World Vision Australia

The man who discovered underground forests

Although it may sound like the stuff of fairy tales, subterranean forests do exist, and they can be regenerated above ground with the addition of a key ingredient: green thinking. This was the message delivered by Alternative Nobel laureate Tony Rinaudo at an EEB talk.

A year before teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, popularly referred to as the ‘Alternative Nobel’, Tony Rinaudo won the prestigious prize for literally getting to the roots of deforestation and land degradation.

Tony Rinaudo speaks at the EEB.

“Ninety percent of what I do is regreening mindscapes,” Rinaudo said at a special event held in Brussels by the EEB and World Vision, under the umbrella of the Make Europe Sustainable for All project. The award-winning Australian agronomist spoke about his ingenious, low-tech technique which puts land restoration in farmers’ hands.

But first Rinaudo had to regreen his own mind. Trained in modern, technology-based agricultural science, Rinaudo was able to put his finger easily on the problem of deforestation and desertification when he moved to Niger, but the solution eluded him.

“My young self thought, if deforestation is the problem, then reforestation is the solution,” Rinaudo said. “But that was more easily said than done.”

In drought-ridden Niger in the 1980s, Rinaudo managed several tree-planting efforts which ended in abject failure, with 90% of seedlings dying and much of the rest eaten by cattle or chopped for firewood by desperately poor farmers.

Unearthing the answer

Image: World Vision Australia

Rinaudo’s eureka moment came when, during a pitstop on a desertified road, he inspected what he had previously assumed was a bush, but which actually turned out to be a re-sprouting tree stump – and there were millions of these bushy stumps all across the landscape, constituting a veritable “underground forest”.

“When you cut a tree down, it’s not the end of the story. Some 30-50% of a tree’s biomass is underground. It is like a V8 engine revving up and waiting to take off,” the Australian agronomist told the audience:

“Nature will heal itself, if you give it the chance.”

The trouble is that humans were not giving nature that chance. With Niger’s drive to modernise its farming practices, more sustainable traditional methods were abandoned in favour of mass clearing of trees for agriculture.

This meant that soil lost its ability to retain water and was prone to erosion from rain and wind. This created what were effectively “dust bowl” conditions, where powerful dust storms blowing in from the Sahara degrade the land of the semi-arid Sahel of which Niger is a part.

This trapped subsistence farmers in a vicious cycle: deteriorating land fertility brought lower yields, which led them to cut down more trees for fuel and to sell, leading to greater degradation.

Farming out responsibility

Image: World Vision Australia

Although people tend to look to technology and complex innovations for answers, and too often look down on farmers and traditional techniques, sometimes the solution lies in simplicity and the empowerment of those who work the land.

Rinaudo developed a technique which he called Farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR). In addition to awareness raising, FMNR consists of a simple set of actions. After surveying their land, farmers choose the right local species to regenerate. Then, they select the stems wish to nurture, cutting the rest to be used as fodder or mulch. After that, the selected stumps are pruned. Finally, the farmer marks the re-growing trees and protects them.

Over a 20-year period, the use of FMNR in Niger successfully restored 5 million hectares of land with over 200 million trees. And if initially untested and unknown FMNR can achieve such results in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, imagine what it can do elsewhere, points out Rinaudo.

In addition, it has improved the livelihood of the farmers who practice it, not only by boosting their crop yields but also by providing them with a sustainable source of wood. “Tony’s work perfectly illustrates what sustainability is about: it delivers on all three dimensions of sustainable development – environmental, social and economic – without having to compromise one for the other,” emphasises EEB’s Director of Global Policies and Sustainability Patrizia Heidegger. “His work can inspire others to see that sustainability can be based on simple, low-cost solutions which are accessible to all.”

The FMNR method has been spreading rapidly, reaching Ethiopia, Mali, Senegal, Kenya, Indonesia and other countries.

Europe, green thyself

One part of the world where FMNR has not made inroads is Europe. However, we are increasingly facing similar difficulties. In 2018, the European Court of Auditors published a special report on this very topic, concluding that “while desertification and land degradation are current and growing threats in the EU, the Commission does not have a clear picture of these challenges, and the steps taken to combat desertification lack coherence.”

“Just like in regions where Tony Rinaudo has worked, our primary challenge in Europe is to green our minds,” the EEB’s Policy Officer for Agriculture Celia Nyssens explains. “By restoring degraded ecosystems, including through simple, low-tech methods, we can both reduce our carbon emissions and help our farmers and rural communities adapt to a changing climate.”

“The threats are real,” she adds, pointing to a report released last month by the European Environmental Agency which shows that yields of certain crops in southern Europe are projected to decrease by up to 50% by 2050, If we do not act to prevent dramatic climate change, and to adapt and increase the resilience of our agricultural systems. Last week, the Finnish Presidency of the EU hosted a meeting of agriculture ministers on the topic of soil carbon sequestration. “This shows that awareness of the importance of soil in our fight against climate breakdown is starting to improve. We recognise this in our development co-operation outside Europe, it’s time we do so at home too,” notes Nyssens. “Now we need to step up action, including in the Common Agricultural Policy, to start a transition to agro-ecological farming practices across Europe.”