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Regenerating Our Planet // Interview with Tony Rinaudo

Written by Sean Ruse

Still from Volker Schlöndorff's "The Forest Maker"

I was first introduced to Tony Rinaudo by my dad. He was all excited after his friend had given him Tony’s book, The Forest Maker. Being the filmmaker he was, Dad thought that the story would make for a great documentary, and that I should try making it. “I can see the climax now. Tony’s out there in the barren landscape of Niger, defeated, hopeless, when all of a sudden, he notices the trees poking up above the ground! And he’s Australian too! It’s a wonder nobody’s made it already”, he said. When, incredibly, I got the chance to interview Tony, I asked him why nobody had turned his amazing story into a film. Turns out someone had, and it wasn't just any schmuck like me. None other than Volker Schlöndorff, the German Oscar and Palme d’Or winning filmmaker, thought the same thing. He is midway through documenting Tony’s ground-breaking journey and farming methods. I suppose he probably knows what he’s doing.

“We first chatted after he saw me speak,” said Tony. “The guy’s in his eighties, and he decided to do his first documentary. He filmed as we visited projects in Africa, and in India this year. In the process we have become very good friends. When the lockdown lifts, we want to do East Africa together.”

“It was a real privilege to be able to have been where I have been and to have done what I’ve done. So part of the payback is to share the story.”

This might explain why Tony agreed to talk to me and FROCKUP. He even let us use the working trailer for Volker’s upcoming documentary! You can check it out below.

Tony Rinaudo and Volker Schlöndorff, 2019 (taken from "The Forest Maker")


Sometimes it seems like some of the problems facing our world today are so depressing and insurmountable that you just want to forget they exist. For every supposed step in the right direction, another profound barrier seems to stifle our progress. In the midst of such defeatism, people like Tony Rinaudo are around to remind us that we might not be as powerless as we think. His life and journey restoring the deforested and decimated landscapes around the world reveals the value of hope, determination and, most importantly, acting with love in a world riddled with crisis.

Tony may be the most important person you’ve never heard of. For 35 years he’s been slowly tackling one of the world’s most pressing problems: the very survival of our planet. The agronomist luminary has won several awards, including the International People’s Nobel Prize, the 2018 Right Livelihood Award (joining such recipients as Greta Thunberg and Edward Snowden), the Commandeur du Merit, Niger’s top award for expats, as well as being appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 2019. He is now the Senior Climate Action Advisor for World Vision Australia.

Born in north-East Victoria, Tony grew up surrounded by the richness of Australia’s greenery. He fell in love with the beauty of nature, and developed a passion to protect it. This was to be a lifelong calling that would take him to the other side of the world and back, changing the very way we think about regenerating ravaged ecosystems.

The Journey

His passion for ecology took him to famine-stricken Niger in 1980. Working for Servicing in Mission, a Christian NGO supporting the famine relief, Tony’s job was to help reforest the ecologically devastated region.

“Back then we didn’t even know about climate change very well; we were fighting the desert, and that was enormous enough.”

Decades of land mismanagement had wiped out much of the West African nation’s forest, spurred on by the French colonial legacy: a ‘modern farming’ doctrine forced upon the Nigerien locals, which encouraged land clearing and monoculture farming on a massive scale.

Tony in Tanzania demonstrating FMNR with group members who are restoring trees on communal grazing land.
Tony in Tanzania demonstrating FMNR (Photo by World Vision)

“The colonial guys came in and reinforced this idea of land clearing. This policy of so-called modern agriculture, which strongly encouraged, coerced them, to pull out the tree stumps and all.”

On top of this, poverty drove people to cut down trees for the use and sale of firewood and other commodities. Tony explained that even the governments attempts to solve this issue made matters worse.

“There were government policies that had good intentions to bad effect. They used a carbon copy of French forestry code in that the government owns the trees on your farmland, and the system was open to abuse. People knew full well that if you didn’t cut that tree down – and benefit yourself, someone else would.”

By the time Tony arrived, the situation was bleak.

“The combined effect of these attitudes and practices was the almost total destruction of trees and shrubs in the agricultural zone of Niger between 1950 and 1980. And this destruction had devastating consequences. Deforestation worsened the adverse effects of recurring drought, strong winds, high temperatures, infertile soils, and pests and diseases. Combined with rapid population growth and poverty, these problems contributed to chronic hunger and periodic acute famine.”

Then, the conventional thinking was, as Tony insists it remains today in many countries, to simply plant more trees. For two years Tony toiled away planting seedlings in an attempt to reforest the decimated landscape, but all attempts proved fruitless. He found that years of reinforced bad practice meant that the chances of trees surviving not only the harsh, drought-ridden conditions, but also the destruction caused by desperate farmers, were tiny.

“Everybody thinks the only solution is to plant trees. There seems to be a human gene for it.. Even now, Kenya’s got a ‘two billion-tree’ objective [to reach] by 2022. Ethiopia claims to have set a world record to have planted the largest number of trees in a day last year. My response is: so what? Because, in my experience, 80–90% of those trees, especially in harsher environments, will die.”

Tony attempting to plant tree's in Niger in the 1980’s

The whole system, which was costing millions of dollars and sometimes employing well paid overseas experts, was clearly failing. In these early days, the man-made tragedy of poverty, famine and ecological collapse coalesced to create what seemed like a hopeless situation.

One day, while traversing the barren landscape, Tony had a game-changing revelation. He looked closer at the hundreds of long-ignored small bushes that were scattered in the desert, which were treated as weeds. Suddenly he realised that these were in fact the stumps of trees, and that beneath the dry, sandy earth was a full root system that had been muted by the continual cutting down of re-sprouting stems and branches. Tony knew that, if nurtured correctly, these “underground forests” would be key to a new approach that could radically transform the country, and offer the hope of reforesting huge swathes of the globe. The system he developed would be called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR).

What is FMNR?

The technique is ingenious, and works off the idea that by selecting and pruning superior stems from the shrub-like stumps, trees can grow and thrive rapidly due to the capacity of their surviving underground root system. Through this farmer-led reforesting on their agricultural land, the environment can begin to regenerate itself, halting the expansion of the desert and restoring stability to the ecosystem.

“When you put trees back into the landscape, you’re increasing soil fertility, buffering against drought and flood and strong winds and high temperatures – even pest attack because there’s more biodiversity and habitat for predators such as insect eating birds, spiders and lizards. You’re also helping people adapt to climate change because now there will be more diversity of products for them to generate income; for example, firewood, fodder, beekeeping. Many of these species are actually bio-irrigating, meaning they draw water up from the water table. At night they leak water through the shallow roots into the range of the crop roots. And trees substantially lower temperature and windspeed. You’d have to be blind to not see the benefits of it.”

Graphic from "World Vision – FMNR Manual"

The process was simple, but the challenge quickly appeared to be less agricultural and more sociological.

“One of the biggest barriers is the ‘tall poppy syndrome’. You can imagine in a traditional society anyone that goes against the norm is ridiculed and ostracised. And until a critical mass of people were starting to do this it was very difficult for people to adopt this, even if they believed in it. If you try to change or influence practice, it’s an uphill push.”

Part of convincing struggling farmers to change their tactics, was to show them the benefits.

“There is a perception that you won’t benefit from the tree for 30 years – and this is very de-motivating. Well, actually, if you’re growing a tree from a mature root stump, it will grow amazingly quickly, even in a dry climate. People also believed that trees competed with crops – and this can be true. However, certain trees managed the right way boosted, even doubled crop yields. As much as we’d like to take credit for everything, the method sold itself because people could see the yield; their wives didn’t have to walk for five hours to get firewood, the animals had fodder, the soil fertility started to improve. What I’ve come to understand over the years is that, my role is less that of ‘technical forestry expert’ and much more that of ‘regreening mindscapes’ and helping people understand the benefits of trees.”

Changes over a 6 year period in Talensi, Upper Eastern Region, Ghana (Composite by World Vision)

Tony understood that the severity of the situation in Niger could also be an opportunity for change.

“People won’t change when there’s appearance of profiting from what they do. But when there’s a crisis the smart ones will look around and see where they went wrong. And then there’s a whisper web, bits of information go around about different way to do business. What I do, and what FMNR is, help people go on a journey of discovery of what lies at their feet and what might be possible if they approached things differently .”

Village leader proudly showing off restored forest, Humbo, Ethiopia

Restoring hope proved to be the key to restoring the environment in long-struggling region.

“What I see more than the restored green when I go back into these communities [is] the restoration of hope. Most places I go to are [initially] without hope. People feel like they are victims of poverty, of climate, and so on, with no way out. When you go back three years later and they’ve turned their situation around, you see joy,

planning for the future, because there’s hope. People who don’t have hope won’t give it a go because they’ve been defeated too many times. The most rewarding element has been seeing people set free, enabled. When they have a problem they’ll tackle it, they won’t just give in.”

Before and after: Humbo, Ethiopia (World Vision)

How to Change the World

Tony says that selling FMNR became an exercise in building relationships. While speaking with him, I realised that he wasn’t talking about those kinds of “professional relationships” you’d hear about in a networking seminar, or the kind where a firm handshake and a phony smile every couple of years did the job. At the heart of FMNR, and the incredible success that Tony has had over his career, was a profound commitment to fostering relationships.

“Relationships are everything. The only reason I achieved what I did in Niger and afterwards was because of relationships. Even when they were calling me ‘the crazy white farmer’, out of respect for me they tried it. I had built up a relationship with them. Every time they were sick I took them to hospital. If they didn’t have water I tried to give them a well. When they didn’t have food we fed them. Even though this tree thing was absolutely crazy, out of respect they’d humour me and at least give it a try.”

“It’s all relationships. I’ll add to that; love. That’s a word you won’t find in any of the International Development literature. I’ve got this theory that what every human being is always asking is ‘Do you care about me?’. And your actions and attitudes will display that. If they think ‘Yes, he does,’ then they’ll be much more likely to hear you out and give it a go.”

Reunion with Farmers in Niger, 2017 (World Vision)

Tony’s ability to transform the way we think about solving climate change has always had its roots (excuse the pun) in the hard and often overlooked task of building connections with others, from the 10 or so Nigerian villages he worked with tirelessly in the early days to the now 30 or so countries where FMNR has been embraced.

The story of FMNR and Tony’s journey can also teach us a lot about how to create change in the oversaturated and often all too unsuccessful world of ‘international development’.

“On the international level, donors want to ask ‘Where’s my tree?!’. If you plant 10 hectares of trees, you can see where you’ve been. However, I’m selling an idea. It’s very hard to track who will take up that idea and where they will take it. FMNR spread largely from farmer to farmer in Niger. It’s all word of mouth. Sometimes government leaders in developing countries have said ‘You’re trying to take us back to Dark-Age farming by putting trees back in the landscape’. If you thought what we were up against in Niger was hard, try and convince educated people – it’s 10 times harder. Give me a farmer any day. Fortunately understanding about the importance of trees is changing.”

He says while the NGO world is often rife with unhealthy competition for resources, donors and attention, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Graphic from "World Vision – FMNR Manual"

“In terms of what I do, we’ve always had an open-door policy. Everything is open source, and whenever I run a workshop anybody who’s interested is welcome to attend. It’s wonderful to be able to share. World Vision is a founding member of the global Evergreening Alliance. The whole idea is to bypass that ‘competition’ and work together on the same funding source to implement the same projects, but at scale.”

The Evergreening Alliance aims to capture and restore 20 billion tons of CO2 annually from the atmosphere by 2050. There’s also the World Vision’s Impact Goals and its 2030 Collective, which aim to restore 10 million hectares and 750,000 hectares of land respectively, providing food security and a sustainable ecosystem through FMNR and other complementary interventions.

However, Tony insists that relying solely on large government and non-government institutions to solve the problems of the day is naive. It’s so important to try to stimulate ‘people movements’ – people driven movements in which there is spontaneous uptake and spread of new ideas.

“Land degradation, climate change and hunger are global issues. If we are really serious about ending poverty, all stakeholders – donors, land users, governments, NGOs, civil society have to work together.”

Still from Volker Schlöndorff's "The Forest Maker"

How to Keep On Keeping On

The journey was indeed long and tough. In Tony’s book The Forest Maker he highlights the challenges of working in stifling conditions, where morale was often low and the issues were many. He tells me that he had to spare some of the more horrific details in the book, so I can only imagine how hard his experience was. I had to ask, from where did he get the strength to persevere?

“So many times I could’ve gone home. It was the situation that everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But at the end of the day I felt I was meant to be there, I was certain of my calling. My faith pulled me through, plus the support of my family around me. One thing that got me through was this idea that stuck in my head. ‘You don’t have to get to heaven to experience good things. Good things can happen here on earth, but you need to be thankful for the things you have got and work towards creating the things you don’t.’”

These beautifully simple words reveal a profound insight into how we can tackle some of the biggest challenges that face our world. They unquestioningly assert the need to fight for the betterment of the world, and affirm the joy that can be found in doing so. Tony’s life is a testament to this. His emphasis on building sincere relationships, learning from disaster and empowering those without hope offers an inspiring and practical guide to how we can help improve our troubled but resilient world.

Volker Schlöndorff's "The Forest Maker" - Teaser Video

Note: The documentary is still in production. The COVID-19 crisis has slowed production, but it is due to restart once it is possible to do so.

For more information, head to World Vision, FMNR Hub and EverGreening.

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