Forestmaker (Extract)

World Vision Principal Climate Action Advisor Tony Rinaudo shares his story of regeneration in Niger, and finding hope for a warming planet.

(This is an extract from a 2021 episode of CPX’s Life & Faith podcast. Listen to the full episode here.)

SIMON SMART: Now would you agree or disagree with this statement: “humanity is doomed”? What about this one: “the future is frightening”? The results of the largest ever study on climate anxiety came out recently – the researchers talked to 10,000 young people across 10 countries – and there was a lot of support for those statements. 56% of people aged 16-25 agreed that “humanity is doomed”; 75% said “yes, the future is frightening.” The report’s authors said climate anxiety is an inescapable stressor.

Today on Life & Faith: a story of an unlikely superhero, hope for the planet, and for humans. Natasha Moore brings you this interview.

NATASHA MOORE: So your love of plants and of the land and your concern for the environment goes back a long way, right? What did that look like when you were a kid growing up?

TONY RINAUDO: So I grew up in beautiful north-east Victoria, surrounded by mountains, and in the winter you could often see snow on Mount Buffalo, and lots of forest. And three things really shaped me as a child. One was the destruction of a large area of that forest, and leaving quite steep hills fallow for years on end. So there was erosion, loss of wildlife. And they grew tobacco in that valley at that time. And DDT was in use – it was often being sprayed from aeroplanes and spray drift would go into the rivers that we swam in and drank from, and occasionally there’d be terrible fish kill. And I was just a child, I didn’t understand ecology, but it didn’t add up to me – why would adults destroy the earth and effectively destroy our future? So that was very, very disturbing. But I also read a lot and watched the news and while we had the luxury of growing this weed – tobacco – in our valley, children just like me who through no fault of their own were going to bed hungry; they happened to be born elsewhere. And I think as a child, I was very frustrated. I wanted to do something about it, put the world right, but pretty powerless. And I guess that’s where the influence of my mum comes in. She had very strong faith and I did the one thing that I felt a child could do and I said a prayer – a very simple child’s prayer – “please Lord use me somehow, somewhere to make a difference.” And I think my life has been an attempt to be faithful to that prayer.

NATASHA MOORE: So you and your wife Liz moved to Niger in 1980. What was the plan?

TONY RINAUDO: So we joined a mission organisation, Serving In Mission, that had very holistic outreach. And the role that we were to play was to help people to grow more food. And we were also based at a sort of preparatory Bible College – it was a literacy school, really. And our role was to help run that small school and to manage a small – it was then called the Moradi (Moradi is the city that we lived near) Windbreak and Wood Lot Project. So there was a terrible problem of desertification and terrible shortage of fuel wood. Women were suffering, walking long distances to collect fuel wood, and often there was none – they’d have to burn straw to cook the meal on, or burn animal manure. So that project was an attempt to address those issues.

NATASHA MOORE: How did it go?

TONY RINAUDO: Ah, quite a failure. You can imagine – I was a young man and fairly fresh out of university, both of us were – and you’ve got this vast degraded landscape. What had been dry land forest at the time that I was growing up in Australia, most of those trees had disappeared. And we were using conventional approaches – this is all we knew, and all that any other project knew, was to plant trees. But given the harshness of the environment on the edge of the Sahara Desert, the lack of fencing, the free-range goats and camels and other livestock, and the attitude of the people who thought this was crazy – and in fact they called me the crazy white farmer. You can imagine if you put yourself in their shoes – they’re struggling to put food on the table – and this young nut comes along and says, “Well you really should be growing trees as well.” In their minds they needed every bit of land that they could for growing crops. So yeah, it was frustrating. And I really questioned my call: am I in the right place?

NATASHA MOORE: You spent 17 years in Niger, but it wasn’t all the same as that. There was a turning point. What happened, and how did that turn around?

TONY RINAUDO: Yeah, so I think on one of those days when I very well could have given up, I was so frustrated and there didn’t seem to be any solution, and really we tried everything – different tree species (indigenous, exotic); different planting times; so many different things we tried – and I read, I consulted others, I experimented, nothing worked. And so, you know, that was the end of the world for a young man wanting to have an impact. But I did feel that I was meant to be there. I did have this sense that it was the right place.

And one day I was actually delivering a small truck-and-trailer-load of trees to the villages. Because the roads are sandy and you can easily get bogged, you stop the vehicle to reduce the air pressure and that enables you to almost float over that sandy road. And so there I was reducing the air pressure, and you’re looking up in every direction – north, south, east west – and there’s barely a tree in the landscape. And the cogs are turning over: How many million dollars would it take? How many decades? How many hundred staff would you need to make an impact on that bare landscape? And of course the answer is: it’s impossible. You wouldn’t have a significant impact. And the day the last dollar was spent would be the last tree that went into the ground – and most of them died anyway.

I just threw up a simple prayer … I asked God to forgive us for destroying the gift of his creation.

But I felt God doesn’t make mistakes. There must be a reason for being here. And I just threw up a simple prayer. For some people, it’s a little bit strange: it was an inclusive prayer. I asked God to forgive us for destroying the gift of his creation, because even though I may not have been directly responsible for destroying that forest, in our wealthy, wasteful lifestyles we’ve all caused the destruction of nature. So, forgive us for destroying this gift and as a consequence of that people are suffering, they’re hungry, they’re poor, they don’t know what’s coming tomorrow, so they’re fearful. But I reminded God that he still loved us, that we’re his children, and I just asked for help. Open our eyes, show us what to do, help.  

And you know, I’d been on that track for about two and a half years, almost weekly by that stage, eyes open but totally blind to what had been there all along. And on this occasion, before I got back in the vehicle, a nondescript little bush caught my attention, and I took the trouble to walk over and take a closer look at this seeming bush. As soon as I saw the shape of the leaf – and you can imagine for any tree, the leaf is like a signature, it spells out what species that tree is. As soon as I saw the leaf, I realised: it’s not a bush, it’s a tree, and it’s been cut down, its re-sprouting, it’s trying to become a tree again, but every year, normal farming practice requires that people slash and burn that regrowth, and the land gives the appearance of having no trees. And I actually call this the underground forest.

But in that moment for me, everything changed. I wasn’t fighting the Sahara Desert. It wasn’t a question of having a ridiculously large budget. Everything that I needed was literally at my feet. And the real battle was: if people had reduced the environment to this point – it’s on its knees, it’s struggling to provide for anybody, nature or humankind – if it was people’s beliefs and actions about trees and nature that destroyed it, then that’s where the battle was. And if I can convince people to work with nature instead of destroying it, then the rest would be relatively easy. So that was the big turning point. The big revelation.

NATASHA MOORE: So what happened after that?

TONY RINAUDO: Well, it wasn’t as easy as you would hope.

NATASHA MOORE: If this were a movie, the next day, everything would be different.

TONY RINAUDO: Yeah. So, you know, as people, all of us, no matter what culture, what education, we’re all sceptical and we all are slaves to habits. And so of course people don’t want to change the way they’ve done things, the way their parents have taught them. And if anything, it’s a little bit of a threat, because surely trees on my land will mean competition with the crops and less food. So there was a great deal of reluctance. But I worked with a few individuals, and it was working! That year 1983, it was working – trees were growing just as I thought they would, and I thought: Wonderful! Now we just need to get everyone doing this.  

But the further we got into that year, people would come at night, they’d chop the trees down. Maybe they were desperate for fuel wood, or they had a grudge against that neighbour. For various reasons, it could have failed in 1983. But that year was also a failure year of the rainy season. The rains were inadequate, the crops largely shrivelled up, people barely harvested anything. And the government made a ruling: if you’re going to give people food, they must work, we don’t want dependency, we don’t want laziness. And this really worked into our hands. So over the following year, 1984, I had, in a sense, a captive audience. People needed the food, and one of the work requirements was for them to leave 40 of these young emerging trees, 40 per hectare. And each month we would count, and if the trees were there, then the food allotment would be given each month. So that was, I guess, exposing a much wider audience to this method.

Now you would think that would do it, and especially in that in 1984 for the rains were very good, and they actually harvested a bumper crop of millet (that’s their staple diet). And despite that, 75 percent of the people, when we stopped the food, they clapped their hands, finished with Tony, chop the trees out. But the thing was I had a critical mass, 25 percent said no, maybe the guy’s crazy, but it didn’t do any harm, and we saw a lot of benefits, a little bit more fertility in the soil, some of these trees provide wild foods, some of them are good for fodder for the animals, and when they grow we’ll have fuel wood, and we still got a crop. And so little bit by little bit in the following years this method spread. Certainly, I was promoting it through my staff, but what I learned later was I wasn’t the primary actor, farmers were simply learning from each other, and it spread. It’s a bad comparison, but it spread like wildfire.

NATASHA MOORE: So since then you’ve seen Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration work elsewhere. Does it work everywhere? What have you seen?

TONY RINAUDO: Well, it works in a surprisingly wide range of environments, from the foothills of the Himalayas to extremely arid places. I thought Niger was arid, but we did this in Somaliland with just 2-to-4-inch rainfall (I think four inches is 100 millimetres), and it worked. And we’ve done it in more tropical areas, 1500-millimetre rainfall areas. So the principles work. In some places, you might not have living tree stumps, but it could be that there’s a seed bank in the soil. Or, if you remove the constraints – maybe there’s regular burning of that landscape or continuous overgrazing that’s suppressing regrowth, or if it’s in a poor country, people are removing anything that does appear, they’re removing it because they need it for fuel or food or whatever – if you remove those constraints, nature has this enormous capacity to heal itself. And in some contexts that may simply mean grasses come back. Maybe it was a treeless place before. But in many, many places, it’s just amazing the resilience of nature and this bound-up ability to spring back. I compare it to God’s desire to forgive us. You know, we abuse nature, we do everything possible wrong, again and again and again, and yet if we repent of our wicked ways, change what we’re doing, it will come back and forgive us. It’s amazing.

If feeding the hungry is considered to be a Christian thing to do, how much more Christian is it to prevent hunger in the first place.

NATASHA MOORE: So you have been a missionary and an agronomist, you know, a forestmaker. There’s a bunch of things mixed in here together that most people would think of as separate, right? You know, there’s a thing that missionaries do, they go and spread their religious views; there’s reforestation programs, that’s a different thing; famine relief is something else. But you’re doing all these things together. How does that fit together?

TONY RINAUDO: I think that’s a Western idea, that we are separate parts, so the spiritual side of our lives, the physical side, and so on. People in developing countries are more holistic in their outlook. And I guess I get my inspiration from Jesus himself, who healed the sick, he fed the hungry and he preached good news to the poor. So there’s no division there. And I modelled my ministry, my work, on that. And I mentioned that 1983 drought that was followed by famine – how could I say to people, yes, Jesus loves you, but not in time of famine – it was ridiculous. And so I would say, if feeding the hungry is considered to be a Christian thing to do (and I’m pretty sure there’d be no disagreement with that), how much more Christian is it to prevent hunger in the first place and give people their dignity that they’re providing for their own families. So, I find it hard actually to understand where the division came from in the first place.

NATASHA MOORE: Finally, tell me about your hopes for the future. Are you hopeful about where we’re headed? We’re facing some pretty big crises. What are your sources of hope, if so?

TONY RINAUDO: You know, I’ll tell a little story. So one day I drove the vehicle out towards the villages, and I stopped on this barren area, like it was more barren than normally. The soil had actually become compacted, and nothing growing there. And I stepped out of the vehicle. And it was a number of football fields in area, so it’s quite a significant area, it looked like the moon. And I shook my head and I thought, nothing will ever grow here again. But the day before it had rained, and I looked down at my feet, and there was a little crack in that concrete-like soil and a green plant popping up through that crack, just a tiny little speck of green. And in that moment, I remembered the reading that I’d had in my quiet time that morning, it actually comes from Psalm 104 verse 30 and it says: “When you send your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.”

And you know, up until that point I’d felt this great burden. It was all up to me to fix the problem; it was all on my shoulders. But I realised, no, it’s not solely up to me. God’s not only in the business of healing broken people and calling them to himself. He’s equally in the business of renewing and healing the earth. And I just thought, Oh, this is wonderful. I’m doing God’s work with him. He will help, he will give wisdom, he’ll show us what to do. And so I think God actually loves creation much, much more than we do. And that gives me so much hope. And I’ve seen so many answers to prayer, and solutions to problems that seemed unsolvable. I don’t despair about the future, as bleak as it looks – there are solutions.

NATASHA MOORE: Before we said goodbye, I asked Tony: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you think it’s important to say? There was.

TONY RINAUDO: Well, I I think that last question was a beauty because, you know, before COVID, I spoke all around the world – I guess I still do. But I find so many people fearful for the future, particularly young people. Climate change has almost got them before it’s arrived, defeated before it’s arrived. And I like to encourage and say: it’s never too late. Do what you can within your means, within your circle of influence. And then, when you get to that level, you’ll always be able to see further and do more. And what’s more, what’s amazing, is when you take a step in the right direction, others will come to your aid, others will join you. So yeah, don’t be discouraged, and certainly don’t give up. It’s not too late. It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible.