This blog is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog’s month-long series on Restoring Landscapes.
In the 1980’s, Tony Rinaudo, now Natural Resource Advisor for World Vision Australia, was part of a team that relentlessly planted thousands of trees across the Sahel, but most of them died after just a few months. Just when he thought he might give up, he realized the solution was lying just beneath his feet.
Across Africa, thousands of hectares of land have been cleared for agriculture. Unsupported by larger ecosystems, the land has degraded over time, and the crops have dwindled and have become more susceptible to drought.
But Tony realized there was still potential for restoration, and it wasn’t going to come from saplings. Instead, it just required a new way of understanding the land. The small shrubs that still dotted the degraded agricultural landscapes around him were not shrubs at all, but in fact the sprouting root systems of felled trees. Through proper pruning and protection, these trees could grow back, and in turn support entire ecosystem and increase food production.
This pruning technique is now known as “Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration,” (FMNR) and it has made a tremendous impact across swaths of West and East Africa. It is low cost, just requires some training, and it puts the power directly in the hands of farmers, who have also spread the word about its success.
“In Niger, farms that had no trees or only one or two trees per hectare now have an average of forty trees,” said Tony, who is also known as the ‘tree whisperer’. “Once the farmers have embraced this technology, they’ve shared it with their neighbors.”
Healthy land offers opportunity for climate change mitigation and adaption
In the context of climate change, the effects of which will hit many farmers in Africa especially hard, techniques like FMNR become increasingly important, increasing the ability of soil to act as a carbon sink, and amplifying the resilience of farmers to adapt to climate variability and drought.
You can call it many things -- climate smart agriculture, eco-system based adaptation, sustainable land management, but it’s a technique that offers smallholder farmers – who produce 80% of the world’s food, independence and protection.
For example, according to Tony during the 2004 famine in Niger, “farmers who had adopted FMNR did not require food handouts, as they were able to sell wood, graze their livestock on leaves and eat the fruit and seeds of certain tree species.”
Recent reports project increasing greenhouse gas emissions as a result of agriculture. But techniques like FMNR show that farmers have a tremendous potential to be part of the solution.
According to the new emissions gap report from UNEP, at a cost of US $50-100 per ton of carbon dioxide, nearly 1.1–4.3 GtCO2e per year of carbon emissions from agriculture could be reduced by improved management practices such as conservation tillage, combined organic/inorganic fertilizer application, adding biochar to the soil, improved water management and reducing flooding and fertilizer use in rice paddies.
The report does not mention FMNR, but FMNR does have lessons to offer those who want to implement the strategies included. By putting power into the hands of farmers, and investing in people and ecosystems for the long term, success can come, but it will not happen overnight. Before Tony became the tree whisperer, he had to become a good listener, and that is how he came to know what the land was telling him.
In recognition for their work, World Vision Australia and Tony Rinaudo were recently awarded the Land for Life Award of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. The award recognizes groundbreaking leadership in sustainable land management.
This blog is the first in a series about the 2013 winners of the Land for Life Award featured during the Agriculture and Ecosystem’s month-long focus on Restoring Landscapes.
Applications for the 2014 Land for Life award are now open.
A longer video about FMNR is also available.