cameron russell’s rainforest diary
To celebrate Earth Day, model and activist Cameron Russell documented her time in Sri Lanka with her partner Damani Baker and the Rainforest Alliance, visiting their partners on the ground to tell stories of sustainability and survival.
I am jetlagged and sitting on the roof of a hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka with the team: Damani Baker, my partner and documentary filmmaker; Jungwon Kim, the Rainforest Alliance communication director and our friend; Eddie Marritz, director of photography; Alberto Mojica, camera assistant; and Asheesh Pandya, sound engineer. We're visiting the Rainforest Alliance's partners on the ground to tell stories of sustainability and survival and we leave tomorrow at 6am. I don't know what to expect.
I'm new to learning about the degradation of our planet, and even the basics make me feel off kilter. I just read that we've killed roughly half of the world's non-human animal population and we've destroyed half the world's forests since 1970. I learn that if we keep up this rate of deforestation half of what we have now will be gone in just nine years, and there will be nothing left by 2060. Nothing left? I'll only be 73. It astounds me that so much dying has happened over the course of my lifetime but to me it was totally unobservable. True, I've always lived in cities, but this is - literally - an earth shattering transformation. It's like I don't speak the language of my own planet.
After 7 hours of winding driving, pulling a dead monkey out of the road, drinking fresh baby coconuts, and getting our first leech bites, we reach Southern Hill Country. When we pull up to his house, Mahendra Peiris comes out dressed head-to-toe in purple. He is the sustainable farmer we came to Sri Lanka to profile.
He and his wife, Techla Peiris, have an apparently boundless curiosity for life. In a corner of the garage, he shows us a plant decorated with string and small plastic bags. "I'm grafting a mangosteen onto a weed," he explains. "So far it's thriving. Six months old and it needs almost no water. I saw these weeds everywhere, they are very resilient, so I am trying to make them do something useful."
Techla shows us a plant in a bucket of water on the windowsill, hundreds of bright green tendrils glow in the sun. She shrugs and says hopefully, "bloom?" She doesn't speak english as well as her husband.
He points out a sunbird building a hanging cocoon nest out of cobwebs and leaves. He takes out his journals of pressed weeds and his hand drawn ornamental flower encyclopedia. We sit down to a lunch, fresh from their garden.
"Have you noticed the effects of climate change," Jungwon asks him.
"Yes, there is more extreme weather, more extreme droughts, more extreme rain," Peiris nods scientifically and looks unafraid.
"How about the bees? Are they dying here too?" she asks.
"Ah, no. I have to tell you a story," he grins, "last year I was stung by 100 giant honey bees. My friend swatted at one and the whole colony attacked. Luckily I saw a leaf near by and thought to chew it, and it turned out to be a good antidote! " He laughs.
I think: if only all of us were as delighted by life, as amused at its chaos and its trials, as in inventive in sustaining it, we wouldn't have any reason to be afraid of climate change.
We came here because Peiris and the Rainforest Alliance are teaching farmers a sustainable practice they've developed called "integrated weed management." Instead of using dangerous chemicals and herbicides (that give farm workers and local residents cancer and kidney disease, contaminate water supply, ruin soil, and threaten biodiversity), they let good weeds thrive, and add nitrogen back into the soil (increasing the first experimental crop yield by 20%).
Before coming, I learn that promoting sustainable agriculture is the best way to protect the rainforest, and the rainforest is the best defense we have against climate change. Despite what seem to be prevailing sentiments that addressing climate change will require sacrifice and painful compromise, every strategy I've encountered to prevent further climate change is also directly and immediately beneficial to the people making the change.
Nestled at the base of a 300-foot waterfall surrounded by rainforest, and at the mouth of a lake surrounded by tea farm hills with clouds moving lazily through, lives Sumanawathi Wegedara. We are visiting her sustainable farm.
As soon as we make it down the steep path leading to her her house, she shows us a water turbine they built using old bicycle parts and clothing that generates all their electricity. Giri Kadurugamuwa (our new acquaintance and guide who works for the Sri Lankan Rainforest Alliance) asks about a weed she is using, "Why this and not another one?" She tells him this weed can also feed her cows. "I hadn't thought of that!" says Kadurugamuwa who has trained thousands of farmers in sustainable practices. When Eddie Maritz has the copter camera follow her doggedly just overhead, Wegedara doesn't bat an eyelash. (When I stand in to test, I duck when it hovers two feet above me, the wind and the buzzing are surprisingly intense.) Later, we facetime her son-in-law and say hello. A tech-savvy inventor-grandma? This was not what I had imagined when I heard we were visiting a subsistence farmer.
Even though I've read that 60-80 percent of subsistence farming is done by women - making women the most powerful stewards of the land - seeing them in person alerts me to the deeply rooted stereotypes I have about who does manual labour and what innovation looks like. Ultimately, it's women who are modelling so many of the impactful small-scale solutions we need to make change.
I can't do justice to what is happening here at all. Maintaining a healthy ecosystem for humans and the forest is enormously complex.
Today we walked with Kadurugamuwa into the rainforest. He has spent his life fighting deforestation. Over the past four years working with the Rainforest Alliance, he has trained thousands of farmers in sustainable practices and shepherded this region through certification. Certification requires farms not only operate without herbicides, but also have good labor practices like paying workers fair wages, and providing safe clean housing and healthcare. He knows everyone we pass on the road and stops to talk.
As we walk though the tea fields to reach the dense towering forest, he tells us it was the British who first cut down the forest to grow cash crops. Because Sri Lankans refused to work for them, the Brits brought in Tamil labourers who still labor here today. In 1818 when Sri Lankans revolted in Uva province, Queen Victoria signed a directive to kill all men over 18, ruin all the reservoirs, and cut down all the fruit bearing trees there. The region, he tells us, still hasn't recovered. His great grandfather was part of the rebellion.
I think of a quote from Forest Under Study - "When people pay close attention to specific places, their study of place will reveal broad truths that go beyond that place" - and I want Kadurugamuwa and Peiris to come to the States and teach. Of course, that's being greedy, their target here is to train 35,000 farmers in the next inyears.
Today we're back the Peiris house that sits in the middle of the tea estate he manages at the base of Adam's Peak. Named for, yes -- Adam of Adam and Eve -- it's hard not to make comparisons to the Garden of Eden. The plot is overflowing with flowers, fruit, vegetables, herbs, baby animals, the bleating of goats and the hush of the wind like waves through the trees.
Spending a day with Peiris is like being with a favorite professor. He gives me an essay he's written for a sustainability journal on loss of local biodiversity. Peppered with photos he took of local wild animals, he explains the destructive combination of herbicides, tourism, colonialism, and forced migration.
Damani, our trip's filmmaker, is outside asking if Peiris might show him the beehive farther down the garden. He grabs a handful of the plant antidote to bee stings and starts chewing a mouthful of leaves. By the time the shot is over he's been stung more than thirty times. He plucks white stingers from his arm with tweezers and Techla uses them to take more out of his neck and ears. He smiles appearing unfazed, but she looks worried.
Twenty minutes later he sits down for his interview and his face and hands are swollen. "Maybe we can shoot this part tomorrow," says Damani, "and you can rest now."
"Ah yes, my face has changed. I can feel it swollen." He is laughing, but he must be in pain.
"How often does this happen," asks Damani.
"Every couple weeks, no big deal." He eats more of his plant antidote.
"The message I want to pass to the world is to forget all knowledge because it makes us blind to nature's solutions," he says. "First observe and then, later on, read and think about connections. Most of the time they're not what you learn from educational institutions. Science research focuses on only one or two parameters, because of that you can only interpret your results to a limited extent. But nature is interconnected, unlimited."
As the sun sets, clouds descend on the tea slopes, then the garden, then the house. We can't help ourselves, grown adults, we jump for joy in the mist. Peiris tells us he has a surprise, their homemade wine for us to taste! Mulberry, lobi, cherry apple, green tea, and local flower flavours.