How Tony discovered Africa's underground forest

This is the extraordinary story of Sub-Saharan Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, and the reforestation of an area the size of Tasmania through Farmer Managed Natural Revegetation (FMNR).

Behind this good news story is Tony Rinaudo, a quietly spoken Melburnian – agriculturalist, humanitarian, development expert – whose biography, The Forest Underground, has just been named the 2022 Sparklit Australian Christian Book of the Year.

This interview is between Tony, principal natural resources adviser at World Vision, and Chris Mulherin, Director of ISCAST (which published the book), who knew Tony and his wife Liz before they went to Niger in 1981 as missionaries with Serving in Mission (SIM).

In the interview, Tony talks of theology and agriculture, the challenges of cross-cultural development, the sins of an affluent West, and of angrily wrestling with God in prayer.

Stumbling beginnings

Chris:  So you went to Niger to do what? What did you think you were going there to do?

Tony: I was in charge of a preparatory Bible college which was placed on a property that was a farm school. So the idea was to … prepare students to go into Bible college … with the view to them becoming farmer evangelists. I was also managing the property and I was in charge of the Maradi Windbreak and Woodlot project. That’s what I went out to do.

I don’t know how well I managed the property or the Bible college or the project for that matter, and it was very frustrating because the tree project idea just didn’t work. Most trees that we planted just died, the people weren’t interested and they called me the “mad white farmer” for even wanting to think of such an idea because in their minds they were hungry, they were poor, and trees competed with the crops they were trying to grow – in their thinking – and so why should they listen to me? So it was very very frustrating.

Possibly the largest single environmental change in West Africa if not all of Africa.

Chris: So, in the short term for them it was a matter of cutting down the trees but in the long term that was damaging the ecology …

Tony: Extremely so. At the time when I was growing up in Australia, that district in Niger would have been a biodiverse dryland forest, and over time as the population grew and people’s need for farming land increased, they cleared the trees – and by the time we arrived in 1981 it was a moonscape. Average tree density was about four trees per hectare, but many hectares had zero trees and it was not only an ecological disaster … it was also a livelihoods disaster because the land – the natural resource base that we grow our food and cash crops on – could no longer provide for the people that were farming it, as a consequence of that deforestation.

While the trees had been cut down, they weren’t dead.

Chris: Now if we fast-forward almost 40 years … you’ve hit the world stage in quite a significant way … How did that come about?

Tony: Well, what happened in Niger has been described by a Dutch geographer as possibly the largest single environmental change in West Africa if not all of Africa. Meaning that the reforestation that has happened since that time is probably the largest single positive environmental change in all of Africa. I was awarded an ‘alternative Nobel Prize’ for that work.

An answer to a desperate prayer

Tony: We realised the tree planting idea wasn’t going to have any impact whatsoever: it was expensive, it was a failure in terms of survival rate, the people weren’t interested. And what came about really is an answer to a very frustrated prayer. God revealed that actually everything that we need is already there. While the trees had been cut down, they weren’t dead. And the stumps, sometimes just pieces of living root and often the seed stock, the seed bank in the soil the remnant seeds; they were there and all that was required was a change in behaviour. And the rest was history.

Tony Rinaudo Wolfgang Schmidt

So over a period of 20 years reforestation progressed at a rate of a quarter of a million hectares per year. Average tree density increased from four trees per hectare to over 40. And that equates to about 200 million trees that, while they were there before, weren’t visible. I call it my underground forest; they had to be released.

I call it my underground forest; they had to be released.

Chris: Now I have read somewhere that this dawned on you when you stopped by the side of the road to fix a tyre. Is that apocryphal or true?

Tony: That‘s pretty accurate. So, the soil is very sandy and you need to release pressure from the tyres to navigate without getting bogged, and I had a load of trees on and it was just one of those frustrating days when I was ready to give up. And I was a little bit angry with God -I’m not sure if you should be angry with God but I was – “why did you bring me out here? You could have just as easily made a fool of me in Australia you didn’t have to bring me all this way.”

God doesn’t call you out just to humiliate you or for you to fail.

Because we had tried everything, we poured our heart into this, we experimented, we read widely, we consulted others. Nothing worked in a sustainable, practical way, and yet despite that frustration I knew. God doesn’t call you out just to humiliate you or for you to fail: there must have been a reason, and I prayed in a sense a strange prayer – a little bit like Nehemiah’s – but in another sense perfectly normal. I asked God to forgive us. Because while I hadn’t taken part in the destruction in the Sahara, in our affluent Western lifestyle we had played our own part in contributing to climate change, to pollution and biodiversity loss, “so please forgive us for the destruction of the gift of your creation and as a consequence of that, people are suffering: they’re poor, they’re often hungry and they don’t know what to do.”

“Eyes wide open but totally blind”

Tony: I asked God “open our eyes, show us what to do; help us.” … Now remember I had been on this track for nearly two and a half years by this stage – nearly every week I would visit the villages, eyes wide open but totally blind to what I have called the underground forest. So you know, charging ahead I’ve got my trees on the back of the car; “ I’m going to do this thing.” Very much in my own strength and wisdom – “open our eyes and show us what to do” – and for the first time after praying that prayer, I saw what had been there all along.

For the first time after praying that prayer, I saw what had been there all along.

Across the landscape in the dry season when the crops aren’t growing, you can see all these little patches of green; they look like a desert bush or you might discount them as just a useless weed – something you would stomp on or just walk straight past and not give a second thought to. This day they caught my attention and I bothered to walk over from where I was letting the air pressure out to have a closer look. I knew my native trees by this stage and immediately when I see the distinctive shape of the leaf I knew: “that’s not a bush that’s a such-and-such a tree”, the native name is Kaligo Philostigma Reticulata. “That’s not a bush”. There were a few of these left in the landscape and I knew immediately what it was and in that instant, everything changed.

The desert is not the enemy

It was no longer a question of my budget and my time frame and the number of staff I had. I was not fighting the Sahara Desert. It was a question of people’s beliefs about trees, their negative attitudes and their destructive practices. And if I could convince them that it was in their best interest to allow some of these tree stumps to grow into full-sized trees, the rest would be very easy because nature will heal itself if you allow it. Yeah, you’re right, it was that frustration and looking out over a barren landscape in every direction and then asking, “What to do? What did you bring me out here for? Give me a break!”

Chris: We will come back to what you did next. But before we do that, you went out as missionaries, you went out as agriculturalists. Why does your faith lead you to go out to Africa to plant trees?

Abuse of the environment was accepted as the normal cost of progress.

Tony: Well, I feel God has gifted me in this area, and it was a personal calling from when I was very little – it was an answer to prayer actually. So 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.

Chris: A fair bit of sawmilling up there?

Tony: Oh yes. So it was pine plantations that were going in, and I’m not against pines, but the way the land was being abused, the way it was being implemented seemed very short-sighted, and as bad as that was, the attitude that this was normal. Abuse of the environment was accepted as the normal cost of progress. So I don’t know where all this came from in me; there are no environmentalists in my family, but these things disturbed me. The second thing was that I would watch the news and read whenever I could about world events and there were children just like me, who through no fault of their own were born somewhere else and they were going to bed hungry; and in my valley we were growing tobacco. And I just said, “That doesn’t add up, that doesn’t make sense”.

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.” Even going to university and studying agriculture and then it was sort of confirmed in a way, because that’s where I met Liz, and she was also studying agriculture and had a sense of calling to be a missionary. Those things were steps along the way to, I believe, fulfilling that prayer and answering that prayer. So it’s a sense of calling, a sense of gratitude – God’s given us so much and ‘what have you done for the least of these my brethren’ sort of kicks in there too.

Chris: So back to Africa. It dawned on you that the underground forest was there and you changed your tack in terms of doing something about this problem. What did you do?

Tony: We were working at that time in about 12 villages and I visited these villages and asked for a volunteer, somebody who would implement this on a small corner of their land. And in retrospect they were either the village idiots for listening to me because they really copped a lot; they were laughed at and ridiculed: “You crazy dirty farmer, don’t you know that if you have trees on your land you won’t have a crop” which was everything to them – they always lived on the edge of hunger. So they were either the village idiots or they were very visionary and they could see something in this.

Any oddity, any moving away from the norm was greatly discouraged. So these guys were ridiculed.

And so we persevered with them in 1983 and it was looking really good, but the taller those trees grew, the greater the opposition was – remembering this is a very traditional society. And if we think in Australia we have a tall poppy syndrome, it’s nothing compared to what happens out there because the way communities survive was to stick together and to conform. Any oddity, any moving away from the norm was greatly discouraged. So these guys were ridiculed. At nighttime their trees were cut down, sometimes out of need, sometimes out of this fear, being different from what the ancestors set for us to do.

From that critical mass over the next 20 years, it spread from farmer to farmer.

Even though I had these 10 or 12 guys doing it, it would have failed in 1983, but as it turned out in 1984 there was a catastrophic drought and an almost total crop failure which followed several bad years. And what that means is, when you’re living on the edge, people had no reserves. So they were terribly desperate for food and it’s quite another different story, but how we were able to get a food-for-work program mounted and getting permission in a Muslim country is another story. But eventually, we were able to mount a food-for-work program in those 12 villages, but it grew to 100 over that year: 1984. Fortunately, the government of the time said if you are going to give out food aid then people have to work for it if they are able-bodied, and this was wonderful.

And we had enough evidence from 1983 with the trees, we knew this would work. So I had a captive audience in 100 villages and things were going along fine while I had the food to give. Every month we would count the trees. If they had 40 trees on their hectare of land they would get their allotment of food. Then the next harvest came in, in September or October – great harvest – and people said “finished with Tony and his silly trees.” And about 75 per cent of the half-a-million odd trees got cut out again. “Now we will get on with our life, thank you very much.” But 25 per cent of the farmers who did this – and it could have been a core group of you know 2000-3000 farmers, which is good, it’s a critical mass – was enough people that there was mutual support to resist the joking and the derision and all that comes with it. From that critical mass over the next 20 years, it spread from farmer to farmer. We were certainly doing things but what happened without our knowledge was even far greater.

It went viral. It went organic. It was a people movement. I would think … as far as I can tell, I am not aware of any regreening movement without a massive money injection. There was minimal money injection; it’s probably the biggest of its type anywhere in the world. I haven’t read of anything else like this.

It spread to five million hectares over a 20-year period without my knowledge. I knew what was happening in my district and we welcomed any visitor: Peace Corps group, NGO, faith-based group, a government foresters’ group. “Come, come and spend a day with our farmers.” And I took mostly my farmers, sometimes my staff, and I sent them to the four corners of Niger, wherever they were welcome.

“There are trees everywhere!”

Tony: In the next 10 or 15 years, I never got any feedback. Did they laugh at it? Did it work? Did it fail? There was no response. I knew in my area it was having a tremendous impact. We left Niger in 1999 and in 2004 I met a Dutch researcher and he gets his pen out and he says: “Tony, this is amazing: I’ve just done a road-trip across Niger and I have been coming here for 30 years -there are trees everywhere!” He estimated one million hectares and later he worked with the US Geological Survey and they analysed their satellite images: it was five million hectares! He banged his pen down on the table and he said: “Enough research, this message has to get out to the world!”, and he has been the flying Dutchman, going to US congress and going to Dutch governments and donors, going to NGOs sharing about this method that spread organically across Niger.

Chris: And it’s now known as FMNR. Is that right? What does that stand for?

Tony: It stands for Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, and as much as we have tried to find a more catchy phrase, a more marketable phrase, it actually is what it says and we haven’t come up with a better alternative. When we take it to a new country though, I actually give a small money prize ($10 or so) to anyone who can come up with … something that’s meaningful in the vernacular. Because it has to be owned by the people using it.

These particular species are drawing water from deep and redistributing it within the zone of the roots of the crop.

Since 1999 I’ve been with World Vision and we have put in a big effort to spread this wherever World Vision works and with and through other partners who are taking it even beyond where we work. And so we’ve been able to introduce it into 24 countries. The trouble with this thing is, in terms of measurement, it’s an idea: I’m not planting an actual tree; I am giving you an idea and I have no control over where that idea goes. So, while we estimate perhaps in World Vision programs there is an additional one million hectares we have no idea of knowing. And my suspicion is – based on the Niger experience – it’s actually much greater than that.

The way God’s put Creation together is astounding. For example, the very trees that we came across and practise FMNR on, they’re fertiliser trees – they put nitrogen in the soil – some of them are doing a thing called bio-irrigation: they draw water from deep in the soil through their tap root. At night they leak that water out into the shallow soil surface irrigating crops. And you can see photos where under the tree – it’s counter-intuitive – under the tree in a drought year, the crop isn’t just surviving it is thriving. You go three metres away from the trunk of the tree and there is hardly any green whatsoever. It’s bio-irrigating … These particular species are drawing water from deep and redistributing it within the zone of the roots of the crop.

They are providing habitats. So, we don’t need pesticides because God’s the farmers’ friend. God’s army if you like is in there: the lizards, the insect-eating birds, the spiders and so on, now have habitat. They won’t eliminate pests but they will bring in balance.

So crop yield has doubled in one of the hungriest and poorest countries in the world, and gross income – the value of what people consume and sell because of the trees – is in the order of up to $1000 per household and that equates to nearly $900 million, year after year after year; without subsidy, without fertiliser, without irrigation, without any of these helps.

God’s army if you like is in there: the lizards, the insect-eating birds, the spiders and so on, now have habitat.

Just because they have allowed these trees to grow. Allowed the trees to grow and working with nature, with God’s creation instead of fighting it and destroying it, and making it incapable of doing what it was designed to do. So I get very excited. So that’s a local example.

On a world scale, if we can do this at scale – and the World Resources Institute estimates there are two billion hectares of degraded land globally; five hundred million of these are formerly farmlands, degraded farmlands, no longer in use. Imagine if we could do this on two billion hectares.

Tony’s biography, The Forest Underground: Hope for a Planet in Crisis, is available here or at Koorong.

Discover more

You might be interested in these related items

The Forest Underground

Tony Rinaudo

Available from Koorong

Eternity News is not responsible for the content on other websites