There is no doubt that the traditional forest garden of the wet tropics, with its mix of trees, palms, bushes and vines, is a wondrous agro-ecosystem. Here, in contrast to modern intensive agriculture, is a small yet highly productive and sustainable method of farming with the closest approximation to nature, which not only promotes biodiversity but conserves water, soil and energy, requires no fertilisers or pesticides and contributes little to global warming.
While it is too late for the forest garden to solve the world's environmental problems or become a practical substitute for modern farming, it offers a wealth of knowledge and is perfect for rehabilitating the degraded lands of the tropics. The problem, as D. J. McConnell is quick to point out in The Forest Farms of Kandy and Other Gardens of Complete Design , is that traditional agro-ecosystems are not favoured by governments or development agencies. The forest garden is considered complex. There are "too many socio-agro-economic-ecological relationships in too small a space," McConnell explains.
This book seeks to enlighten policy-makers and those working in agro-development. Initial chapters provide an ecological and economic description and assessment of the types of forest garden found throughout the tropics, such as the huertos familiares , the "family orchards" of Mexico, and the pekarangan, the gardens of "complete design" of Java.
In-depth analysis is reserved for the forest garden of the Kandyan highlands of Sri Lanka, where McConnell has carried out research spanning several decades. The core chapter "Kandy", written together with three Sri Lankan researchers, concludes that the Kandyan gardens show such completeness of design that the agro-forester has only agro-developers to fear.
"Diversity" details the importance of the forest farm in the in situ conservation of biodiversity and as possibly a final species reservoir.
Inventories reveal not only economic plants but those from the household pharmacopoeia and some kept for no apparent reason, which together provide a significant habitat for micro-fauna. McConnell writes of agro-foresters:
"Their social role as conservator... is far more valuable globally than is their local economic role as farmer."
The concluding chapters are devoted to establishing the authenticity of traditional agro-ecosystems. The final chapter, "Genesis", presents a bold theory that the first agriculture was the forest garden as practised by the Aborigines, thus challenging the assumption that they were always foragers.
McConnell has an engaging style that is humourously serious and incisive. With a fondness for quoting the poetry of Spenser, and evoking characters as diverse as Pandora and Inspector Gadget to emphasise his points, he succeeds in making a complex subject accessible. This illuminating book should appeal to all those in the natural sciences.
Richard Boyle is a British-born film-maker living in Sri Lanka.
The Forest Farms of Kandy and Other Gardens of Complete Design
Author - D. J. McConnell with K. A. E. Dharmapala, G. K. Upawansa and S. R. Attanayake
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 535
Price - £69.95
ISBN - 0 7546 0958 8