Australian agronomist Tony Rinaudo is turning African deserts into forests

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By the side of a road in a desert in Niger, Tony Rinaudo had the eureka moment that would change not just his life but the lives of millions of people in West Africa and beyond.

Mr Rinaudo – who at the time had spent more than two years in the West African country trying to halt the devastating and “failingly failing” creep of desertification – looked around as he let the air escape from his tires so he could continue on the sandy road.

It was a disheartening sight.

“[There was] barely a tree on the horizon. I thought to myself, how many millions of dollars, how many hundreds of employees would you need, how many decades would it take to make a decent impact on this desolate landscape?”

In the early 1980s, Niger was “a landscape on the brink of ecological collapse”, Mr Rinaudo told ABC RN’s Soul Search show.

Farmers had cut down existing native forests decades earlier, leaving a barren landscape blasted by 70-kilometer-per-hour winds and ravaged by high ground surface temperatures and apocalyptic dust storms.

“Because there was a lack of diversity, there were no natural predators for the insect pests,” says Rinaudo. “Even in years when it rained, there was an explosion of locusts and caterpillars.”

Food and water were scarce as the drought dried up wells and devastated crop yields.

It was a desperate situation, Mr Rinaudo says, as men left the villages in search of work and food to send to their families, leaving women and children to fend for themselves.

The Australian’s epiphany came as he deflated his tires on the side of a Nigerian road.(Provided)

A Roadside Epiphany

Gazing at the arid terrain, Mr. Rinaudo considered giving up and leaving Africa.

“It was one of those low points in my life,” he says.

Two years into his land restoration project in Niger, Rinaudo had yet to see any success. Expensive tree planting programs have failed time and time again.

He could see their point of view. “Here they were often short of food, very, very poor, and here is this crazy white guy coming up and telling them they should plant trees on their precious farmland.”

On the desolate road, Mr Rinaudo, a devout Christian, said a prayer and soon after noticed “a useless-looking bush” nearby. He moved forward to take a closer look.

“In that moment, everything changed,” he says. “I realized, no, it’s not a bush, it’s not an agricultural weed – it’s a tree, and it was cut down.”

Farmers in Niger usually cut off the little shoots growing on tree stumps, but Mr Rinaudo realized then that these “suckers” offered the answer he was looking for.

“Everything we needed was literally at our feet,” he says. “I realized then that I didn’t need to plant trees, we weren’t fighting the Sahara Desert, I didn’t need a multi-million budget – we just needed to work with the nature instead of fighting and destroying it.”

What is the FMNR?

Mr Rinaudo is keen to point out that growing trees from stumps – what he called farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) – is nothing new.

It is an age-old cultivation method practiced all over the world.

The key to FMNR’s success is its simplicity. Rinaudo quotes permaculture founder Bill Mollison as saying that “although the world’s problems are growing more complex, the solutions are still embarrassingly simple.”

“I love it,” says Mr. Rinaudo, who has become known as the “forest maker” for his work re-greening degraded lands around the world.

FMNR Africa
Mr. Rinaudo shows African farmers how to prune suckers to encourage new growth.(Provided)

FMNR has three basic principles.

First, the use of dormant tree stumps – an “underground forest” – to regenerate the land rather than planting seeds or seedlings.

The second is pruning to promote growth and give trees a desirable shape.

“All we do in FMNR is… select the stems we want to grow to full tree size [and] eliminate the excess because there could be 20 or 30 of these stems competing for the same light, nutrients and water,” says Rinaudo. “You have to reduce this competition.

The third principle is community participation.

To be successful, it must be “farmer-run” and “community-owned, not Tony-run”, says Mr Rinaudo. “The demand had to come from the farmers.”

However, convincing local farmers to grow trees on their farmland was no easy task.

The idea that the ancestors of farmers made mistakes was not popular. “People pushed back,” Mr. Rinaudo says.

People were also not keen to break with tradition and try something new. “No one wants to be different, especially in a mainstream society – you can face ostracism and ridicule.”

Mr. Rinaudo eventually locked up a dozen volunteers ready to try out his seemingly insane plan.

After a few setbacks, the concept gained supporters as people saw its benefits.

The new trees provided animal fodder and additional firewood, served as windbreaks and added organic matter to the soil, improving its quality.

These pioneer farmers “formed the nucleus of what has become this massive movement across the country,” Rinaudo said.

Twenty years after Mr Rinaudo’s roadside epiphany, the FMNR movement has restored 5 million hectares of agroforest in Niger – all “without planting a single tree”.

A landscape in various stages of re-greening
An image taken in Talensi district in Ghana shows the effect of reforestation using FMNR.(Provided)

FMNR today

Mr Rinaudo is currently a natural resource management specialist with the Christian charity World Vision Australia.

FMNR forms a central pillar of the organization’s goal to end extreme poverty by 2030.

It is a low-cost and accessible method to combat deforestation and land degradation, significant issues that threaten the survival of rural communities around the world.

Between 1990 and 2015, 129 million hectares of forests were destroyed worldwide. In 2010, global biodiversity had decreased by 34%.

FMNR is practiced today by communities in 25 countries in Africa and Asia.

The approach builds the climate resilience and adaptability of rural communities and improves economic outcomes and food security through increased productivity.

“When I go back to these communities, I see…this upward spiral of restoration [and] relative prosperity,” says Rinaudo.

Faith and climate change

Mr. Rinaudo’s lifelong dedication to land restoration is grounded in his Christian faith.

He says his experience in Niger reinforced that God provides everything we need to live.

“It was a wonderful trip,” he says. “I’m still on this path, still learning, and still depending on God to reveal his secrets in nature as we try to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.”

But Mr Rinaudo thinks humanity still has a long way to go to cope with the impacts of climate change.

“I don’t think we can fight climate change until we admit our guilt for the overconsumption of fossil fuels. [and] the refusal to give them up when we know very clearly that the life support systems of the world have been destroyed,” he says.

Despite this, Mr Rinaudo is optimistic about the future.

“The situation in Niger in the 1980s was really hopeless. People were literally starving, people were leaving their country, children were dying,” he says.

“If the world’s poorest, most marginalized people, those with the least resources and technical knowledge can forge such a transformation, what should we be able to do with a problem we’ve created? quickly if we we have the will to do it, so I have a lot of hope.

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