The restorative powers of the underground

'Forest maker' Rinaudo has developed a way to turn existing underground root networks into new vegetation growth. Silas Koch, World Vision

In the barren, dry Sahel, Tony Rinaudo had a moment of clarity three decades ago – one that continues to pay dividends for forest landscapes globally.

Raised in Australia, Rinaudo – who now serves as World Vision’s natural resources advisor for his home country – moved to Niger in 1981 after graduating from the University of New England in New South Wales. He planned to use his background in agriculture to improve people’s lives in a region hit hard by drought and famine. But working in rural Niger as an agronomist, Rinaudo felt frustrated by the inability of freshly planted trees to grow in the sandy, sere environment.

Stopping one afternoon in the countryside to check the tires on his truck (with trees ready to plant in the back), Rinaudo saw a small tree trying to grow from a stump. Rinaudo suddenly realized he had been approaching forestry the wrong way. Rather than introducing new trees, there was instead what he called ‘an underground forest’ waiting to be grown from the ground itself.

This approach became known as farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) and provided a low-cost way to offset the effects of deforestation and desertification on tree growth. Under FMNR, farmers regenerate and protect the vegetation already in place rather than clearing or burning it for replanting.

Rinaudo is widely hailed not only for restoring degraded drylands but also for starting a movement of farmers regreening African landscapes. Silas Koch, World Vision

First, farmers survey the land to see which trees have the best chance of survival. The farmers then select stems to nurture from this existing vegetation. Careful management of these indigenous plants over the next two to six months then enables them to grow from their root systems into full trees, with the unused vegetation converted to fodder or mulch.

Since Rinaudo’s 1983 epiphany, the FMNR method has restored thousands of acres of land and grown millions of trees across Africa and Asia; half of Niger’s farmland alone has been regenerated through FMNR. There are now programs in 11 across the two continents and another in development in Haiti.

He’s now widely known in the sustainability arena as the ‘forest maker,’ and recently won the 2018 Right Livelihood Award, often referred to as the alternative Nobel Prize.

Even so, there are challenges to scaling up this natural regeneration approach. A 2018 paper, for example, stressed the continued need for institutional, technical and public policy frameworks, given that, as the report stated, “the results indicate that keeping, protecting and managing trees in the farmland have significant effects on the livelihoods of the rural poor in the Sahelian countries.”

As Rinaudo said in an interview with an Australian newspaper in 2014, “It is not just about tree-hugging. It is actually crucial for survival.”

Tony Rinaudo will speak at GLF Bonn 2018, 1–2 December. Registration is available here

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