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In African drylands, farmers are coaxing former forests back into life

How “farmer-managed natural regeneration” is taking hold on the African continent and beyond

Mr. Augustino, a Tanzanian farmer who restored his degraded landscape using FMNR techniques. Courtesy of the LEAD Foundation
1 June 2021
1 June 2021

Dr. Bishop Simon Chiwanga and Tony Rinaudo will speak on FMNR at the Global Landscapes Forum’s upcoming digital conference Restoring Africa’s Drylands: Accelerating Action On the Ground23 JuneRegister to join here.

In the Dodoma region of Tanzania, an old farmer named Mr. Augustino had lived long enough to see the hills near his home go from being covered with trees to almost entirely barren. It had once rained more regularly, with water flowing in the rivers all year round. But over time, the rainfall lessened until most of the year he suffered from extreme drought, punctuated by a couple of days when torrential storms flooded the dried-up rivers and washed away the degraded soil on the hills.

But this changed when Mr. Augustino learned about what’s known as farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), an approach to landscape restoration that coaxes the root systems, seeds and stumps of former forests back into growth. Not only could he easily begin to grow trees on his farm, boosting his crop yields and providing fuel and fodder for his livestock, but he could also help bring the nearby hills back to a re-greened life.

In the past few decades, the FMNR approach to landscape restoration and agroforestry has been reaching local communities to help counter the challenges of degradation and drought, most readily adopted in arid and semi-arid drylands that struggle with water scarcity. It ticks all the boxes for desirable improvements on a farm: full benefits, including more fertile soil, reduced erosion, better water availability, increased biodiversity, resiliency to extreme weather, and a multitude of economic boosts that come in tow may take about five years to come into effect. However, land users begin to reap small benefits even from year-one, and these in turn encourage greater FMNR adoption.

“FMNR also has a lot of potential in dryer areas where tree planting has historically been unsuccessful,” says Mieke Bourne, an engagement process specialist at World Agroforestry (ICRAF) who has helped incorporate FMNR into the organization’s Regreening Africa initiative. “As a very promising alternative or compliment to tree planting in a number of contexts, FMNR is an important practice for restoration in Africa.”

Increasingly, FMNR has appearing in international frameworks and initiatives, listed as a best practice UN platforms and initiatives, such as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and the Great Green Wall initiative to prevent the expansion of the Sahara desert into the Sahel region just to its south.

But despite its recent uptick in attention, FMNR is nothing new. People figured out centuries ago that by managing regrowth of stems growing from stumps and upper branches (techniques known as coppicing and pollarding) the trees begin to generate new growth more quickly and at lower cost than through tree-planting. FMNR blends these and other such tactics to tap into “underground forests” – the remnants of former forests – and bring trees back to a thriving life that benefits food and livestock production too.

 “My ‘rule of thumb’ is that if a forest was present in the past, even the distant past, theoretically it will be possible to restore it using FMNR and/or a combination of FMNR and other complementary methods,” says Tony Rinaudo, who leads natural resources management projects for World Vision. Often nicknamed the “forest maker,” Rinaudo is regarded by many as an environmental hero for spearheading the spread of FMNR first in Africa and now globally too, with projects in East Timor, Myanmar, India and Indonesia. 

“It’s not just the transformation in the landscape that you can see,” says Rinaudo. “It’s very tangible – the restoration of hope and dignity, and what that does to people.”

Cows grazing on a farm restored with FMNR in Homa Bay County, Kenya. Courtesy of Regreening Africa
Cows grazing on a farm restored with FMNR in Homa Bay County, Kenya. Courtesy of Regreening Africa

How it spreads

In many parts of the world, what’s socially considered to be a “good” farm is one that is clean and bare of trees. The adoption of FMNR by farmers often then hinges on a change in mindset toward how trees on farms are perceived.

The workshop Mr. Augustino attended was hosted by the LEAD Foundation, a Tanzanian environmental organization founded by Bishop Dr. Simon Chiwanga after he retired from his religious career. Bishop Chiwanga heard about the work of Rinaudo, and in a short amount of time, FMNR became the sole focus of the LEAD Foundation, which is now working in more than 300 communities in Tanzania, hosting trainings and awareness-raising campaigns to encourage the approach in local communities.

“Farmers that believe in us and decide to leave trees on their farms saw their crops were not affected,” says Njamasi Chiwanga, the LEAD Foundation’s director of programs. “Then, they started to testify. They saw they got more benefits – more fodder, more firewood. And instead of walking long distances, they got those resources right on their farms.”

Echoing Chiwanga, Rinaudo stresses that while organizations play a big role in spreading the approach, peer-to-peer interactions that help breed local understanding and acceptance are critical to it becoming institutionalized in communities. “Farmers, herders or community members see their peers doing it, and if they also see there will be benefit in it for them, will tend to follow.”

Once the approach starts working, and farm yields begin to increase, strengthening farmers’ links to markets – and using local cooperatives and social entities to help farmers attain higher market prices – solidifies the practice with financial incentives to keep it going.

Bishop Dr. Simon Chiwanga, founder of Tanzania's FMNR-focused LEAD Foundation. Courtesy of the LEAD Foundation
Bishop Dr. Simon Chiwanga, founder of Tanzania’s FMNR-focused LEAD Foundation. Courtesy of the LEAD Foundation

Risks and challenges

The glory of FMNR is that it requires little labor and economic inputs, making it accessible and relatively easy for just about anyone with the right land on their hands to begin.

The pitfalls are that the lands where it’s needed and applicable most are often prone to serious challenges, some worsened by climate change and global warming, such as uncontrollable fires, as well as others more a product of complex and entrenched social systems between communities that have historically shared land.

Particularly in the southern reaches of the Sahel, migratory pastoralists have long brought their livestock through lands managed by sedentary farmers during certain parts of the year for their animals to graze off the land and, in return, help fertilize its soil. However, heightened resource scarcity as well as a rise in land ownership now leads to conflicts, sometimes armed, between these two groups – as well as more question marks for farmers about having trees on their property. If farmers feel insecure that their trees will survive and not be grazed or stolen, or be cause for violence, they are less likely to plant or cultivate them in the first place.

Nevertheless, Rinaudo says that despite this, he has seen FMNR still applied and result in peaceful shared land use. He recalls a 2019 visit to a part of Niger that he had not seen since 1984, when there were no trees present.

“The farmers there welcome the pastoralists that come from far away, because trees and fodder production supports the livestock that then increase soil fertility and crop yield,” Rinaudo says, adding that these contentious ecosystems can also be seen as opportunities to foster communication between polarized groups. “It’s not so important who owns the tree as it is that there are user rights to those trees and regulations on how those trees will be used – who can harvest when and under what conditions. The rules must be made jointly.”

Tony Rinaudo demonstrates pruning practices that spur the growth of tree species. Courtesy of World Vision
Tony Rinaudo demonstrates pruning practices that spur the growth of tree species. Courtesy of World Vision

What’s next

To how much land has FMNR been applied? “The honest answer is that I don’t know,” says Rinaudo, who says what’s lacking most in the realm of FMNR research is measurement. However, World Vision is partnering with organizations such as ETH Zürich and the Global Evergreening Alliance, which have developed ways to collate and interpret vegetation data from satellite imagery and from portable devices. The information is uploaded onto a platform that is accessible to donors and policymakers and can be used for stronger advocacy. While some countries like Kenya and Ethiopia have championed FMNR as a method to achieve their commitments to restoration initiatives such as the Bonn Challenge and AFR100, most countries where it’s being applied locally have yet to support it in national legislation.

This is why, in addition to educating local people on the FMNR approach, the LEAD Foundation has also run workshops and trainings for different stakeholders, including Members of Parliament of the Tanzanian government. And while Chiwanga says the approach is often met with enthusiasm, it has yet to be a campaign platform or specifically incorporated into long-term strategies. “There’s still that change in mindset that’s needed – that if we want to reforest, then we should only plant trees,” says Chiwanga. “Or perhaps people just think it’s too simple to be true.”

Mieke, of ICRAF, also emphasizes the need for more scientific research about FMNR across different regions of the globe. “Most studies, to date, are focused on Niger,” she says. “We do need to better understand the conditions under which FMNR is a suitable practice and the benefits that can be expected, particularly in areas outside of the Sahel.”

Its future, however, of course depends on farmers implementing FMNR before their land reaches the degraded state of Mr. Augustino’s, which means teaching future generations about the approach while they’re young. The LEAD Foundation, for instance, now works in schools across Tanzania and is developing a standard FMNR curriculum that can be used in extracurricular sessions to train students on the technique. Churches, mosques, dispensaries, hospitals and other public institutions. Rinaudo, too, hopes that the Global Evergreening Alliance platform will help local farmers understand how their personal efforts tie into larger global actions against climate change.

“I hope that in all this flurry of activity and funding and expertise, that we don’t forget who the main players are here. There are tens of millions of smallholder farmers and pastoralists who directly depend on the natural resource base for their livelihood. And when that have that ‘aha moment,’ with FMNR, then rapid tree restoration at scale can follow.”

A giraffe rests under an acacia tree on a landscape managed with FMNR in Niger. P. Savadogo, ICRAF
A giraffe rests under an acacia tree on a landscape managed with FMNR in Niger. P. Savadogo, ICRAF


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