Reviewed by Augustine Doronila

Posted 10 March 2020

Up to 700 million people could be obliged to leave their homelands during the next three decades because of increasing desertification in the landscapes where they live. In the opinion of many scientists, there is only one hope: to convince local farmers of ‘sustainable land management’.

The first part of this book engages with Tony Rinaudo’s pioneering technique, Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, or FMNR. Now the Senior Climate Action Adviser at World Vision Australia, Rinaudo is known more famously as the ‘Forest Maker’ who was a catalyst in transforming millions of hectares of barren dry land in the Niger Republic, West Africa. Through World Vision this approach was introduced into 23 countries.

With large-scale implementation of FMNR, significant inroads were achieved just in time to stop and indeed reverse the destruction of livelihoods. FMNR led to the restoration of 7 million hectares of land across Niger alone – an area nearly the size of Tasmania. The implementation of this technique resulted in the restoration of farmland, where previously desertification threatened farmers who were often hungry and in some instances facing starvation.

Tony Rinaudo restoring ‘underground forests’.

For many people, Rinaudo is an environmental hero for making a positive impact on food security, and environmental sustainability and resilience for thousands of vulnerable communities around the world.

The second part of the book describes the science behind FMNR, and the third and last section presents an in-depth interview with Gunter Nooke, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal representative for Africa, in which he discusses the social and political ramifications of Rinaudo’s discovery and subsequent application.

I had a chance encounter with Tony Rinaudo in early 2012. At the time, he was working for World Vision as a Natural Resources Management Specialist and agronomist, and I was involved with a team scoping a research project on food security in Africa. We struck up a conversation over a cuppa, and in a very self-effacing manner Rinaudo shared what he had done as a Christian missionary in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was a conversation that impressed me deeply, as I realised that he was someone who had made a transformative impact in translating his faith experience to protect and restore the environment as an inseparable part of his humanitarian work.

In Tony’s words:

I grew up in the beautiful Ovens Valley, and when I was little I was just so disturbed by the environmental destruction happening in my own area, bulldozing the hills and leaving them fallow for long periods. I didn’t understand ecology but anybody could see that wasn’t good for biodiversity, erosion, all these different things, and that really upset me. I felt powerless to do anything about either the environmental destruction or the poverty elsewhere but I prayed and I asked God “please use me somehow, somewhere to make a difference”.

Soon after studies as an agriculturist, Rinaudo went to Niger as a missionary, together with his wife Liz, to be responsible for a preparatory Bible college, which was also a farm school for training local farmer evangelists. One of the initiatives in the district was the Maradi Windbreak and Woodlot project. To quote Rinaudo:

When I arrived in 1981, I was confronted by an environment on the cusp of ecological collapse and barely able to support life. The country was in undeclared crisis. In 1984, Niger faced famine. Severe drought and crop failure the previous year precipitated this crisis. Deforestation and land degradation over previous decades significantly exacerbated the impact.

Rinaudo’s idea of a tree-planting project just didn’t work, as most trees planted died. The people weren’t interested and called him ‘the mad white farmer’ for even wanting to think of such an idea. In their minds they were hungry and poor, and trees competed with the crops they were trying to grow for the minimum resources available. In other words, says Rinaudo, “so why should they listen to me? So it was very, very frustrating”.

‘Underground forests’

This frustration opened Rinaudo’s eyes to discover a forest in a barren landscape, and this genesis is the central theme of the book. In the 1980s, while travelling through barren land in Niger where tree-planting efforts were failing, Rinaudo discovered that root systems remained alive underground even in the harshest, desert-like landscapes, and to encourage these ‘underground forests’ to grow into trees, he just needed to prune and manage the tree shoots. With the protection and care of the shoots, the original tree populations were regenerated without major financial costs.

Rinaudo inspired farmers to carry on this work over the years, and before moving back to Australia in 1999, the Government of the Niger Republic honoured him with the Commandeur du Merit, Agricole, the highest decoration that Niger bestows on expatriates, for his contribution to environmental restoration and services to humanity.

Almost 20 years later, in January 2018, Rinaudo was appointed a Member (AM) of the Order of Australia (General Division) in recognition of more that 35 years of working with communities to regenerate degraded lands across Asia and Africa.  That same year Rinaudo’s work was the subject of a book publication.

In a recent ABC interview, Rinaudo shared valuable insights about his work in Africa:

We are in climate crisis and the first step towards addressing a crisis is to declare it so. In Niger, individuals and communities for the most part weren’t particularly interested. Most didn’t want to change. Regardless, we combined humanitarian relief activities with aggressive reforestation activities. Gently, patiently, respectfully bringing people on a journey. We were teaching, but also learning with them about the best methods. The crisis had people’s attention and opened the door of comprehension and willingness to change more than a notch.

Rinaudo’s work in Africa demonstrated that we can do something in Australia to address the climate crisis. He says, “This has proven true in country after country that I have worked in. It took a severe crisis to elicit positive change”.

Dr Augustine Doronila is a Senior Analyst Chemistry at the School of Chemistry of University of Melbourne. His expertise is in phytoremediation, restoration ecology, post-mining reclamation, and biogeochemistry. His email is
Photo Tony Rinaudo, the forest maker.
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