“Underground forest" prevents famine in Africa

A World Vision expert has found that an “underground forest” could be the key to restoring arid land and ending recurring droughts across Africa.

By James Addis, World Vision U.S.
Published April 10, 2012 at 12:00am PDT

Today, about half a dozen countries in West Africa face acute food shortages.

Elsewhere on the continent, critical food shortages continue in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia as those countries seek to recover from last year’s crippling drought.

Beating famine with an “underground forest”

Such grim news has regularly dogged Africa in recent decades — a few seasons of poor rainfall puts millions at risk of starvation.

But an “underground forest” is the key to restoring the land and ending recurring famine, says Tony Rinaudo, World Vision’s research and development specialist on climate and natural resources.

This week, Rinaudo will present his techniques as a keynote speaker at the Beating Famine Conference at the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi, Kenya. The conference will be attended by government ministers, ambassadors, U.N. officials, and humanitarian organizations.

Re-greening has multiple benefits

Rinaudo’s hope is to spark a “re-greening movement” that will sweep across Africa. “This re-greening will have multiple benefits — increased crop yields and livestock, increased resiliency to environmental shocks and climate change, and increased bio-diversity,” he says.

He adds that such re-greening would also likely reduce conflict due to a greater availability of resources and improved water cycles, making drought and floods less frequent.

It is inexpensive, practical, and proven — a solution that will turn vast tracts of arid, bare, inhospitable land into virtual oases. Rinaudo believes this transformation lies in the discovery of a vast “underground forest” which covers millions of hectares and simply needs a little help to be restored.

Cultivated “useless brush” can revive dry land

The “underground forest” consists of sprouting tree stumps, roots, and seeds, which have the potential to restore low forests on vast tracts of seemingly barren land, given the appropriate intervention.

Tony Rinaudo, World Vision research and development specialist, is presenting his Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) techniques at the “Beating Famine” conference. Rinaudo says that farmers who have adopted FMNR have not had to rely on food handouts during famine periods. “When I made that discovery — or, I should say, ‘when God opened my eyes’ — I knew that the game had changed, and I became a man on a mission,” Rinaudo says.

Until recently, the “underground forest” was often dismissed as “useless bush.” Farmers saw the stems as weeds and slashed and burnt them before sowing their food crops. The result was a landscape rapidly turning into a desert.

Without trees and ground vegetation to hold the soil together, floods and winds sweep away precious topsoil and leach nutrients from whatever soil is left. Arable land quickly turns to desert.

It’s estimated that more than 60 percent of rain-fed cropland in Africa’s drier regions is damaged by moderate to severe desertification.

By using a technique known as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), rather than disposing of indigenous tree stems, farmers are actively encouraged to prune and cultivate them. They then plant their crops around the indigenous trees.

Rinaudo pioneered the use of FMNR in Niger, in the early 1980s. The technique was derided at first, but within 20 years, this simple, cheap, and rapid form of reforestation has become standard practice across half of the country’s farmland.

“It has doubled crops and family incomes; provided timber for building, cooking, and keeping warm; restored degraded soils; and helped communities adapt to climate change,” Rinaudo says. “Farmers who have adopted FMNR have not had to rely on food handouts during famine periods.”

Rinaudo says the fact that Niger continues to suffer food shortages can be attributed to rapid population growth and the presence of large areas of Niger where there is net deforestation with consequent desertification.

He says elders will recall when such areas were home to wildlife, vast herds of livestock, perennial water holes, springs, and forests.

“With restorative techniques such as FMNR, we have the tools today to bring the environment back much closer to what it was in the past,” Rinaudo says.

How you can help

Thank God for what he revealed to Tony Rinaudo and for the opportunity to share these learnings. Pray that the practice of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration would proliferate throughout drought-prone regions in Africa and have positive environmental effects.

Make a one-time gift to help provide seeds, tools, and training in Africa. Your gift will provide seeds and tools to assist farmers in raising crops and livestock, training in improved agricultural techniques, and guidance on environmental protection.