Tony Rinaudo: Regrowing trees generates hope, “the most important development tool”
Australian agronomist Tony Rinaudo received the 2018 Right Livelihood Award for developing a technique that helps regrow trees in places where forests had been chopped down. The method has been adopted in several countries around the world, including in West Africa, where Rinaduo worked for almost two decades as a missionary. Today, 18 million hectares of dry land have been restored using Rinaudo’s or a related method.
Rinaudo visited our office in Geneva at the end of October, where he took part in a workshop with peacebuilding and faith-based organisations. He also sat down with us to talk about how receiving the Right Livelihood Award has impacted him and how regenerating trees brings a multitude of benefits to individuals and communities.
Right Livelihood: How has life changed for you since receiving the Right Livelihood Award?
Tony Rinaudo: Oh, goodness, you’ve put me completely upside down, nothing’s going to be the same ever again. And probably the first thing I noticed was people asking me to do a selfie with them – that had never happened before. But on a more serious level, it’s flung doors open, it’s given me a profile I never had before and audiences that I could only dream of previously. So it’s been very, very significant. And I’ve had just so many opportunities to speak in conferences, whether live or virtual, to speak to donors and policymakers and other NGOs, because I’m the same person, but now I have a profile.
RL: How has your method called farmer-managed natural regeneration or FMNR expanded since receiving the Award?
TR: It’s very hard to estimate because FMNR is actually an idea, and once you release it, you have no control, and there’s no mechanism for feedback. But we would conservatively estimate that in World Vision programming, there’s over a million hectares. And I think worldwide, the best guess is that there are over 18 million hectares of one form or another of FMNR.
I’m sure that the Award prompted much greater action, much greater intentionality: “Oh, it’s not just Tony on his own saying these things, it’s actually recognised by a reputable body.” World Vision Australia itself is going to launch a campaign in the coming year called ‘Raise the Roots,’ calling for the restoration of 1 billion hectares of degraded land.
RL: You’ve mentioned in the past that regrowing trees has a myriad of positive impacts for communities, including peacebuilding. How have you seen this play out?
TR: It’s amazing how something as simple – seemingly simple – as a tree can have multipronged effects on life, on the environment, on even climate. What happens when you remove the trees from a landscape, you degrade the land’s ability to support life, soils lose their fertility, water disappears, and biodiversity flees. This has an impact on the economy, the livelihoods of the people depending on that land. Often when there’s stress, when there’s competition for scarce natural resources – be it food, water, fodder, or even fuel woods – this can lead to or exacerbate conflict.
However, the reverse is true when you restore these landscapes. There’s actually a leafy index, which can show you the correlation between tree cover and conflict. The greener the index shows, the lower the conflict, the lower the killing and maiming of people. [FMNR] is a natural tool for bringing communities and even traditional enemies together for a common cause of restoration.
RL: What is the impact on individuals?
TN: The significant change that’s even greater than the greenery that you see is the restoration of hope. It’s so transformational. If you could picture yourself as a parent: you’re not able to feed your kids properly, put decent clothing on them, educate them – then it’s soul destroying. People feel that it’s their fate, that there’s no point in trying to create a better life. They’ve tried so many times and failed: it’s too painful to even try anymore, they’ve given up.
The vast contrast between that and what I see when I go back into restored landscapes is that people are happy, and there’s rejoicing! From hunger to now surplus and earning an income from that surplus; from uneducated kids to having them do well in school; from women suffering, walking so far to collect fuel, wood and water to women having time for family for economic activities.
You can just imagine the joy that they have and the hope. People who have hope actually behave differently. They will make wise investments to improve agriculture, living standards, send kids to school. Hope for the future means when you wake up in the morning, you feel positive. It’s probably one of the most important development tools that you could generate, because, in the end, a person who has hope will do an awful lot for themselves, compared to a person without hope.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.