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Let it grow: Q&A with reforestation and land restoration visionary Tony Rinaudo

  • Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) is a community-led approach to naturally restoring degraded landscapes and ecosystems, and it’s credited with reforesting many millions of hectares of degraded land, globally.
  • Though FMNR has literally sprouted in many places over time, Tony Rinaudo is the best known and most vocal proponent of this technique that’s reforested an estimated six million hectares of Niger alone.
  • Encouraging cleared forests to resprout makes resilient, climate-positive agroecology practices like agroforestry possible, as crops grown in the cooling shade of trees also benefit from improved soil health and water levels.
  • In a wide-ranging interview, Rinaudo shares his hopes, dreams, and insights about FMNR with Mongabay readers.

Tony Rinaudo is an Australian agronomist who was given the Right Livelihood Award in 2018 for demonstrating how drylands can be re-greened on a large scale at minimal cost, making livelihood improvements like agroforestry and honey production possible for millions of people.

After spinning his wheels for years while managing a failing reforestation project in Niger, a perhaps divine inspiration spurred him to look more closely at the land he was trying to plant tree seedlings in: what he saw was a former forest just waiting to regrow itself.

From this seed was born Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), an elegantly simple approach to re-greening degraded lands from tree stumps and seed stocks still alive in degraded soils, which only need a farmer’s encouragement to sprout forth again.

Rinaudo, who is now the Principal Climate Action Advisor for the NGO World Vision Australia, answered Mongabay’s questions about the technique’s power and promise via email while on tour promoting his new book on the topic, “The Forest Underground.” His answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Mongabay: You popularized this technique of regrowing trees from existing root systems and seeds still intact on cleared land. Can you explain how it works and when you first noticed the regenerative potential lying just below the soil’s surface?

Tony Rinaudo: A working definition of FMNR is a community-led approach to naturally regenerating degraded landscapes and ecosystems. It is a sustainable land management approach that seeks to engage and empower land users (farmers, pastoralists, forest dwellers, communities, etc) to prevent and reverse land degradation through regrowing trees. The principles of FMNR can be applied on cropping, grazing, forested and even in so-called ‘wastelands.’

On a technical level, FMNR involves the systematic regrowth and management of trees and shrubs from felled tree stumps, sprouting root systems or seeds, or in existing woody thickets.

Results of Farmer Natural Regeneration in Luhundwa, Tanzania, from 2019 - 2022. Photo courtesy of World Vision.
Results of Farmer Natural Regeneration in Luhundwa, Tanzania, from 2019 – 2022. Photo courtesy of LEAD Foundation.

The approach is simple, scalable and requires no external inputs or equipment to implement. Thus, FMNR is both a technical practice and community development approach for mobilizing and empowering local communities to restore their natural environment.

I managed a reforestation project in my early years in Niger which was planting around 6,000 trees a year, most of which died. So, I threw all that I had at solving the problem. I consulted the experts, read papers, experimented with new techniques of tree planting, but nothing worked in a sustainable, cost effective or satisfying way. Most farmers weren’t interested in trees, they wanted to grow food and cash crops on their small farms, and the thanks I got for my efforts was that they called me the ‘crazy white farmer.’

One day I was driving with another load of trees and I looked out across the landscape – in every direction I saw barrenness and devastation. I wondered how many dollars, how many years, how many staff it would take to make a difference – and I knew, using these conventional methods, it was impossible.  It all seemed a hopeless waste of time and money. I was so discouraged that I was ready to give up and go home.

But I had a sense that I was meant to be there, that there must be a solution, and I just prayed a simple prayer. Normally I would jump back in the car and keep going, but on this particular day, a small bush caught my attention. I took the trouble to take a closer look and on seeing the shape of the leaf, I immediately realized it wasn’t a bush at all – it was a tree which had been cut down but was re-sprouting from the stump.

In that instant everything changed. I was not fighting the Sahara Desert, it was not a question of funding, or having a miracle tree species – everything I needed was literally at my feet, and so the battle lines changed.

I reasoned that if false beliefs, negative attitudes and destructive behavior about trees had brought the landscape to its knees, then true beliefs and attitudes on the value and importance of trees were what was needed to reverse the situation. And ‘mindset change’ is actually the foundation of FMNR. If it was human behavior which destroyed the forest in the first place, mindsets are the first area which need to be addressed before behavior change can be realized.

How Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration works. Image courtesy of World Vision.
How Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration works. Image courtesy of World Vision.

Mongabay: Since that time, the technique has gained notoriety and practitioners in many places: how much land, and in how many countries, do you reckon it covers nowadays?

Tony Rinaudo: The principles of FMNR aren’t new but existed prior to World Visions’ promotion of the approach. They have been practiced in one form or another for centuries in various parts of the world. Individuals and farming communities around the world have frequently come up with forms of FMNR through their own intuition and experimentation, without any external influences.

Over the past 20 years, FMNR spread from person to person in Niger to cover over five million hectares, lifting tree density from four trees to hectare to over 40, restoring some 200 million trees into a formerly barren landscape. More recently, Gray Tappan did a partial Niger survey and found in excess of six million hectares, while the government of Niger estimates there are 10 million (Dennis Garrity, personal communication).

FMNR has been introduced in 27 countries across the World Vision Partnership. Myself and the FMNR Hub have also introduced the practice to hundreds of other organizations through presentations, trainings, conferences, positions on boards and technical advisory panels, interviews, media, films and books!

FMNR is by its nature a practice that spreads farmer to farmer, and is easily adopted by land managers beyond a project site. The FMNR Hub has been working hard to support other NGOs, governments, and individuals to promote FMNR in their own work. In this way, FMNR has also been spread well beyond our project footprints. There is no formal reporting process to capture the area of FMNR supported in this way: any attempt to implement a centralized reporting system risks ‘weighing down’ the movement and organic spread of FMNR.

In 2016, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted a study across seven West African countries (Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Nigeria) and found 15 million hectares of FMNR, six million of which are in Niger Republic (personal communication, Gray Tappan, U.S. Geological Survey). A recent study in Malawi uncovered over 3.2 million hectares of FMNR with no apparent links to any government or NGO initiative (personal communication, Chris Reij). As a result, there is now evidence of at least 18.2 million hectares of FMNR globally, most of this with no direct link to our work. However, there is likely to be significantly more than this. Until additional surveys and studies are completed to identify and measure the area of FMNR on the ground, we will not know the total area.

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Mongabay: What are the benefits of FMNR to farmers, biodiversity, and the climate?

Tony Rinaudo: If we take the Niger context as an example, what I encountered was increasing frequency and severity of drought, 70 kilometer per hour winds which buried and sandblasted crops, 60° C soil surface temperatures which desiccated the bare soil and crops. In the absence of biodiversity, all manner of insect pests plagued farmers’ crops. The women were spending hours collecting fuelwood, and when there was none, straw and manure were collected for fuel. Children were often not in school because of poverty and their labor was needed to help collect fuel and help with farming.

But there are multiple benefits from regenerating trees – people now have access to more fuelwood, building poles, fodder for livestock, wild foods and traditional medicines. Trees increase soil fertility and some even bio-irrigate nearby crops (through hydraulic lift of subsoil water to the surface). Trees reduce/buffer against climatic extremes, thus reducing the likelihood of flooding and the impact of drought. Trees reduce temperatures, wind speeds and evaporation. Thus, restoring tree cover helps communities to adapt to climate change.

Trees sequester carbon dioxide, thus contributing to mitigation of climate change. Increased biodiversity and improved microclimate means that farmers can diversify their income streams, giving resilience against climatic shocks. For example, instead of relying on a single, annual grain crop, farmers can now consume and sell firewood and building poles, wild foods including honey, traditional medicines, dyes and much more. Benefit to the environment includes restoration of ecosystem services (soil fertility, biodiversity, restored water cycle), food sources and habitat for wildlife.

The cover of Tony Rinaudo’s new book about Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration.

Mongabay: Your new book “The Forest Underground: Hope for a Planet in Crisis” is the story of your journey of discovery, sales of which will benefit the global FMNR movement. What did you learn by writing your story, and can you describe this movement that seeks to spread FMNR more widely?

Tony Rinaudo: I realized that, even more than a story of environmental restoration, even in seemingly hopeless situations, this was a story of hope – a currency badly needed as a pandemic of fear over climate change, species loss, deforestation, land degradation, hunger, conflict and mass migration spreads around the world. Even in the most hopeless situations, there is hope and amazing things can happen when you step out in faith to be – and make – the change you want to see. I saw how working together to restore nature and life can be such a fulfilling and rewarding – even joyful – experience for all, with plenty to go round for everybody. I saw that even the most unlikely individuals from humble beginnings can make very significant and beneficial contributions. And, on a personal note, I saw how God silently guides, strengthens and gives wisdom to all who seek him to do good on earth.

My wife Liz and I did not want to simply duplicate FMNR projects in various countries. The time is too short and the area too great to rely on the simple addition or even multiplication of projects. Conventional projects have defined start and end dates, set geographical foci, expected outcomes and fixed budgets. Frequently, once the last dollar is spent, the work stops. As far as possible, we wanted to replicate what happened in Niger. Unlike projects, social movements do not have clearly defined start and end dates. They are spontaneous. They have the element of surprise. Movements are not limited to geographical boundaries, their outcomes can exceed expectations, and outputs are not necessarily proportional to the budget. The work spreads without funding because movements have their own momentum and energy. In Niger, once a critical mass of people adopted FMNR, the self-evident benefits and elimination of obstacles propelled adoption to new levels.

Agroforestry in action: a field of millet in Maradi, Niger, already showing benefits of growing near Combretum glutinosum that a farmer is assisting to resprout from stumps. Combretum glutinosum is a fast-growing drought-resistant shrub common in the Sahel where rainfall is 200-700 mm per year. Photo by P. Savadogo for World Agroforestry.

Social movements by their very nature cannot be orchestrated. We can implement key elements which we think will contribute towards creating a movement, but because movements depend on the actions of individuals and circumstances, we cannot predict when or how a movement will occur. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, ideas, products, messages and behaviors spread just like viruses. Social epidemics are driven by a handful of exceptional individuals. Small actions can single-handedly initiate big and rapid changes.

Mongabay: What is FMNR’s potential contribution to reforestation initiatives like The Bonn Challenge, the UN Decades on Family Farming and Ecosystem Restoration, and the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100)?

Tony Rinaudo: Simply enormous – and, I would add – largely unrecognized. Most initiatives have an oversized obsession with tree planting, which of course has its place, but is generally expensive, slow and particularly in more harsh environments, has a very high failure rate. Recently, governments have put a new twist on this by trying to break new world records in the number of trees that can be planted in a single day, with absolutely no reference to survival rates.

There are around three billion hectares of degraded land worldwide. My rule of thumb is, if there was a forest there in the past, even the distant past, theoretically it is possible to restore a forest there today. I do not have an area estimate of where FMNR is possible, but I have no doubt – based on observation and extensive travel – that it runs in the hundreds of millions of hectares. Keep in mind that the ultimate form of the ‘forest’ will depend on the objectives of those living in each context, the species mix that will regenerate, and the land use type – in some settings it will be a form of agroforestry (mixed crops and trees), in others silvopasture (pasture and trees) and in others, more or less natural forests will be restored.

Results of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration after three years in Talensi District of Ghana. Image courtesy of World Vision.

Two factors in the success of FMNR give me confidence that this approach to land restoration can make very significant contributions towards these international restoration initiatives. Both are currently highly under-appreciated and underutilized.

The first is nature’s innate ability to self-heal when given a chance. More attention is needed on influencing human behaviors that suppress nature’s self-healing ability (the way we farm, harvest woody biomass, manage livestock and fire), than ‘doing something’ towards restoration (planting trees, use of technology and engineering). I am not saying that tree planting is bad. It is not. I am saying that it might not be the first/best choice of actions to take.

The second is the enormous pool of human resources that exists in the human populations utilizing vast areas of land for their livelihoods. About 50% of the earth’s habitable land (51 million km²) is under agriculture. Of the world’s 570 million farms, 84% are smallholdings. Thus, there are at least 478 million farmers and farm families with the potential to restore their land. Of course, larger, perhaps more mechanized farms equally have the potential to operate along more ecologically sound lines.

The enormous potential of individual actions of millions of farmers is largely unrecognized or utilized.

Erik Hoffner is an editor and podcast producer for Mongabay, find his latest thoughts on Twitter via @erikhoffner

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Vandana Shiva on the agroecology solution for the climate, biodiversity crisis and hunger, listen here:

See related article on natural reforestation in Brazil here:

Natural regeneration and women-led initiatives help drive Atlantic Forest Pact

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