Tony Rinaudo, the agronomist regrowing the trees of the Sahel

For the Nigerien communities where he lived for nineteen years, he is the “crazy white farmer”. Tony Rinaudo, a 65-year-old Australian agronomist, has dedicated his life to the natural regeneration of trees in Africa. Endowed with a strong power of persuasion and equipped with a machete as his only tool, Tony Rinaudo was the initiative of a movement for the massive reforestation of the drylands of Niger, which began forty years ago and which has made it possible to restore more than 5 million hectares of land and grow 200 million Trees without planting a single specimen, simply by allowing the stumps to regenerate.

This fight is the focus of a documentary by German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, which will be broadcast on Arte on Thursday 17 November: The forest maker. The man who raises the trees. In this feature film, the eighty-year-old director is an Oscar winner for his film The drum (1979) accommodates communities that, thanks to the principles of regeneration, have reforested their environment with few precise quantities and valuing the presence of trees. A principle much less expensive than planting programs and much more effective, Tony Rinaudo assures The world Met during a trip to Paris, in October.

Tony Rinaudo was only 20 years old when, after graduating in agronomy, he got the opportunity to work for a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Niger. Originally from rural Victoria, the hesitant didn’t hesitate, especially since his wife, also an agronomist, is willing to follow him with their baby. They settled in the Maradi district, learned French and Hausa, and saw their three other children born in Niger.

“On the verge of ecological upheaval”

In the early 1980s, the country recovered from a long period of drought and starvation. Its lands are very degraded and exposed to the winds as the bush trees have been cleared to make way for crops. The Australian’s original mission was a classic tree planting program to act as a windbreak to prevent crops from being blown away under sandstorms. “The goal was to plant 6,000 to 8,000 trees a year. It may not seem like much, but that alone was a failurehe confides. 80% to 90% of the trees died. »

For the locals, planting trees was an aberration. “You asked me: Why plant trees on our precious land when we are already suffering from hunger and misery? But without trees on this land, soil fertility would have declined and agriculture would no longer be viable. We were already on the verge of ecological upheaval. »

Also read: A forest grew on pebbles: In Niger, the Great Green Wall is slowly progressing

After several years with no results on the ground, Tony Rinaudo is considering returning to Australia. “I experimented, I consulted, nothing worked. Everything seemed pointless to me. » One day, while driving through the savannah in his van, he has to stop to check the tire pressure. “10 or 15 meters away from me I see what I thought was a bush. As I get closer, I watch its leaves: it wasn’t a bush but a fallen tree, swept away by the sand. When he saw his stump, it clicked: all those bushes in the savannah were the remains of a forest. There was no need to plant trees, they were there, underground, you just had to get them going again. »

“Rather than treat desertification as a technical issue, we treat it as a social issue. It takes time, but I’m stubborn.” Tony Rinaudo

From then on, the Australian’s work changed radically. It is no longer about entering an area to plant trees, but about convincing communities of the need to protect and restore existing vegetation. “Rather than treat desertification as a technical issue, we treat it as a social issue. It takes time, but I’m stubborn. » The agronomist is committed to building a relationship of trust with the farmers he meets. “I explain to communities that by leaving trees on their land they are not giving up anything. On the contrary, it is an investment in their future that will bring them many benefits: more harvests, more plants for their pharmacopeia, more wood for their fire, more fruit, more pollination, more protection from pests, etc. »

Very good results

With the principle that nature is able to regenerate itself if we stop destroying it, Tony Rinaudo’s ideas show very good results very quickly. “In the years of drought the harvests were infinitely more plentiful under the trees… I don’t know how the principle got spread, but from farmer to farmer the word spread so much and so well that in about twenty years there are 200 million trees in the Niger grown without planting a single one. »

also read The Risen Trees of Talensi in northern Ghana

Today, Tony Rinaudo watches with suspicion as certain states announce massive planting programs, attempting to break records for trees planted in a single day. “You have to look at how many of these trees survive beyond a year: I can guarantee the rate is very low. » Despite the minimal costs (two euros per hectare, with plantation projects this can increase to up to 8,000 euros per hectare), natural regeneration is still underused. “Why spend millions on climate geoengineering techniques when very simple, nature-based solutions can provide part of the solution?asks Tony Rinaudo. Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison said the solutions to the planet’s incredibly complex problems are embarrassingly simple. I for one would add that I don’t find it embarrassing because it works. »

Although the principles of regeneration have spread well beyond Niger – to Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia, Indonesia… – Tony Rinaudo, particularly with the support of the development NGO Vision du monde, is aware of the advocacy work he has to do “Growing Consciousness”. Of the 3 billion hectares of degraded land on the planet, the agronomist recalls that if we could restore 1 billion hectares, we would sequester 16 to 25 percent of the greenhouse gases currently emitted. Huge potential. “When I say recovery is revolutionary, it really is.”insists Tony Rinaudo, who refuses to give up hope. “When you’re on the job, you don’t have time to feel discouraged. It’s never too late to act”continues the indefatigable sixty-year-old.

The man who raises the treesby Volker Schlondörff, 88 min, 2022. Broadcast on Arte Thursday, November 17 at 12:15 a.m. and on Arte.tv.

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