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The forest maker: In conversation with Tony Rinaudo

  • 30 June 2023
  We can only change landscapes by changing mindscapes. – Tony Rinaudo   When Australian agronomists Tony and Liz Rinaudo moved from Australia to Niger in 1981, they knew they were headed to a country in crisis. Widespread deforestation between the 1950s and the 1980s had led to a sharp increase in drought, severe winds, pests and disease, coupled with a sharp decrease in crop yields. The land in Niger was turning into a desert. Meanwhile, the population was rapidly growing and famines were becoming increasingly frequent. The sweeping environmental degradation drew the Australian couple. Tony and Liz had met studying Rural Science at the University of New England, and felt called to use their agricultural training to serve others. Fast-forward to today, and Tony’s work has contributed to the regeneration of over six million hectares of desertified land in Niger alone. Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) has become a global movement — and it is gaining pace as its benefits are increasingly realised. Eureka Street speaks with Tony to find out more about this inspiring story and to ask about the role of FMNR in addressing climate change.

Sarah Bacaller: Tony, can you explain desertification and why it was such a problem in the Nigerien context when you moved there in the 1980s?

Tony Rinaudo: Desertification is the process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically as a result of drought, deforestation or inappropriate agriculture. What had been a biodiverse dryland forest in pre-1960s Niger, with productive agricultural land in the clearings, water springs and abundant wildlife, had transformed into an almost treeless, infertile, windswept plain. Crop failure and loss of livestock had become common, and people experienced hunger and even displacement with increasing regularity.

Why did the pace of land clearing accelerate so much after the 1960s in Niger?  

People cleared land before colonisation [in the 19th century]. But with lower populations, when one parcel was exhausted (that is, lost fertility), they moved onto another plot and didn't return till the original plot had regenerated trees on it. The French strongly promoted 'modern' agriculture, which involved clearing and the use of animal-drawn implements; so tree stumps were a nuisance which needed to be removed. At the same time, populations were increasing rapidly (especially after the 1960s), requiring more land to grow food on. The growth of urban centres signalled an increased demand for fuel wood — thus giving rural people a steady means of earning an income