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Growing new trees from old roots

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WORLD Radio - Growing new trees from old roots

Christian agronomists invent a better way to care for forests in Africa and around the world


Tony Rinaudo Photo courtesy of World Vision

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 9th of August, 2022.

Thank you for listening to World Radio today! Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Every year, large tracks of forests are cut down through global deforestation. And while millions of acres of trees are planted—or replanted—scientists have discovered that mature trees often have a greater positive effect on the environment than new ones.

BROWN: That’s led to a new initiative that uses the roots of old trees to start new tree growth. The results are bringing hope to many arid regions of the world. WORLD correspondent Amy Lewis reports.

ALOK SHARMA, COP26 PRESIDENT: We turn now to the negotiations. Detailed discussions have continued across a whole range of issues.

AMY LEWIS, REPORTER: Last fall leaders from more than a hundred countries met in Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference, or COP-26. The resolution that came out of the meetings was the Glasgow Climate Pact. One of its aims is to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by the year 2030.

ALOK SHARMA, COP26 PRESIDENT: Hearing no objections, it is so decided. [APPLAUSE]

The day after her country signed the pact, Indonesia’s Minister of Environment and Forestry Siti Narbaya Bakar said the requirements were inappropriate and unfair. She claimed ending deforestation is at odds with Indonesia’s economic development.

But World Vision Australia’s principal climate action advisor Tony Rinaudo says it doesn’t have to be either ‘save the forests’ or ‘develop economically.’

RINAUDO: There's more than enough. God's provided more than enough. And so I've become really a global campaigner, to work with God's creation.

Rinaudo and his wife Liz are both agronomists. They spent seventeen years in Niger developing a method that allows poor farmers and countries to get more yield from their land. The method encourages trees to grow instead of chopping them down. It’s called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration or FMNR and has been adopted in 26 countries so far.

RINAUDO: It actually does what it says. It's farmer managed, and it's regenerating naturally-occurring trees and particularly in the case of living tree stumps. When you cut a tree down, for most species, it's not the end of the tree’s life, and they have this enormous capacity to re-sprout.

The sprouts of a stump already have a tree’s-worth of life buried underground. A newly planted sapling doesn’t have the same advantage. Rinaudo’s wife Liz explains.

LIZ: You've got these little shoots with maybe 10 metres of root down there and vast network of fibrous roots, you know, collecting water and nutrients. So when you regenerate trees from a living tree stump, you don't have to water them, they and they rarely, very rarely die.

Rinaudo had spent more than two years trying to plant trees in the Sahel region of Africa. The people called Rinaudo the “crazy white farmer.” One day on a trip to deliver saplings, Rinaudo prayed in desperation.

RINAUDO: Dear God, forgive us for destroying your gift of your creation. And as a consequence of that, people are suffering. They're hungry, they're poor. They're fearful for tomorrow. But you still love us. You sent Jesus to die for us. Show us what to do. Open our eyes. Help us.

He looked up and noticed bushes. The same bushes he’d been driving past for years.

RINAUDO: But on this particular day, I took the trouble to walk over and take a close look at this useless looking bush.

The leaves looked familiar.

RINAUDO: It's not a bush. It's not a weed. It's a tree. And brushed a bit of sand away. There's a stump there. Yes, that's the answer I was looking for. There are millions of these things strewn across this landscape. We don't have to plant these things. They're there.

God allowed Rinaudo to discover the forest underground and begin training farmers to manage the suckers.

RINAUDO: In developing country contexts where we don't have electricity and gas, wood is our cooking source and our lighting, we encourage farmers not to leave a single stem because you've got a need. And you're going to cut that single stem down as soon as that need’s apparent. But if we leave up to five, then in any one year, we can harvest one, allow the others to continue growing. Allow a new sucker to replace the one you cut—and you’ve got this rotation system so that you never leave the land bare.

It took time for the idea to take root. But this year US Geological surveyor Gray Tappan, who maps land-use and vegetation, verified farmers had restored over 200 million trees on 15 million acres of land. All without planting a single tree.

Farmers found that instead of suppressing crop growth, trees helped their crops. Their animals improved production. When drought came, their crops survived while their neighbors’ crops in treeless fields died.

RINAUDO: What scientists have discovered is the tree is bio-irrigating the crop. It draws water from deep in the soil profile. And at nighttime the shallow roots which are within reach of the crop roots, the shallow roots are leaking some of that moisture into the soil.

Liz Rinaudo works with Global Evergreening Alliance that works on restoration of degraded land around the world. Changing mindsets about what works isn’t easy.

LIZ: One of the really challenging things is convincing donors that it's worthwhile using Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration because they very much want to have a cost per tree, you know, and planting trees seems somehow more sexy, you know, than, than regenerating trees.

The Rinaudos have seen whole regions transformed from being desert-like to being forested and green. But they’ve seen an even bigger transformation.

RINAUDO: The land is rehydrating. The life is coming back. Actually, the biggest change in one sense is invisible. It's the restoration of hope. And this is very, very powerful. And if you consider what it's like to be a parent, and you can't feed your children adequately, clothe them, educate them, it's very soul destroying. And then you bring in this simple thing literally at their feet. I don't have to depend on outside or government, God's given me everything that I need for life. And their whole attitude, their willingness to take sensible risks, to work harder, send their kids to school, everything changes. I have the privilege of seeing this transformation. And it’s powerful.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Amy Lewis.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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