Book of the year offers hope for a hurting planet

Australia’s best Christian book for 2022 has been named: The Forest Underground: Hope for a Planet in Crisis by Tony Rinaudo.

This year over 96 books were entered into the SparkLit Australian Christian Book of the Year Awards, with ten books shortlisted for the prize. Among those vying for the award were John Dickson’s Bullies and Saints, journalist Greg Sheridan’s Christians, and Sam Chan and Malcolm Gill’s Topical Preaching in a Complex World.

However, it was Rinaudo’s biography that “moved the judges to tears”, with its hopefulness and picture of “what it looks like to be a faithful Christian”, said the host of last night’s award ceremony held in Melbourne.

In the award-winning book, Rinaudo shares his journey from Myrtleford in Victoria to the landlocked country of Niger in West Africa. Here he spends 17 years transforming the lives of subsistence farmers with his simple and affordable method of regreening land.

“95 per cent of my time is [spent] re-greening mindscapes.” – Tony Rinaudo

As the book title suggests, Rinaudo and his wife Liz, now world-renowned agronomists, help farmers discover the forest underground by reviving damaged trees rather than planting new ones. This sustainable system of land management has revolutionised reforestation across Africa and beyond. Not only is Rinaudo’s system changing farmers’ lives, but it is also giving hope to help manage the world’s environmental crisis.

Yet Rinaudo’s story is also a journey of faith. As a boy, he felt convicted about the abuse and degradation of the environment, and so he offered himself to God to help address this problem. As his remarkable book shows, this prayer launched an adventure across continents and decades that Rinaudo could never have imagined.

Speaking at last night’s award ceremony, Rinaudo said the key to his success is the relationships he built with local Africans. In turn, these relationships help to change people’s minds about their land management practices.

“If we continue business as usual, destroying the environment our life depends on, where will that take us?”

“Taking time, listening, watching when people were relaxed and being part of that time was just as important as all the proper business things that you do nine to five – I would argue more important.

“It’s fascinating to me that most development textbooks talk about best practices and technologies and methods. 95 per cent of our success is in relationships and building trust, being there for people when they’re vulnerable, when they’re happy,” he shared.

“I work for World Vision and the marketing people have great fun at my expense. They make up names [for me], ‘the tree whisperer’, ‘the forest maker’,” Rinaudo continued. “And I really surprise them when I turn to them and say actually 95 per cent of my time is [spent] re-greening mindscapes. That’s the space that I work in.

“And so how do you do that? I don’t think I do that. You’re giving me powers that I don’t have. The trees themselves have such a big impact that the people convince themselves. The little part that I play is to ask people to think, if we continue business as usual, destroying the environment our life depends on, where will that take us? A lot of people have never really thought that through before. When they do, it’s quite frightening.”

Tony Rinaudo at the 2022 SparkLit Australian Christian Book of the Year Awards on September 1

“We’ve had the most amazing responses,” Rinaudo enthused. “I’ve run workshops in 27 countries and people say, ‘It will be hell on earth. Everything that I know and love, our ancestral land, we’ll have to leave it and go to the capital city.’

“And I say, ‘Oh, that’s not very good. Would you like to try something with me? I don’t know the full answers, but let’s experiment together on a small part of your land and see where that takes us.’ And so it’s a journey. It’s very important that it’s not me teaching; it’s us learning together. It really is an experiment together to see if we can do this thing better.”

Another winning written work for the evening was To Be Like Him, whose author, Rachel Board, took out the Australian Christian Teen Writer Award.

Nichola Chadwick won the award for Young Australian Christian Writer for her poetry collection, Breathe on Me.

Find a list of all ten books shortlisted for Australian Christian Book of the Year at Koorong.

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The Forest Underground: Hope For a Planet in Crisis

Tony Rinaudo

Available from Koorong

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