Three childhood experiences set me on the course to working to restore degraded land through helping to connect people to nature. My mother’s strong and unwavering faith helped me to appreciate that life was about more than what we could accumulate in the present, and that we could trust a loving heavenly father for all our needs. The abuse of beautiful forests and mountain streams seemed to be an expression of greed and disregard for future generations. Watching news programs showing children just like me going hungry seemed mad in a world of plenty.
I blurted out a child’s prayer asking God to use me somehow, somewhere to make a difference. That set in motion a series of events which eventually took my wife, Liz and I on a journey to the Niger Republic and beyond.
In Niger, I inherited a tree planting project which was not having much impact. It was very hard to achieve good tree survival rates in that climate and farmers had other priorities. I soon realized that conventional reforestation methods would never deliver in a cost efficient way, or be scalable enough to reverse the overwhelming trend of desertification. After two and a half years of struggle and at the point of giving up, I asked God to forgive us for destroying the gift of His creation and to show us what to do. That day I saw with new eyes what had been there all along – an underground forest!
A ‘bush’ caught my attention while I was letting air out of the tires of my pickup. On closer inspection, it became clear that it was actually a tree that had been cut down and was now re-sprouting from the stump. Everything changed. I instinctively knew that this was the solution – and it had been at my feet the whole time! There were millions of similar ‘bushes’ strewn across that otherwise barren landscape. Each year they would grow to about one meter high and then, in preparation for sowing crops, farmers would slash and burn the stems, or take them home for fuel. As long as this continued the ‘bushes’ would never grow into full sized trees. So our team and the local community started preserving them, pruning back each bush to a single stalk, enabling it to become a tree again.
This developed into a re-greening movement, Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), involving the systematic regeneration and management of farmer-selected, naturally occurring trees and shrubs from stumps, roots and seeds. A natural agroforestry system – rather than a tree- planting one – it uses what is already in the ground, and is owned and driven by farmers and communities. Along with some spontaneous community movements, FMNR spread across southern Niger at a rate of 250,000 hectares per year, now impacting 5 million hectares of land. Average tree density rose from four trees per hectare in the 1970s to 45 today. It is estimated that, because of the resulting improved soil conditions and microclimate, Niger’s farmers now produce an additional 500,000 tons of grain, while gross incomes have increased by $900 million per year. And this has been achieved on the borderlands of the Sahara under very harsh environmental conditions where conventional methods failed.
Since joining World Vision Australia in 1999, I have seen FMNR spread to 24 countries. Upper East Province, Ghana, is not atypical. Its communities were living very precariously. Drought alternated with floods, temperatures rose and damaging winds increased in frequency. Women and children were walking four hours to collect fuel wood and many children were not in school. There was an acute shortage of fodder, and livestock were often stolen when they wandered far from home. People were regularly hungry and were on the verge of giving up hope of their land ever being able to support them. The chief of Yamarega village said: “If things get any worse, we will have to leave our ancestral land and move to the capital city”.
In 2011, just two years after an FMNR program had started, crop yields rose, fodder and fuelwood became available close to villages, as did wild foods from regenerating indigenous trees, supplementing diets and incomes. Flooding and drought decreased as the trees grew and the incidence of damaging winds fell. The chief called it a “gift from the Almighty God”.
After over 30 years of promotion, nobody has ever come to me and complained that FMNR has ruined their farm. The responses are overwhelmingly positive: improved ecosystem function results in increased food, water, fodder and income security, diversified income sources, and increased resilience, not to mention increased biodiversity and environmental benefits. As incomes and opportunities increase, communities report improved health, greater school attendance, reduced conflict and emigration, and a greater sense of wellbeing.
Individuals and communities, including former enemies and people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, can be brought together. In Rwanda, former genocide victims and perpetrators now work together to care for each other’s trees and in Ghana, herders and cultivators, who are often in conflict, are working together to restore the environment because they realize that it is in everyone’s best interest. Such cooperation seems to bring heightened awareness of humanity’s common bond, of mutual dependence on the environment, and of the need for good stewardship.
In my own life I have found that faith in God has been inseparable from love and respect for nature. Faith can be a gateway to respecting nature just as respecting nature can deepen one’s faith. Nature is very forgiving and responds positively and quickly when we repent of destructive ways and begin to work with – instead of warring against – her. It seems to be that the link between faith, people and nature is particularly strong in many developing countries, where most people are acutely aware of their dependence on both God and the environment. Through community-driven land restoration people are making their peace with nature – and often with themselves and others too.