palm trees (Caryota urens) to give us the sugar…and not very much more, we’ll have the spices cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), pepper, cardamom, and then the forest produce that we can find around, in our forests that we don’t even use today.

Nalaka: Even our staple rice came from somewhere else.

Ranil: Even our staple rice (Oryza sativa) came from Indo-China to this area. Long time ago, yes but not in terms of genetics. Not in terms of geology. Long time ago in human terms.

So “native” should be long time ago in geological terms, “exotic” should be recent, within human memory or during human times.

They don’t compete with each other the pressure for the exotics to expand their ranges is because, we the humans have taken the responsibility of clearing the native areas for our living. WE are responsible for that.

Ranil Senanayake (extreme right) with Prof Peter Moyle from UC Davis – Doing an endangered fish translocation in 1981

Nalaka:  But you were quite vocal about exotic species being introduced in Lankan forestry. In particular, against Pinus and Eucalyptus. Here the considerations were different, weren’t they?

Ranil: Well, when it came to forestry, my concerns were not only exotic species; it was what some people considered to be a forest. That was my problem with forestry. Because many foresters, unfortunately, do not understand a forest.  That is tragic! They are trained in timber production and timber extraction; not in managing a forest.

Let me give you an example. In terms of biodiversity, when you look at any forest anywhere in the world, trees account for 1% or less of the biodiversity. In fact, 99% of the biodiversity of any forest is in things other than trees: bushes, shrubs, epiphytes, birds, lizards, micro organisms- things that live in the soil, all of it.

All of that constitute to being a forest. Yet what do foresters from the Forest Department (of Sri Lanka) claim to be doing? Trees – and in trees, the two or three species that grow fast, which is ridiculous! And also, in terms of national well-being, foresters can only see things in terms of timber.

Look what has happened in Sri Lanka. Recently, the Forest Department declared that most of the fruit bearing trees could be cut for timber. These couldn’t be cut earlier. And what happened? All our large fruit-bearing trees were cut and turned into timber.

This stems from not understanding what a forest is, and only seeing timber and timber production as forestry. As the saying goes “you lose the forest for the trees”. And that’s exactly what has happened in Sri Lanka, and in the whole of forestry industry internationally. They’ve missed the forest for the trees!

Read: Reforestation needs another look, July 1983 article by Dr Ranil Senanayake

Nalaka: You’ve tried to change this conceptually and practically through, for example, analog forestry that you invented in the mid 1980s. What is analogue forestry?

Ranil: It actually started in 1975. I was involved in collecting snakes and frogs and lizards and I was a herpetologist working on all these things.

I had a very dear friend of mine, Vicky Athukorale, who was also one of Sri Lanka’s best early naturalists. He was also the first Sri Lankan who was taught Samoan reef craft (diving) and became our foremost diver. I used to travel a lot with him. But I found that the more I travelled around with him, looking for frogs, snakes, lizards, butterflies, etc, the more I understood their distribution. I was studying in the States, but every time I came back, there used to be less of the creatures that I was studying. The habitats were cleared, or were being cleared, and there were less and less possibilities for these creatures to exist.

I was extremely concerned. At that time, I was studying with Professor Michael Soulé who was one of the world’s foremost geneticists in terms of conservation. Michael used to talk about habitat being the most important thing. Then, when I came to Sri Lanka around 1976, Athu was telling me –the habitat for many of these animals were the old trees and mature ecosystems. He said the only places that he knew of were in the purana gamas (ancient villages of Sri Lanka).

So I went to the purana gamas. Yes indeed, where the old trees were maintained, where some of the old native trees were grown, where the epiphytes were retained on the trees etc. Habitat was created and these creatures could live.

And then I realised that, if I wanted this bio-diversity to exist with us (and it was not yet called “biodiversity” at that time), then we had to create something similar to the forests that the purana gamas used to produce…

And using the knowledge of ecology that I gained in the States, I saw that I could actually use the concepts of keystone species , edge effects, emergent species, etc., to enrich the traditional purana gama and created something that looked like the forest and acted like the forest. This was the origin of analog forestry.

I built my theory on these experiences, and as I built this up, I researched potential models from the world over. One of the primary places from where I got my models in the early days was from Guatemala. I used to travel to Guatemala a lot. I saw how it was being destroyed and I wanted to create some of the ecosystems for some species there. And working with the people there, I saw this does happen — if you put the epiphytes back, if you put the bromeliads back, the frogs do come back!

So with this in mind, I came back to Sri Lanka (in the late 1970s). Armed with my PhD, I tried to convince the government. Of course, the Forest Department wouldn’t hear a word — they wouldn’t even listen to it! Even today, they don’t listen to me…

Their challenge to me was, “Ha! You are saying we must do these things in terms of diversity, but all the experts have told us that we must have (timber) production, they say that monocultures of species are right. If it’s not Pinus and Eucalyptus, then what?”

So when I had the problem with the government (see Part 1 of this interview), I said, “Fair enough; I will show you what it is.” I sold an apartment I had in Colombo and bought some land in Bandarawela, up in the mountain in Mirahawatta. I moved my family up to the mountains and lived there for eight years testing and proving the theories I had gained from around the world. And out of this came Anlaog forestry in application in Mirahawatta.

Today, the concept has spread around the world. There are 16 countries that are members of the Analog Forest Network. We have headquarters in Quepos in Costa Rica, and more and more countries are now coming to learn how to do Analog forestry in their own nations. Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, I have had no support from the government and the Forest Department has totally ignored this. If they can, they will put it down!

[Read interview with Dr Ranil Senanayake on analog forestry in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka, 9 Sep 2007]

Nalaka: Some colleagues of mine went filming in the Uva Province a couple of years ago, and found that your students are continuing Analog Forestry work you started. Have they been able to scale it up?

Ranil: My students are doing fine, and they are actually moving affectively through the country and doing marvellous work. But my concern is why only my students? Why can’t the government, the bureaucrats, understand this? Why can’t they take it on? After all, they are being paid huge salaries, there are spending all theseproject monies on tamashas (ceremonies), on writing reports and having conferences, etc. Why can’t they understand Analog Forestry and take it to the village?

The NGOs and other independent people do understand and they are helping the country (in ecological restoration). We are doing that voluntarily out of our own sweat and with our own commitment. Why can’t the government system at least pay some attention to this approach that originated in Sri Lanka and now being used throughout the world? Why can’t we take some pride in what we created? This is indeed one of the things that drag us down into the pit. We do not take pride in what we have created or in ourselves…

Nalaka: One key theme in your book is how you tried to influence policy in your own country and — time and again — you came upon “closed minds”. You did the research, produced the evidence, and yet, the policy mechanisms remained aloof. What do you then do?

Ranil: Well, I just carry on doing my work. That’s all one can do! I mean, there are two possibilities: one is be a revolutionary and try to upturn everything; or accept what it is, and carry on with your work.

Being a Buddhist, I accept the situation: this is our karma. This is where we have got to. We have ill-educated bureaucrats; we have jealousies and hatreds — everything the Buddha spoke about is present within the government ministries and the people there!

So if they are not willing to open their minds to what a fellow citizen is showing them, what can you do? You can’t fight with them; you can only hope that through example, by continuing what you are doing, you will someday find a heart within the governmental system who will say “Wait a minute, this is my country…I should do this for my country!” and take it on.

Till then, there is a bunch of bureaucrats looking for jobs in international organizations — in the UN or wherever — and they will dance to any tune that is set internationally so they get an international job…

Nalaka: How has the global scientific community reacted to Analog Forestry?

Ranil: The scientific community has responded very well. There have been quite a few publications. There have been a lot of researchers who looked at it. And up to now, at least three or four Masters theses and two PhD theses have referred to, or studied, Analog forestry.

For the scientific community, this is logical and they take it on. More and more Universities are getting interested in this – all outside Sri Lanka, unfortunately!

Read: Just like a forest by Aditya Batra, Down to Earth magazine, 15 June 2011

Nalaka: You recently compiled into a book many articles you wrote in the public media for over 30 years. You gave it an interesting title. What was the story behind that?

Ranil: Well, I was working in the interest of my country and the well-being of my people. I found that as I worked in this country and tried to extend my work, I was being rebuffed — both to the left and to the right.

It didn’t matter whether it was the UNP (conservative) government or the SLFP (leaning more to the left of centre) government. The bureaucrats and the politicians in power did not care at all to listen to what I thought would be a logical argument. They were more interested in pushing themselves and try to keep down anything that they think would be an obstacle to their progress.

And to me, these were not serious people; these were a bunch of clowns, these were a bunch of jokers. So, therefore, I looked at me and I thought:  “My God! Here is the Left, claiming communism, Marxism, or whatever — a bunch of jokers. And the guys on the Right are claiming capitalism, growth and all that — another bunch of clowns.

And I was stuck in the middle… and there was a song that I used to like from (Scottish band) Stealers Wheel. I used the title of that song and I changed it to the title of my book: Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right and Here I am Stuck in the Middle again: 30 years of attempting policy change in Sri Lanka.

And basically the book summarises my thoughts through these 30 years of working in the interest of my nation.

Nalaka: What does it tell you about policy cycle or process in Sri Lanka?

Ranil: That it is not objective! That is works on the whims of certain individuals, and that unfortunately, there does not seem to be any bureaucrat or politician who is REALLY concerned about this country, who is willing to learn, more willing to be humble enough to understand that we don’t know it all, and willing to be honest, be open and help the nation move to the future. That is, and that has been, my frustration.

Interview recorded on 19 March 2012 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Transcribing by Dhammi Nissanka Dela; edited by Nalaka Gunawardene
Interview photographs by Janaka Sri Jayalath
Archival photographs from the collection of Ranil Senanayake

Short video: Sri Lanka’s Lost Generations
In the Epilogue to his 2011 book, Dr Ranil Senanayake makes a chilling observation on how the Lankan state brutally crushed two Marxist youth insurrections – in 1971, and 1987-89. Thousands of bright, young men and women – many of them unarmed and non-combatant — were arrested and extra-judicially killed for simply being bright, young and vocal. What has this done to the Lankan gene pool and to those who survived the periods of terror? As a conscientious zoologist and Buddhist, Dr Senanayake answers his own question in this short video based on excerpts with his longer interview.