Growing forests in deserts…

It has been a long time without posting… we do apologise for such a long silence but the truth is we’ve been extremely busy! We spent most of August hiking in the Swiss Alps and we do hope to be able to share with you our experience with the makers of the über-famous Gruyere cheese… Anyway, after this great holiday, we then went to Jordan to study permaculture. We ended up doing a Permaculture Design Course for two weeks in Amman (it’s now Carly’s second PDC!), followed by a week of conferences/discussions/experience sharing in the Wadi Rum desert, exchanging about agriculture and water harvesting in arid climates; cross-fertilisation of the aid and permaculture sectors; using permaculture in regions where there are land rights conflicts such as Israel and Palestine; using carbon footprint offset taxes to finance permaculture projects, etc… After that, we went to the Occupied Palestinian Territories to visit some of the permaculture projects and sites people are working on despite their difficult conditions. We also had the chance to visit the Aida Palestinian Refugee Camp. As you can see on the picture below, from here you can look over the wall and see the stark contrast between the living conditions on both sides. 

Additionally, it has been really interesting to pass through the security check points and see how life here is controlled and difficult. As Carly said, for all that she had read and followed prior, there is nothing like seeing and experiencing…

Now we have decided to stay at one of the farms in the West Bank that we visited which was particularly interesting to spend the coming months, and we’ll be happy to share more about it in the coming weeks.

This month has been really incredible learning and meeting people who are engaging in some really deep discussions (and solutions) about various situations and problems around the world. One of the most inspiring people we met was Tony Rinaudo from World Vision. Tony is responsible for arguably one of the most successful land regeneration projects in the world, Farmer Managed Natural Regeneraton (FMNR), beginning in Niger during the 1980s. Since then three million hectares of arid land in that country alone has been revegetated – bringing back biodiversity in flora and fauna, increasing soil humus content, improving water retention and microclimates, and dramatically improving the health and viability of local communities by providing food, fire wood and incomes. It is now practiced on over 30,000 km² of land in the Niger Republic as well as Chad, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Mali. Tony is incredibly humble and shares so much… he talks about how when he first started this work World Vision would plant thousands of trees every year in these countries only for them to die from the heat, sand and lack of water… insanely, this continued year after year until he worked out a new way… basically, he observed and discovered the ‘underground forest’. By nurturing them and working with locals trees have regrown in so many places and the technique has spread through the local communities without his direct teaching. Anyway, we encourage you to read the following post from Harry Wykman whom we met during this trip, and whose post explains wonderfully Tony’s achievements. As you’ll see, Harry writes beautifully and we do encourage you to check his great blog (Perennial Ideas).


The Underground Forest: Using Biodiversity to Help People

by Harry Wykman

One of the highlights of the tenth International Permaculture Convergence was meeting Tony Rinaudo of World Vision Australia. Tony is a living example of the posture required for the development of truly regenerative systems. Tony has come to see patterns of people, plants and landscape which allow deserts to grow trees again. He does this by opening himself to the voice of the land.

While working in Niger, Tony noticed that what appeared to be small shrubs were in fact trees which had been coppiced by continuous grazing pressure, firewood harvesting and the impulse of farmers to keep crop land free of trees. Tony calls these trees ‘the underground forest.’

‘Do you speak tree?’

Rather than continue to plant trees at great expense only to have them die, Tony began to work with the natural processes which would allow this underground forest to grow. He says that it is necessary to learn to speak a new language — ‘Tree’. Not knowing whether it would work but trusting the natural fecundity the land, Tony worked with some farmers to select particular healthy stems, remove all but one to five of the remainder, cull to the required number of trees per hectrare and prune to promote healthy growth. This simple approach Tony calls Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR).

FMNR is based on “… the systematic regeneration of living tree stumps, roots and seeds.”

In Niger, 5 million hectares have been reafforested in the last 20 years using FMNR. This change can be seen from space as a spread of green where once there was a growing desert. Niger, as a result of FMNR, is the only African country with net afforestation.

‘It’s not a bad thing to be ignorant.’

I listened to and spoke with Tony several times over the course of the convergence and what became clear is that Tony is not just peddling a technique. At the beginning I mentioned Tony’s ‘posture’. Tony’s posture is one of enquiry, not expertise; listening, not just advising. This same posture comes to characterise the farmers with whom Tony works. Each community or farmer does things slightly differently according to their circumstances. Where Tony recommended keeping a maximum of 20 – 40 stems per hectare, some farmers have begun to leave 100 – 150 stems per hectare with an increase in their crop yield. They have found out what works through their own observations of natural regenerative processes.

Using Biodiversity to Help People

The trees and shrubs which grow up from the underground forest are the native species which have sometimes not been seen for decades. As a result, the community comes to have not only double or triple the crop yield between the trees but also tree fruits and nuts, medicines, firewood, fodder and shade for livestock and habitat and food for birds and insects which bring fertility and other ecosystem services.

FMNR allows for the regeneration of biodiversity and so also the regeneration and maintenance of ethnobotanical knowledge which might have dried up with the desert.

FMNR is almost scandalous in its simplicity. Working with nature, Tony has been able to be a co-creator with that force which lies at the heart of nature and would produce abundance. It was a great privilege to meet Tony and to learn about his work. FMNR is one of the best examples of permaculture in practice and gives me great hope for the future.

Tony also has a lot to share about edible Acacias but that is another story altogether and a post for another day.


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