Conquering deforestation with a pocket knife

Reforestation in Madagascar. Source: WWF

Niger in the 1980s - A barren landscape. “When I moved to Niger in the 1980s, we were confronted with a landscape at the point of ecological collapse, barely able to support life,” said Tony Rinaudo, World Vision Australia’s climate action advisor, more commonly known as “the forest-maker”.

Rinaudo related the four-decade long story of his success in fighting extreme deforestation in Africa’s Sahel region, at an opening session of this year’s annual Caux Forum, a three-week long conference hosted by the Geneva-based Initiatives of Change, and taking place this year online. Rinaudo’s story was one of a number of case studies from India, Namibia, and elsewhere illustrating how carefully designed, community-based solutions can tackle desertification, climate change and environmental degradation - also easing conflicts over land, water and other natural resources in the process.

A recipe for disaster - deforestation. In the 1980’s, “massive” forest clearing put Niger on the brink of environmental disaster, said Rinaudo. Rainfall also was in decline, leading to “more severe droughts more often” and accelerating desertification. The consequences were devastating for the Sahel as Niger witnessed crop failure, famine, and an explosive growth of seemingly uncontrollable, crop-ravaging insects.

The crazy white farmer. When Rinaudo first embarked on his journey to tackle deforestation, it was a ‘miserable failure’. Here’s why:

“People were trying to survive, they wanted income and food”, said Rinaudo. “As population grew, demand for farming land increased. With poverty, people cut trees to sell firewood….And they actually called me the crazy white farmer [for trying to halt deforestation]...the early years were very very difficult.”

Tony Rinaudo, commonly known as the 'tree-maker'. Source: The Right Livelihood Foundation

A healing process that restored hope. Over time, he managed to get local farmers behind initiatives for “farmer-managed natural regeneration” (FMNR), which changed those dynamics.

  • To the naked eye, deforestation creates landscapes that look barren, but closer to earth or underground, a forest of stumps and seeds lives on. If untouched, seemingly dead stumps can grow back within 10-15 years.

  • Farmer managed natural regeneration (FMNR) - otherwise known as ‘coppicing’ or ‘pollarding’ - speeds up the process.

  • It involves strategies such as pruning out weak stumps to favor faster growth of the sturdiest ones. When the stumps grow back as trees, lower branches are pruned - and potential constraints like livestock are removed to hasten the stump’s growth. Rinaudo:

“[FMNR] was actually revolutionary. It is extremely simple, it's a little bit of a no-brainer. But it achieved what millions of dollars in expertise and further assistance had failed to do in the previous few decades before we arrived.”

“Here's this simple crisis [of deforestation], you [tackle] it with a pocket knife…The poorest people can implement it...FMNR was a revelation that changed their was low-cost and scalable.”

Niger farmer stands by a restored forest area. Source: International Food Policy Research Institute

From a vicious to a virtuous cycle. Today, in Niger, an arid Sahel country, there are more than 6 million hectares of land with an average tree density of 40 trees per hectare - compared to 4 trees per hectare in the 1980s. Here’s how it was achieved:

  • With “minimal” investments, farmers learned about FMNR from their peers and implemented the practice with “revolutionary” results, as trees spread across Niger’s desolate landscape at a rate of a quarter of a hectare per year for over 20 years.

  • As a result, wind speeds reduced “greatly”, trees boosted soil fertility, crop yields soared and depleted water tables began to replenish.

  • As biodiversity returned, families gained access to fuelwood close to their homes and were able to put food on the table.

"If you work with nature and allow trees to regrow, then nature will care for you and you'll have a better future for yourself and for your children.“

Reforestation to reduce conflict. As reforestation bolstered supplies of food, fuelwood, and even water in some cases, conflicts tended to wind down naturally, as there was no need to fight over dwindling forest, fuel or water resources, said Rinaudo. In one district, conflict reduced by a 'very very significant' 60%, according to one unpublished study, he says.

The bottom line. Climate finance specialist Louise Brown, who moderated the Caux Forum event, part of this year’s Dialogue on Environment and Security, co-sponsored by the United Nations Convention on Desertification, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, concludes:

"Communities have the answers to their challenges...With the right incentives, simple solutions can be taken forward to improve the environment, society and the economy all in one go."