The Aussie forest maker helping to heal the planet

As the climate change conference, COP26, takes place in Glasgow and our Prime Minister has committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, here’s the story of an Aussie whose prayer-inspired discovery is a significant contribution to fighting climate change. It’s a “great news” story – great news of hope for the planet. To find out how we can play a part in it, read on.

Tony Rinaudo is an Aussie missionary, also known as “the forest maker,” who is a Right Livelihood Award Laureate and Member of the Order of Australia. As a young man growing up in Victoria’s Ovens Valley, Tony formed a deep concern for trees and forests as he witnessed land degradation right on his doorstep.

In the hills and valleys of northeast Victoria, Tony was disturbed by the bulldozing of forests to make way for pine plantations and the land clearing to grow tobacco crops. Biodiversity was being lost and the environment abused in the name of “progress.” But how could this be progress, Tony wondered, when we focus on growing tobacco but children in other countries are going to bed hungry?

Tree removal was not nurturing growth and health, but facilitating desert, famine, disease, and drought.

Shaped by these two desires to repair the environment and relieve poverty, Tony trained in agronomy at The University of Armidale where he met and married Liz who shared his passion and the call to serve overseas. Step by step, God was guiding and providing, and in 1981 the recently married couple arrived in Niger, Africa.

What Tony saw when he arrived in 1981 were large swaths of “moonscape.” Trees were incessantly cut down to grow single crops because farmers saw trees on their land as weeds to be eliminated. The result was rampant deforestation. This desert moonscape was an ecological and a livelihood disaster, as the land could no longer provide for the people living on it. Tree removal was not nurturing growth and health, but facilitating desert, famine, disease, and drought – a destructive cycle.

For the first few dogged years, Tony tried conventional tree-planting, but to his deep frustration, the new trees were dying because of neglect, animals, drought, sandstorms, or termites. Adding to a sense of failure was the indifference and even hostility of many farmers to the idea of reforestation – they called him “the mad white farmer.”

He recalls the day that he angrily prayed, “Lord, 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.” Yet, in desperation, he also asked of God, “Open our eyes; show us what to do. Help us.”

“These ‘bushes’ were living time capsules ready to recolonise the land if given a chance.” Tony Rinaudo

After two-and-a-half long years of frustration and failure, Tony experienced his “light-bulb” moment:

He says: “In the past, I had always hurried to get on with the job of tree planting. But not today … A ‘bush’ on the side of the road caught my attention. Thinking the bushes scattered across the landscape were just desert shrubs or weeds, I never gave them a second thought. I walked over and took a closer look … This was not a ‘bush’. These leaves belonged to a tree. It had been cut down, and they were resprouting from the stump! These ‘bushes’ were living time capsules ready to recolonise the land if given a chance. I realised that I was standing on an underground forest.”

Even in the harshest desert landscapes, the shoots of the underground forest could be encouraged to grow into trees by pruning and management. Tony had discovered an embarrassingly simple method of restoring landscape without planting a single tree!

But if it took two-and-a-half years to see a solution, it took more than 20 years to change people’s attitudes. There was hostility, derision, and joking about Tony’s method, and an ingrained rejection of anything out of the ordinary, anything not traditional. But through the catastrophic drought of 1984, Tony’s “food-for-work” program was catalysed, leading to a gradual acceptance of the method spreading from farmer to farmer. After two decades, it had “gone viral.”

Tony’s pioneering method is called FMNR, Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration. FMNR is simple, sustainable, and cheap. This is great news, as the benefits of FMNR are seemingly endless:

  • It protects families from famine, starvation, disease, and death.
  • It enhances essential biodiversity, holding moisture in the soil and reducing land and air temperatures.
  • It has the potential to draw down millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air, providing a nature-based solution to climate change.
  • And it feeds people! In Niger alone, local farmers embracing FMNR have rehabilitated more than five million hectares of ruined land (that’s over 200 million trees!) while doubling their crop yields and income. Tony says, “In Niger, our calculations show the crop yields feed an extra 2.5 million people every year.”

It’s almost too good to be true. The news is out: according to Chris Reij at the World Resources Institute, “FMNR is probably the largest positive environmental transformation in the Sahel and, perhaps, in all of Africa.”

Now as World Vision Australia’s Senior Climate Action Adviser, Tony has a mission is to see FMNR introduced into 100 countries by 2030. He wants to initiate a global FMNR movement that will result in the restoration of not millions but billions of hectares of land. Restoration at such a scale will have a huge positive impact on communities, climate, and the environment. FMNR has already been introduced into 26 countries and continues to spread.

“It’s such a simple solution to so many environmental and humanitarian issues. I hope Australia can become a global leader in investing in this technique,” Tony says.

The story of this Aussie from the bush is exciting news, offering incredible hope for our planet right at the time when the latest IPCC report (29 August 2021) conveys worrying climate trends. It’s no wonder the UN’s COP26 in Glasgow is stressing how vital it is for all of us to work together for this beautiful world, as explained here.

How can we play a part in this great news? We can tell the story. Tony’s testimony is a powerful witness and tool; it carries a powerful message of hope. It’s worth telling, worth spreading, and worth being a part of. Tony is writing his inspiring story, with proceeds going to the global FMNR movement. But he needs our support. Australia’s ISCAST (The Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology) will publish his autobiography and is raising funds through a Kickstarter campaign to make it possible. Will you join the journey and be a part of healing the planet? If so, click here.

David Hooker is Publications Director for ISCAST–Christians in Science and Technology. David is trained in science and theology and recently completed doctoral studies synthesising science and theology. More details about Tony’s book are available on the ISCAST website here