Creation care is God's business ... and ours
Part two of ‘The Forestmaker’s’ series
In this second article in a three-part series, ‘The Forestmaker’, Tony Rinaudo, recounts the instant when, feeling close to despair, God showed him how to restore tree cover in Niger – as well as a bigger lesson for all of us.
All but defeated, I was ready to give up and go home. I had been struggling to make an impact. Despite great effort, my attempts to reverse desertification in Niger Republic, West Africa, failed. The people had no interest in growing trees. It all seemed hopeless. I had nothing else to offer.
One morning, I read, “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:30). While the idea of God’s Spirit renewing the earth caught my attention, the significance didn’t dawn on me until later that day as I drove through a barren moonscape. I stopped the vehicle on a compacted area that could have served as a car park. I doubted this land could ever be restored. Then, looking down at my feet, I saw a tiny germinating plant pushing through a crack in the dry, hard ground and immediately recalled the morning’s reading.
That’s when I realised that God is not only in the business of saving lost souls and healing broken humanity. God is also in the business of renewing and healing his broken creation. With this revelation, I felt a great burden lift – the task of restoring the earth was not my burden alone. This was God’s work, and I could go to him for guidance, help and strength.
The real battle was primarily against false beliefs.
Soon after, I was driving a pickup truck and trailer loaded with tree seedlings for the villagers. Knowing full well most trees would die and that the people didn’t care, I was feeling particularly down. I stopped and reduced the air pressure in the tyres to prevent the vehicle from getting bogged down in the deep sand. As I looked out over the barren landscape, it seemed hopeless – I wondered how many years, how many million dollars and how many hundreds of staff it would take to make any meaningful impact.
Not having an answer, I turned to God in prayer, asking him to forgive us for destroying the gift of his creation and, as a consequence, people were now hungry, poor and fearful for the future. I reminded God that he still loved us and asked him to open my eyes, show me what to do and to help me.
As I looked across the landscape again, a seemingly useless bush caught my attention, and I walked over to take a closer look. As soon as I saw the shape of the leaves, I realised that it wasn’t a bush at all. It was a tree that had been cut down and was re-sprouting from the living stump. I knew that there were millions of such “bushes” in the landscape and envisioned a vast underground forest just waiting to regrow.
In that instant, everything changed. I was no longer fighting the Sahara Desert; I didn’t need a miracle species of tree that could withstand the goats and cutting and drought. Everything I needed was literally at my feet – an “underground forest”.
In that moment, my approach shifted from being primarily technical (reverse deforestation with tree planting) to challenging spiritual, social and cultural norms. I reasoned that if it was people’s false beliefs about the value of trees on their land that led to negative attitudes and destructive practices, bringing the landscape to the point where it could barely support life, then the real battle was primarily against false beliefs. I knew that restoration would be relatively easy if I could convince people that it was in their best interest to work with creation instead of destroying it. After all, everything needed for reforestation was literally at their feet!
The technique of growing trees from living stumps and self-sown seed is today called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR).  From 1984, FMNR spread largely from farmer to farmer at an estimated rate of a quarter of a million hectares per year for the next 20 years. On-farm tree density increased from four trees per hectare to 40, resulting in 200 million trees restored across five million hectares of degraded land without planting a single tree.
Restoration would be relatively easy if I could convince people that it was in their best interest to work with creation instead of destroying it.
Windspeeds, temperatures and evaporation rates decreased. Soil fertility increased. As the trees grew, habitats for beneficial predators, such as insect-eating birds, lizards and spiders were created, bringing back greater balance in nature and reducing crop damage from insect pests. Because of improved soil fertility and moisture levels and a more favorable microclimate, crop yields increased, and in time, farmers were able to grow and raise more and different types of crops and livestock. With greater diversity came greater resilience to climatic shocks. More children were able to attend school. The burden on women was reduced as firewood could now be found closer to home.
It is estimated that gross incomes in the immediate project area increased by $1000 per household each year. Extrapolating this added income from FMNR to the entire five million hectares implies aggregate income benefits of $900 million per year, benefiting about 900,000 households or 4.5 million people. Observations backed by subsequent research showed that the increase in millet yields ranged from 49 to 153 per cent. Through FMNR, Nigerien farmers were producing 500,000 more tonnes of cereal per year than in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, 2.5 million people are now more food secure.
Indeed, God had not forgotten Niger. He has provided all that is needed for the physical life of its inhabitants. What was missing was a culture of caring for God’s creation.
This article is the second of a three-part series by Tony Rinaudo, AM, author of the award-winning book, The Forest Underground. Tony’s life work has focused on forest and landscape restoration and helping farmers to become self-sufficient through natural farming approaches. He is World Vision’s Principal Climate Action Advisor, promoting reforestation initiatives globally. To read part one of this series, click here. Watch out for part three, coming soon.
 Tony Rinaudo., “FMNR Frequently Asked Questions with Tony Rinaudo,” The Climate Action and Resilience Team, World Vision Australia, accessed Jan. 9, 2023, https://fmnrhub.com.au/frequently-asked-questions/#.Y7tdS3YzZRY.
 Tony Rinaudo et al., “Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration: Community Driven, Low Cost and Scalable Reforestation Approach for Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation,” abstract, in Handbook of Climate Change Management, ed. W. L. Filho, J. Luetz, and D. Ayal (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2021), https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-3-030-22759-3_281-1.
 C. Pye-Smith, The Quiet Revolution: How Niger’s Farmers are Re-greening the Parklands of the Sahel, ICRAF Trees for Change, no. 12 (Nairobi; World Agroforestry Centre, 2013), 20.
 J. Sendzimir, C. P. Reij, and P. Magnuszewski, “Rebuilding Resilience in the Sahel: Regreening in the Maradi and Zinder Regions of Niger,” Ecology and Society 16, no. 3 (2011): 1, http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol16/iss3/art1/.
 C. Reij, G. Tappan, and M. Smale, “Agroenvironmental Transformation in the Sahel: Another Kind of ‘Green Revolution,’” IFPRI Discussion Paper 00914 (Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2009), 18; C. Reij, G. Tappan, and M. Smale, “Re-Greening the Sahel: Farmer-Led Innovation in Burkina Faso and Niger,” in Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development, ed. David J. Spielman and Rajul Pandya-Lorch (Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2009), 56; and Babou Ndour, Alioune Sarr, and Abdou Mbaye, “Projets BEYSATOL/SFLEI, Rapport d’Activites,” Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles Centre National de Recherches Agronomiques (ISRA) (unpublished report, 2010).