Today, about half a dozen countries in West Africa face acute food shortages. Elsewhere in the continent, critical food shortages continue in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia as they seek to recover from last year’s crippling drought.
Such grim news has regularly dogged Africa in recent decades — a few seasons of poor rainfall puts millions at risk of starvation
Australian Tony Rinaudo, World Vision’s research and development specialist on climate and natural resources, believes there is a solution to these recurring droughts and famine — a solution which is simple, inexpensive, practical, and proven; a solution that will turn vast tracts of arid, bare, inhospitable land into virtual oases.
This week, Tony will present his ideas as a keynote speaker at the “Beating Famine” conference at the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi. The conference will be attended by government ministers, ambassadors, U.N. officials, and humanitarian organizations.
He says his 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 improve water cycles, making drought and floods less frequent. Tony says the key to 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.
“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,” he says.
The “underground forest” consists of sprouting tree stumps, roots, and seeds, which have the potential to restore forests on vast tracts of seemingly barren land given the appropriate intervention.
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 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.
Tony pioneered the use of FMNR in Niger, West Africa, in the early 80s, and although the technique was derided at first, within 20 years this simple, cheap, and rapid form of reforestation has become standard practice across 50 percent 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,” Tony says.
“Farmers who have adopted FMNR have not had to rely on food handouts during famine periods.”
Tony says the fact that Niger continues to suffer food shortages can be attributed to rapid population growth and the fact that there are still large areas of Niger where there is net deforestation with consequent desertification. He says old timers 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,” he says.