Training a new generation of "tree whisperers"

Training a new generation of "tree whisperers"

He’s known as "The Forest Maker", famous around the globe for turning desert landscapes into fields of green. 

And now, World Vision agronomist Tony Rinaudo’s ground-breaking reforestation technique is poised to take root at one of Kenya’s major universities. 

A new generation of tree whisperers will be trained up after Moi University signalled its interest in adopting and spruiking the Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) program.

The successful regreening program involves selecting and managing stems growing from live stumps, roots and seeds in the landscape. The original tree population is regenerated to produce thriving forests and productive farmland.  

One success story in Ethiopia is even visible from space. Satellite images in 2006 of Humbo, in the southwest, show a brown land stripped of trees, peppered with small shrubs. 

Within a decade, the area was carpeted in green, bursting with indigenous trees after farmers – including some of the world’s poorest –  breathed new life into the land. 

Humbo Mountain, Ethiopia, before FMNR.

Humbo Mountain, in Ethiopia, before FMNR.

Humbo Mountain in Ethiopia after FMNR.

Humbo Mountain, after FMNR.

Tony said the agreement between Moi University and World Vision Kenya to integrate FMNR into the course curriculum was set to be inked within months, with discussions entering the final stages.

It could include a research partnership with World Vision Kenya, incorporating FMNR into university programs, creating a module for certified short courses and training lecturers as FMNR champions.

“This is really exciting, it’s something I’ve hoped for, for a long time,” Tony said.

“It sets the scene for the future, and we hope it will pave the way for more universities to incorporate FMNR into their teaching and research programs too.”

It’s not just university students reaping the benefits of the program, which first sprouted 30 years ago when Tony lived in Niger.

World Vision field staff visit schools around Africa to plant the seeds of FMNR, witnessing firsthand the joy on young children’s faces as they share the secrets of the technique. 

“In countries like Kenya, these kids are our ambassadors. We are grooming the next generation,” Tony said.

“A lot of the kids tell us they have to go out and find wood both for school kitchens, and the home, and it’s a real burden. It means they can’t play, can’t do homework. Our field staff and volunteers show them how to prune useless looking bushes, selectively trim branches, and grow them into trees … and explain why they shouldn’t chop down trees.  

“Their faces light up when we tell them about what we do, and they go home and start pruning and tell their parents about it.

“They see red when they see trees being cut down and say things like, ‘You are destroying our future’.”

Tony Rinaudo, with community members in Ethiopia.

World Vision's Tony Rinaudo, teaching young people in Ethiopia how to practise FMNR.

Feature film in the works

Amid speaking commitments at high profile conferences in Europe this year and trips to the field, Tony has also been trailed by Oscar-winning German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff and his camera crew.

Volker, who directed the 1990s film adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, wants to make a feature-length documentary on Tony’s work with World Vision and the EverGreening Global Alliance, and his aim to reforest two billion hectares of our planet.

“He is a perfect example of what it means to commit yourself to a cause, to live your commitment every day, and to implement a vision,” Volker said.

FMNR is now practised in at least 27 countries through the work of World Vision: Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Kingdom of Eswatini, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burundi, Ghana, Senegal, India, Myanmar, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Haiti, India, Lebanon and Sri Lanka.