The Forest Underground: Hope for a planet in crisis (published by ISCAST)
By Tony Rinaudo
Amid community frustration and fear about climate change and ongoing food instability in the developing world, this book is a source of great joy. It not only tells of the extraordinary crop results achieved after regrowing native trees in some of the world’s poorest countries but offers us a tremendous story of faith, love and trust.
Tony Rinaudo grew up in regional Victoria with a great appreciation for the natural world. Before he reached his teens he was already distressed about land degradation and furious about environmental accidents. He even imagined himself tramping around his local area planting trees. So it’s not surprising that he ended up studying rural science at university, determined to somehow make a difference in this field.
What is less common is that he carried through on his desire to effect change – and did it as an outworking of the faith that firmed and grew during his studies. During this time he not only read about and met returned missionaries to Africa who had worked in development, he met his future wife Liz – who had chosen the same course of study with a view to serving overseas.
The book is an accessible read, with complex land concepts simply explained so readers can grasp what Rinaudo and a small group of farmers began in the drought-ravaged fields of southern Niger in the early 1980s.
Initially, it was about planting saplings to try and replace the millions of trees lost to the country in the hope of reversing negative impacts on the water table, soil stability, temperature and more. A eureka moment made Rinaudo realise that the stumps of native trees in Niger were waiting to burst back into life, and thus began the Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) project – a simple, inexpensive and farmer-driven program that has since spread to dozens of countries and regenerated more than 18 million hectares of land.
A Nigerien farmer once said to me, “Tony, if you tell us something, we don’t really believe it, because if you are wrong, you will not suffer any consequences for your advice but we will. Even if your staff tell us, we do not believe them. They are paid to give that advice whether it is right or wrong. However, if a farmer tells us something, and we see him doing it himself, we listen because we know that his livelihood depends on it being right.” He taught me an important lesson that I use to this day: farmers primarily learn from farmers... in our FMNR promotion programs, a lot of weight is given to facilitating exchange visits, establishing model farms and villages and equipping and empowering farmers themselves to be agents of change.
While the success of the FMNR program is an amazing tale in itself, what really gives The Forest Underground its soul is the stories it contains, as well as the heart Rinaudo and Liz have for the people they serve – first with SIM, then with World Vision.
You will be hard pressed not to weep at the devastation (and I don’t use that word lightly) he describes in the 1980s famine in Niger. Families wrenched apart, lives lost, gut-twisting deprivation, growing crowds of needy people outside the compound where the Rinaudos lived. So often he cried out to the Lord seeking direction, asking for relief for the nation and a way forward. And God answered his prayers even beyond what he could have imagined.
He writes: my doubts faded with the experience of seeing God at work. The God who does care, who does answer prayer and who does use very ordinary people to do extraordinary things. He is a God who has replaced despair, brokenness and tragedy with hope – and hope through, of all things, trees!