It was a dispiriting sight.
“[There was] barely a tree on the horizon. I thought to myself, how many millions of dollars, how many hundreds of staff would you need, how many decades would it take to have any sort of decent impact on this desolate landscape?”
In the early 1980s, Niger was “a landscape on the point of ecological collapse,” Mr Rinaudo tells
ABC RN’s Soul Search.
Farmers had cut down existing native forests decades earlier, leaving a denuded landscape sandblasted by 70 kilometre per hour winds and ravaged by high soil surface temperatures and apocalyptic dust storms.
“Because there was a lack of diversity, there were no natural predators to insect pests,” Mr Rinaudo says. “Even in the years when you did get rain, you’d have an explosion of locusts and caterpillars.”
Food and water were scarce as drought dried up the wells and devastated crop yields.
It was a desperate situation, Mr Rinaudo says, as men left the villages looking for work and food to send home to their families, leaving women and children to fend for themselves.
A roadside epiphany
Gazing out at the barren 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, Mr Rinaudo had yet to see any success. Expensive tree planting programs failed time after time.
“I was feeling very discouraged because I knew full well that most people weren’t interested at all,” he says. “In fact, they actually called me the crazy white farmer.”
He could see their point. “Here they were, often short of food, very, very poor, and here’s this crazy white guy coming in and telling them they should be planting 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 walked over to take a closer look.
“In that instant, everything changed,” he says. “I realised, no, it’s not a bush, it’s not an agricultural weed – it’s a tree, and it’s been cut down.”
Nigerien farmers typically slashed the small shoots that grew from tree stumps, but Mr Rinaudo realised in that moment these “suckers” offered the answer he was looking for.
“Everything that we needed was literally at our feet,” he says. “I realised then 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 nature instead of fighting it and destroying it.”
What is FMNR?
Mr Rinaudo is at pains to point out that growing trees from stumps – what he called farmer managed natural regeneration (FMNR) – is not new.
It’s a centuries-old method of cultivation practised around the world.
The key to FMNR’s success is its simplicity. Mr Rinaudo quotes permaculture founder Bill Mollison, who said “though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”
“I love that,” Mr Rinaudo says, who has become known as the “forest maker” for his work re-greening degraded land around the world.
FMNR has three basic principles.
First is the use of dormant tree stumps – an “underground forest” – to regenerate land rather than planting seeds or seedlings.
The second is pruning to encourage growth and give the trees a desirable form.
“All we’re doing in FMNR is … selecting the stems we want to grow into full tree stature [and] culling out the excess because there might be 20 or 30 of these stems all competing for the same light and nutrients and water,” Mr Rinaudo explains. “You need to reduce that competition.”
The third principle is community involvement.
To succeed, it must be “farmer-managed” and “community-owned, not Tony-managed,” 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.
“Initially, there was a lot of reluctance,” he says. “The forefathers of the farmers I knew were the pioneers who cleared the bush. They were the heroes who created farmland for the next generation.”
The idea that the farmers’ forebears had made mistakes wasn’t a popular one. “People pushed back,” Mr Rinaudo says.
Nor were people keen to break with tradition and try something new. “Nobody wants to be different, particularly in a traditional society – you can face ostracism and ridicule.”
Mr Rinaudo eventually locked in around 10 volunteers willing to try his seemingly hare-brained scheme.
After some setbacks, the concept gained supporters as people saw its benefits.
The new trees provided animal fodder and extra wood for fuel, served as windbreaks, and added organic matter to the soil, improving its quality.
These pioneering farmers “formed the nucleus for what became this massive movement across the country,” Mr Rinaudo says.
Twenty years after Mr Rinaudo’s roadside epiphany, the FMNR movement restored 5 million hectares of agroforest in Niger – all “without planting a single tree.”
Mr Rinaudo is currently the natural resources management specialist at Christian charity World Vision Australia.
FMNR forms a central pillar of the organisation’s goal to end extreme poverty by 2030.
It is a low-cost and accessible method to counter deforestation and land degradation, significant issues threatening the survival of rural communities around the globe.
Between 1990 and 2015, 129 million hectares of forest were destroyed worldwide. By 2010, global biodiversity shrank by 34 per cent.
FMNR is practised today by communities in 25 countries across Africa and Asia.
The approach is building climate resilience and adaptability among rural communities and improving economic outcomes and food security through higher productivity.
“When I go back into these communities, I see … this upward spiral of restoration [and] relative prosperity,” Mr Rinaudo says.
“The green is significant, but the biggest change I see is the restoration of hope.”
Faith and climate change
Underpinning Mr Rinaudo’s lifelong dedication to land restoration is his Christian faith.
He says that his experience in Niger reinforced that God provides everything we need for life.
“It’s been a wonderful journey,” he says. “I’m still on that journey, still learning, and still dependent on God to reveal his secrets in nature as we try to solve some of the world’s greatest problems.”
But Mr Rinaudo believes humanity has a long way to go to address the impacts of climate change.
“I don’t think we will be able to tackle climate change until we admit our guilt for the overconsumption of fossil fuels [and] the refusal to abandon them when we know very clearly that the world’s life support systems have been destroyed,” he says.
“We’re still stubbornly refusing to change our ways. If we don’t repent, there will be no change.”
Despite this, Mr Rinaudo is optimistic about the future.
“The situation in Niger in the 1980s truly was hopeless. People were literally starving, people were leaving their country, children were dying,” he says.
“If the poorest people in the world, the most marginalised, the ones with the least resources and technical knowledge can forge such a transformation, what should we be able to do with a problem of our own making? Surely, we could do it very quickly if we have the will to do it. So, I have lots of hope.”