Why Feeding The World’s Hungry Is Actually About Trees

African farmers are successfully tackling the environmental dilemma that Western experts couldn’t – and the results can be seen from space!

Just weeks ago I walked through Uganda’s largest refugee camp, Bidi Bidi, where more than 270,000 survivors of war, persecution and famine are struggling to rebuild their lives. Every week more people arrive. And every week, more trees are cut down for firewood and shelter.

What was once more than 250 square kilometres of bushland, with scattered villages, is now an ever-growing dustbowl.

It’s a dilemma that aid organisations grapple with across the world.

With the average refugee using more than 3.5 kilograms of wood a day, every last tree at Bidi Bidi will be gone within three years.

Some suggest planting more trees, but I know from hard experience that this, on its own, is rarely the answer. I was among those who planted thousands of trees in Niger in the 1970s, only for the majority to die in the scorching heat, or to be used for fuel and housing. It was an expensive failure.

How do you convince farmers in famine-prone areas not to chop down trees? (Image: Supplied)

Re-growing forests is essential to the well-being of humans and ecosystems. Not only do forests provide fuel and building materials, they buffer us from the extremes of climate change. Moist forest floors retain water and help protect us from drought and flood. Trees on farms even improve soil fertility and the microclimate, increasing crop yields, fodder availability and livestock productivity.

But how do you convince some of the poorest people in famine-prone areas that they shouldn’t chop down trees, when they need firewood to cook today, otherwise their families won’t eat?

And what do you do when extensive tree planting doesn’t work?

In Niger, I was close to giving up when I noticed small shrubs springing from the ground. After investigation, I realised there was actually an ‘underground forest’ of tree roots beneath the desert-like landscape. The trees had been burned, chopped back and neglected for years and yet still they were trying to grow. It was a light-bulb moment that revolutionised how I thought about reforestation.

I convinced a dozen local farmers revive this ‘underground forest’ on a small area of their farms. They thinned and pruned the shoots growing from tree stumps – and the remaining stems grew into trees very quickly. The technique is called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, or FMNR. It’s simple, effective and costs very little.

The technique spread by word of mouth from one village to the next. Six million hectares of forest has grown across 50 percent of the farmland in Niger (Gray Tappan, US Geological Survey, 2016). Improved soil fertility and micro climate has increased crop production so much that farmers now feed an extra 2.5 million people in Niger! Their incomes have doubled. Dramatic satellite images from space show how the once barren landscape has transformed.

Satellite imagery from the US Geological Survey shows the Niger landscape in 1975 (L) and again in 2005 (R) after forest regeneration. (Image: Supplied)

We’ve seen similar exciting results in Ethiopia, Indonesia and parts of Uganda. The farmers who once saw me as the crazy Australian are today spearheading FMNR to other farmers because it’s simple. It’s their story now.

Today, I’m still trying to convince others to invest in this method. This often means fighting prejudices, old ideas and misinformation. Some have argued it was simply more rain that caused this transformation, but that’s not true – the primary reason for this massive reforestation event is the actions of millions of small holder farmers. Today, there are more trees in the southern third of Niger, close to the Sahara Desert than in neighbouring districts in Nigeria across the border, where rainfall is higher.

Humbo, Ethiopia's Hippo Humpback Mountain in 2006 (L) and in 2015 (R) after farmers regenerate forests using the FMNR method. (Image: Supplied)

My dream is to see FMNR rolled out where it’s so desperately needed – in refugee settlements like Bidi Bidi, and in degraded landscapes around the world where farmers are barely eking out a living. No other method regenerates forests at such a low cost.

It’s more important than ever that humanitarian work tackles deforestation. The world’s agricultural yields are predicted to halve by 2050 because of climate change and land degradation (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). This would impact vulnerable farmers, and increase reliance on aid.

But we can prevent this. The tools are in our hands.

All it takes is to change is our way of thinking.

Tony Rinaudo is an agronomist for World Vision Australia. His new book ‘Tony Rinaudo: The Forest Maker’ is out now. Click here for more information.