World Environment Day: Green revolution can spring from crisis

Known formally as World Vision’s Senior Climate Action Advisor, but more famously as The Forest Maker, Tony Rinaudo helped transform millions of hectares of dry land in Niger. For many people, he is an environmental hero for making a positive impact on food security, environmental sustainability and resilience for thousands of vulnerable communities around the world. Rinaudo is a Natural Resources Management Specialist and agronomist who has developed and promoted agricultural-forestry-pastoral systems. This has resulted in him being nominated for, and winning several international awards.

More than 25 years ago, with the help of the local farmers in Niger, Tony began implementing a conservation farming system called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). This approach has been so successful it has been applied in at least 24 African countries.

Friday, June 5, is World Environment Day and Rinaudo wants the world to pay attention to an environment lesson:

Winston Churchill once famously wrote “never let a good crisis go to waste.” On the surface, this would seems to belittle human suffering. But taken in the right light, the former British PM’s statement is a powerful call to arms.

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Friday, June 5, is World Environment Day and, amid a global pandemic, Churchill’s statement is a way to create a better future for our planet. It’s a way to honour the sufferers – and chart a new path for generations to come.

The area had been written off by the experts, and not without good reason.

We only need to look through the pages of Africa’s history to see how a green revolution can spring from crisis.

Following unprecedented drought in the 1970s, the Sahel region experienced enormous suffering. An estimated 100,000 people perished, along with 50-70 per cent of cattle.

In 1977, at a United Nations Conference on Desertification, there was hope that a united effort to combat desertification would herald a new era. But great scepticism was held for some regions. It seemed near impossible to restore the Sahel zone, a 5,900 kilometre swathe of land stretching from the Atlanic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east.

One presenter even remarked that the best idea would be to move the entire population 200 kilometres south – and start again.

The area had been written off by the experts, and not without good reason. Attempts at reforestation were proving very costly and ineffectual.

But fast forward four decades and the Sahel zone – along with many other ‘hopeless’, barren areas in seven West African countries – are now bursting with life.

Through the discovery and popular adoption of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) – a simple, rapid and low-cost reforestation method – communities demonstrated their ability to rise up in the face of crisis, and achieve the impossible.

The approach involves systematic regeneration, management and regrowth of trees and shrubs from felled tree stumps, roots and seedlings. The simple act of pruning can tap into underground root systems, rapidly turning shrubs and stumps into mature trees and forests in a matter of years.

In 2016, the US Geological survey found 15 million hectares of land had been regreened by FMNR across seven West African countries (Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Burkina Fasso, Niger, Chad, Nigeria).

Large tracts of formerly denuded and degraded land were now supporting tree cover averaging 40 trees per hectare. Interestingly, the regreening method gained popularity through a food for work program in Niger Republic in 1984 – a year of severe famine.

The probability of a green recovery emanating from Niger was close to zero.

Niger is a borderland of the Sahara Desert with extremely harsh conditions. At the time, farmers believed trees needed to be cleared from the land – not restored. Standard reforestation projects were costing around US$8,000 per hectare when losses were taken into account. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world and by the early 1980s, investment in the forestry sector by donors and government alike had dwindled to a trickle.

It was amid the crucible of famine that change-resistant communities paused. They re-evaluated their approach to land management, and realised that if they continued with the status quo, there would be no future for them or their children in their own land.

And so they made a choice to do things differently – and restore tree cover on farmland.

In 2020 we find ourselves confronted by multiple major crises, all connected by one invisible thread.

Thirty-six years later there are over six million hectares of FMNR across Niger’s farmlands. It is estimated that annual gross incomes linked to the restoration of tree cover exceeds US$1 billion – and the annual increase in grain production compared to BAU is in the order of 5,600,000 tons.

Tree restoration has enabled diversification of income streams and increased communities’ resilience to climatic shocks such as drought. People gripped in a vicious cycle of poverty and hunger were now engaged in a virtuous cycle of prosperity and resilience.

And here in 2020 we find ourselves confronted by multiple major crises, all connected by one invisible thread. Abuse of the very mechanism which makes life on earth possible – the environment.

We find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic destroying lives and livelihoods. We also face the very real threat of catastrophic climate change and biodiversity collapse which will affect the wellbeing and food security of millions of people. More than 75 percent of Earth’s land areas are substantially degraded, undermining the well-being of 3.2 billion people. The natural resource from which the world derives most of its food is being squandered.

If ever there was a need for a call to arms it is now. If ever there was an opportunity to launch unprecedented change in the way we treat the environment, it is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The failure of key countries to follow through on commitments made to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016 may be a case of deja vu.

Governments pay more attention to a hiccup in the stock exchange than they do to irreversible loss of fertile soil and biodiversity. Entrenched interest groups seek to exploit every last ounce of fossil fuel even though they concede it is killing us. The situation seems hopeless.

And yet, if the lesson of Niger teaches us anything, it is that impossible changes can become possible with amazing rapidity – given the right conditions and intentions. I long to see our government treat climate change as the emergency that it is and move beyond the tentative pretence of action to taking the bold steps necessary to avert disaster. The silver lining of COVID-19 is the door it opens for real change.

In the recovery process we have a choice: return to the status quo, or build a better future.

Tony Rinaudo is World Vision Australia’s Senior Climate Action Advisor.

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