Farmer-led landscape restoration movement re-greens the Sahel

Underground forests transform deserts in Niger

Tony Rinaudo, natural resources management specialist at World Vision . GLF/Pilar Valbueno
5 February 2019
Julie Mollins

A reforestation strategy conceived by agronomist Tony Rinaudo has so far led to the restoration of 50,000 square kilometers of land, an area now planted with more than 200 million trees.

Rinaudo, known as the “forest maker,” was recognized in 2018 with a Right Livelihood Award for his work.

Under his initiative, farmers regenerate and conserve local vegetation, helping improve the livelihoods of millions of people by growing trees from intact underground root systems in the desert in Niger.

By choosing the right plants from these “underground forests,” and by pruning and protecting them, they soon grow into trees.

“I figured that if it was people who’d reduced biodiverse functioning ecosystems to a state not too much different to the surface of the moon, it would require a change in behavior and attitude of people if we were going to restore it,” said Rinaudo, who works with World Vision Australia.

Changing attitudes has been key to implementing Rinaudo’s farmer-managed natural regeneration technique.

“If we can inspire individuals at every level to take up these practices that are in a sense ‘earth friendly,’ working with nature, then it can move very, very quickly and have a very high impact,” Rinaudo said, adding that in his view, the solutions to landscape degradation are embarrassingly simple.

In January, Rinaudo, who has devoted 35 years to land restoration initiatives in Africa and Asia, was appointed a member of the Order of Australia in January.

Most people don’t realize that having more trees on your farmland and nearby forests helps improve soil fertility and reduces rain runoff,” he said. “We’ve even seen reforestation result in doubling crop yields, and in Niger, our calculations show the extra crop yields feed an extra 2.5 million people every year.”

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