Over 35 years ago, with the help of the local farmers, a man began implementing a conservation farming technique that would transform degraded landscapes in rural Niger and inspire communities around the world.

That man’s name: Tony Rinaudo.

In the last two weeks we’ve traversed counties in Kenya, met the resilient women of North, talked to passionate farmers in North Rift and danced with young environmentalists in a primary school at the floor of the Rift Valley in Naivasha.

As we are swallowed by the hollowness of Kerio Valley, all the sounds seem to be amplified: From the pristine brooks to the bumble of bees and assortment of bird chimes.

In Marsabit, we are met by the vastness of the arid land, sun-baked earth with rumours of shrubs that daunt the bare plains.

In Nakuru County, the hills’ reflections minted on Lake Naivasha satisfy the view; the sight of fishermen trying out daytime luck in the lake that lay flat as any mirror- It lay silent, almost, just almost, without a ripple.

The trip takes us to communities who are adopting a conservation technique known as the Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR).

Throughout the trip, Tony interacts with communities and children sharing knowledge and experiences on natural resources management and especially on the concept of FMNR. He unpacks with a sense of conviction, confidence and rightfully so. He is one of the key figures in the development of FMNR, a lost cost land restoration technique that was introduced in Niger in 1983.

In Niger alone, five million hectares of land with over 200 million trees were restored in this way with two and a half million people benefiting from the improved use of the land.

Tony’s efforts have earned global recognition and international awards. Most recently, he was honoured as 2018 Right Livelihood Award Laureate, “for demonstrating on a large scale how drylands can be greened at minimal cost, improving the livelihoods of millions of people.”

The Right Livelihood Award, also known as Alternative Nobel Prize, he says, came to him as a surprise. “They gave me a call in 2016 that I had been nominated, and I thought, they must be kidding!” he laughs.

FMNR has now spread to 25 countries, with Kenya, being a key player in its adoption.

We look at his rough start, 35 years ago, and how things slowly fell into place. He talks about children’s involvement in conservation efforts and why Kenya’s environmental policies lend themselves to support this low-cost technique “whose time has come.”

The Right Livelihood Award, also known as Alternative Nobel Prize, he says, came to him as a surprise. “They gave me a call in 2016 that I had been nominated, and I thought, they must be kidding!” he laughs.

FMNR has now spread to 25 countries, with Kenya, being a key player in its adoption.

We look at his rough start, 35 years ago, and how things slowly fell into place. He talks about children’s involvement in conservation efforts and why Kenya’s environmental policies lend themselves to support this low-cost technique “whose time has come.”

Good to finally have a sit-down. How do you like it here?

I have been to Kenya several times and really, beautiful country.

This concept of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, we’ve met farmers and communities in Kenya who are enthused by it. What does it entail?

On one level FMNR is a tree regeneration method using what’s already in the field: the tree stumps, the seeds that are already there, instead of planting a tree from scratch. This is a practice that is centuries-old in Africa and Europe. In the semi-arid areas where there isn’t much rainfall, planting a small seedling might not work because it still has very small root mass and its chances of survival are quite low. So on one level, it’s about restoring trees but its also about land management because if you’re going to regenerate these trees, certain behaviours have to change. The way you manage your livestock will change….  So, at the end of the day, even though perhaps your immediate objective was to re-grow a tree, by default you are managing the landscape in a much more sustainable way.

But I am sure there must be have been an uhuh moment for you?

Probably in 1983. But it didn’t just happen.  We had been in Niger planting trees for 3 years and it wasn’t very successful at all and to make it worse, people were not interested. I must say this was a low point in my career and I was ready to give up and go home.    

But you changed your mind….

Oh yes! I had been on this road for two-and-a-half, nearly three years. My eyes were open, but I was blind to what was all around me. You know, there are millions and millions of tree stumps and shoots coming up from the ground just begging, crying out to become trees and we don’t let them. We burn them, we cut them and for the first time, I saw these things for what they were. It was an answered prayer.

So all this time, the answers were right under your nose?

I had just been rushing through the countryside seeing a lot of desert trumps around while giving it no more thought, but actually, most of them were trees trying to grow back. But really, this is something that started way back in childhood- that desire to make a difference and working towards land restoration. Yes, it happened in a moment but for me, it was a lifetime accumulation of what has been happening over the decades.

How was the beginning, you know, when this was first introduced in Kenya…?

I joined World Vision in 1999 and was assigned to Kenya as a programs officer for Kenya and Ethiopia- that was a very broad responsibility. But it wasn’t until 2012 that we got to establish our first FMNR project in East Africa through World Vision. That year was a turning point for us.

Did you get hostile reception from communities during the uptake back then?

To initiate something new especially when there are so many interventions that people are involved in is not always easy. It’s hard to get attention. But the support that we got, was overwhelming.   Despite the challenges and hardships, the dedication from World Vision Kenya in reaching out to communities, winning the trust and getting the communities to see the sense of it. That to me was a big achievement in the country.

Of course, in Kenya, there are reforestation efforts: Agro-forestry, shamba system, planting of seedlings, among others. But you mentioned that Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration should be emphasized…

Well, Yes. What is wonderful about coming in, in this era, is that Kenya has a number of policies that lend themselves to supporting FMNR. One is the 10% forest recovery rule in many counties, particularly in the dryer zones. But it’s almost impossible for these counties to achieve this through tree planting alone.

Really?

Absolutely. Tree planting is costly for one, and there’s is a high mortality rate and people-frankly, for a lot of areas, are not interested. They don’t see the immediate or short-term benefits. So, the 10% ruling is one and FMNR is a low-cost, rapid and scalable way of helping to achieve that 10% tree cover.

Another thing, that Kenya has done is they have signed onto the AFR100 Initiative. African countries pledged to restore 100 million in hectares of degraded land in the continent and Kenya I believe has committed to restoring 5.1 million hectares. Now again, how’s that going to happen, where’s the money going to come from?

So FMNR comes in as an alternative, as opposed to just relying on tree planting?

FMNR is complementary. I wouldn’t go either-or.  Although I would give strong emphasis to FMNR. I would argue, from experience and wide reading that through tree planting alone, achieving the AFR100% Initiative on tree cover won’t work.

Talking about the low-cost approach, can we quantify this…

Oh yes! A study was done in West Africa and after they calculated for the losses of trees, the cost of restoring one hectare of land using tree-planting was about 8000 dollars per hectare.

I am not good at maths but if you multiply that by 5.1 million hectares that Kenya alone has committed to rehabilitating. That’s a lot of money and might be a little bit discouraging.

The average project cost for FMNR is around 40 dollars per hectare-so substantial saving there.  But it gets better, because once you introduce the idea….and we saw this as we travelled around the country, it spreads organically from farmer to farmer, not only without intervention but without your knowledge. It eventually costs the government and NGOs nothing for whatever happens beyond the project.

Would you say this is it? Because it does look like a way out in the restoration of degraded lands in Kenya, and dealing with climate change…

Victor Hugo was great Author of Children’s book and he said, “There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” I think that this is the case for FMNR. We have climate change and if you can get trees back on the landscape it buys you time, it helps you to adapt by lowering temperature. Crops and livestock are more likely to survive in covered landscaping than in a barren one. Also, the trees themselves will eventually provide other economic development opportunities like honey, fuel, poles and fodder. So yes, it is an idea whose time has come.

And talking about children, we’ve met environmental clubs in schools that are enthusiastic about conservation. There seems to be a movement in schools…

It’s always encouraging. A modern child… and we have seen this during our trip here in Kenya, has become terribly concerned about the environment and what the future holds for them.

Yet the connection between the environment and a child is on a basic critical level. We ask ourselves a few questions:

Do children need food? Do they need clean water? Do they need oxygen and a pleasant environment to grow up in? If the answer to all these questions is YES, then we need a healthy functioning environment around us.

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