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Transforming forests

SCIENCE | From floor to canopy, two Australian scientists conserve trees—and human dignity


Tony Rinaudo demonstrates pruning. Silas Koch/World Vision

Transforming forests
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Agronomist Tony Rinaudo and ecologist Meg Lowman are researchers with separate careers but a common passion: Both study and care for trees. However, they approach their subject from opposite ends. While Rinaudo focuses on the roots, Lowman studies the canopy.

Rinaudo, World Vision Australia’s principle natural resources adviser, has promoted farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) since the 1980s. It’s an old method with a new focus of training farmers to regrow trees from roots and stumps to ­b­­enefit their crops and livestock—and ­ultimately their livelihoods.

Lowman, on the other hand, promotes building skywalks. Set high in forest treetops, the skywalks aid exploration, study, and preservation of trees while providing ecotourism income to indigenous peoples.

Although Rinaudo and Lowman promote the health of trees, their emphasis is on restoring hope and dignity to people.

Time-series images of the arid Sahel region of Niger show 200 million more trees today than 30 or 40 years ago, according to U.S. Geological Survey scientist Gray Tappan. “It’s not intuitive given the greater populations. There are huge success stories,” he says in a USGS video.

Rinaudo is one of the people behind those stories. When he and his wife first arrived in the Nigerien Sahel, women walked many sun-baked miles several times a week to collect fuel for their cooking fires and fodder for their animals. As wood and grass near their homes got scarce, they had to ­forage at greater distances.

“Life took all their time,” says Tony Rinaudo. “There was exhaustion, dangers on the road, and kids were kept out of school to help carry the wood.”

Rinaudo and his wife, Liz, also an agronomist, spent their first two years unsuccessfully planting trees in an effort to combat desertification. They say it felt like a waste of time and money.

Then, Rinaudo says, he desperately asked God to open his eyes for the sake of the ­people he was working with.

He walked over to a bush and looked at the leaves. “A leaf is like a signature,” he says. He realized the bushes he’d been driving past for more than two years came from tree stumps with roots that already stretch toward the water table and have access to nutrients, unlike a young sapling. He was looking at the top of an underground forest.

That realization sparked the Rinaudos’ new mission to teach farmers how to train the sprouts from stumps into trees. The trees benefit their crops, livestock, and fuel sources. “You’re diversifying people’s enterprises, and giving greater security and resilience,” he says.

Farmers in 26 countries have adopted the practice. Rinaudo recounts how an old father in Tanzania said, “We were so ashamed. The only place our children could see African wildlife was in textbooks.” He and others restored 5 acres of land and saw antelope return. “We bring our children to show them and tell them the old ­stories,” he said.

Meg Lowman on canopy walkway in Peru.

Meg Lowman on canopy walkway in Peru. Tree Foundation

Meanwhile, self-described “arbornaut” Meg Lowman climbs trees. “It’s where 90 percent of a tree’s biodiversity lives,” she says. “The canopies are like genetic libraries.” Her vision is for canopy walkways to encourage stewardship through ecotourism, fostering wonder and excitement for forests.

Logging is a one-time profit for local people, but Lowman says skywalks provide sustainable income for longer periods of time and allow the public to benefit as well. She says a walkway in the Amazon started on a 2,400-acre reserve that consequently grew to over 2 million acres. It provides income for a hundred families who realize the importance of preserving the jaguars and scarlet macaws for the thousands of visitors.

Visitors appreciate the life in the treetops, and the local residents become guides sharing the knowledge they have of their home. “That escalates their own status, with so much dignity associated with it,” says Lowman.

They think, ‘I don’t have to depend on the outside or on the government. God’s given me everything that I need for life.’

Her first skywalk construction was in Queensland, Australia. “The rainforest was dark and gloomy with leeches and old car bodies and little junkyards where people would drop television sets. They just viewed the rainforest as this gloomy place,” she says. “And now with the canopy ecotourism there, it was such a joy to see people suddenly go to the canopy to see the beautiful rosellas and brush ­turkeys, and get a whole different sense of conservation and appreciation of their local trees.”

World Vision’s Rinaudo says the green hills and tree-dotted landscapes encourage him. But the transformation among farmers gives him the greatest joy: “They tried things that didn’t work. They even gave up trying. And then you bring in this simple thing ­literally at their feet. And to a very large degree they become masters of their own destiny.

“They think, ‘I don’t have to depend on the outside or on the government. God’s given me everything that I need for life.’”


Amy Lewis

Amy is a WORLD contributor and a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Fresno Pacific University. She taught middle school English before homeschooling her own children. She lives in Geelong, Australia, with her husband and the two youngest of their seven kids.

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