For demonstrating on a large scale how drylands can be greened at minimal cost, improving the livelihoods of millions of people.
Tony Rinaudo is an Australian agronomist, who is widely known as the “forest maker.” Having lived and worked in African countries for several decades, he has discovered and put into practice a solution to the extreme deforestation and desertification of the Sahel region. With a simple set of management practices, farmers can regenerate and protect existing local vegetation, which has helped to improve the livelihoods of millions.
Rinaudo has pioneered a technique that involves growing up trees from existing root systems, which are often still intact and which Rinaudo refers to as an “underground forest.” By choosing the right plants and pruning and protecting them in a certain way, farmers can help them grow into trees. Changing attitudes has been key to Rinaudo’s successful work. He realised that if people had reduced the forest to a barren landscape, it would require people to restore it.
Rinaudo’s farmer-managed natural regeneration method has restored 50,000 km2 of land with over 200 million trees in Niger alone. It has the potential to restore currently degraded drylands in an area the size of India. What Rinaudo has created is much more than an agricultural technique, he has inspired a farmer-led movement that is regreening land in the Sahel region and beyond.
Tony Rinaudo is an Australian agronomist who has discovered a simple method to grow trees in dry and degraded lands. He has empowered and inspired a farmer-led movement across continents, regreening the lands, improving the livelihoods of millions and helping to combat climate change.
Desertification is driving poverty and speeding up climate change
Dryland ecosystems cover about 40 per cent of the land area on the planet. These ecosystems are extremely sensitive to overexploitation. Deforestation, overgrazing and political instability are, together with climate change, some of the driving factors causing the desertification of drylands. Desertification undermines land productivity and ultimately causes poverty and forced migration.
Growing trees and forests in a sustainable way can restore degraded lands, build resilience and help people and societies adapt to climate change. Protecting and enhancing forests are also essential to combating climate change. Forests absorb about 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.
A young agronomist in a deforested country
Rinaudo grew up in the agricultural region of the Ovens Valley in northern Victoria, Australia. Already at a young age, he felt worried about the environmentally destructive farming practices in his region. “At that time, they were using planes to spray the crop,” Rinaudo said. “It would kill fish in the stream. They would clear-fell the native bush, which I loved, and replace it with a monoculture of pines.”
Concerned about the living conditions of the world’s poor, Rinaudo studied agricultural science at the University of New England in Armidale. After graduating, he joined the missionary organisation Serving in Mission and in 1981 moved to Niger hoping to use his knowledge to improve people’s lives. The Sahel region had been hit by severe droughts and famine in the 1970s. Subsequently, the desperate economic situation and imported agricultural practices, such as monocultures, led farmers to fell trees on a large scale. This resulted in extreme deforestation and land degradation.
Like many other development specialists, Rinaudo’s focus was to help the rural population plant trees. He organised a tree nursery and worked with communities to plant and protect the seedlings. But success rates were low. Scarcely 10 per cent of seedlings survived the heat and dust storms, and the surviving ones would be eaten by goats or cut down by people for firewood. Rinaudo was close to giving up.
Discovering the “underground forest”
In 1983, when stopping by the roadside on his way between rural villages, Rinaudo had a realisation that would radically change his approach. He told the story of how one of the common small “bushes” growing in the field had caught his eye:
“I had ‘seen’ these bushes many times before but had never registered their significance. I walked over to take a closer look,” he said.
Rinaudo realised that the “bush” was in fact a tree, which had been cut down and was re-sprouting from the stump. There were millions of such bushes, which farmers would routinely cut or burn down in preparation for planting. Their root systems were still intact but hidden in the ground. With some appropriate care, he realised, the trees that he had been so desperately trying to plant might grow up naturally from this “underground forest.”
“In ‘discovering’ this underground forest,” Rinaudo said, “the battle lines were immediately redrawn. Reforestation was no longer a question of having the right technology or enough budget, staff or time. It was not even about fighting the Sahara Desert, or goats or drought. The battle was now about challenging deeply held beliefs, attitudes and practices and convincing people that it would be in their best interest to allow at least some of these ‘bushes’ to become trees again.” He realised that if people were the ones who had reduced the forest to a barren landscape, it would require people to restore it—and false beliefs, attitudes and practices would need to be challenged with truth, love and perseverance.
Farmer-managed natural regeneration
From this insight, Rinaudo developed the concept of farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), a very simple set of actions that farmers can take to regreen their land. First, farmers survey their land and choose among the existing local species the right ones to regenerate. Second, farmers select a few stems that they want to grow, while cutting the rest to be used as fodder, mulch or similar. Then, the selected stems are pruned to halfway of the trunk. Finally, the farmer marks the re-growing trees and protects them. The process is repeated every two to six months.
In 1983, Rinaudo began experimenting and promoting the concept with 10 farmers. During the severe famine of 1984, Serving in Mission began a food-for-work programme that introduced some 70,000 people to farmer-managed natural regeneration and implemented the practice on around 12,500 hectares of farmland. From 1985 to 1999, the project continued to promote the method locally and nationally as Rinaudo organised exchange visits and training days for various NGOs, government foresters, Peace Corps Volunteers as well as farmer and civil society groups. Since 1999, Rinaudo has been working for the faith-based development organisation World Vision, which provides a platform and resources to spread FMNR globally.
Greening the Sahel – impact and future potential
Farmer-managed natural regeneration became an enormous success in Niger. Because of its simplicity, local adaptability, low cost (about 20 US dollars per hectare), easy combination with other agricultural methods and quick results, the method spread through peer-to-peer learning among farmers, with limited need for outside intervention. In Niger, 5 million hectares of land with over 200 million trees have been restored this way, with 2.5 million people benefiting from the improved use of the land. At least 25 countries, mainly in Africa, are already using the method.
Today, there is extensive grassroots adoption of the FMNR method by farmers across the Sahel and beyond, along with more and more NGOs who are promoting it in collaboration with farmers and community groups. Governments are also increasingly adopting this method and setting ambitious targets for land restoration, with the support of both bilateral donors and development banks. The World Resources Institute estimates that over 300 million hectares of currently degraded land would respond positively to farmer-managed natural regeneration, and Rinaudo is working hard to spread the technique across the world.
To provide policymakers and practitioners with the knowledge required to fully implement FMNR, World Vision has joined forces with the World Resources Institute and the World Agroforestry Centre in what is called the Evergreen Agriculture Partnership.
Luc Gnacadja, former Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and a member of the World Future Council, has called FMNR's impact on land rehabilitation and the well-being of local people "nothing short of phenomenal."
After receiving the Award
Rinaudo has used the fame and extensive media coverage that followed after receiving the Right Livelihood Award to spread global awareness about FMNR. The technique has received a big global boost in recent years. In 2020, the World Economic Forum launched an initiative to restore and plant 1 trillion trees before 2030, and FMNR is one of the techniques that will be used to reach the goal. World Vision, which promotes FMNR across continents, has been recognized as a formal partner supporting the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, launched in 2021. FMNR is also listed as a “best practice” by a UN platform promoting the Sustainable Development Goals.