How does a guy from a sleepy country town in Victoria end up pioneering a way to transform the drought-ravaged land into ribbons of greenery?

Three decades ago Tony Rinaudo was hurtling across the sandy plains of Niger in a clapped-out ute with a trailer-load of trees.

The Victorian man was in the west African country to manage a tree planting project.

“Basically it was a failure. We were only planting 6,000 trees per year, most of them died, and people were not interested. I was very frustrated. I felt I was just wasting my time and others’ money in a project that would never have an impact,” he says.

As he adjusted the pressure of his tyres in preparation for the sandy road ahead, Rinuado surveyed the land stretching out in all directions: scorched and drought-ridden. He’d witnessed how farmers struggled to put enough food on the table even in ‘good’ years. 

He was almost ready to pack his bags and leave.

But something caught his eye: a tiny shrub, feebly fluttering its leaves in the glare of the sun. On closer inspection, he noticed it wasn’t a shrub; it was a tree attempting to re-grow. This little tree got his mind ticking over: perhaps he was thinking about the revegetation issue all wrong. Instead of planting more trees, why not take advantage of sprouting root systems or seeds that lie underground?

From this simple idea, he developed the “Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration”(FMNR), a method of taking advantage of root systems – memories of their former tree selves – that lie dormant beneath the ground. He’s quick to clarify he didn’t actually invent FMNR, it was more of a “rediscovery” of a traditional practice that dates back centuries.

Rinuado says the result of this radical approach to land management has been “quite amazing”. Hundreds of thousands of farmers embraced this agricultural practice, transforming large swaths into productive land, improving food and fuel production for their communities. Once the revegetation takes off, the farmers just need to protect the tiny, growing tree shoots from theft, fire and livestock. And the results speak for themselves: satellite images show how far FMNR has spread across Africa’s desert plains: Niger boasts vast swathes of vegetation, whereas in Nigeria, just across the border where FMNR hasn’t been introduced, it’s strikingly barren.

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Originally published on News.Com.Au

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