When colonial administrators came to the African continent, they didn’t recognize local gardens because they weren’t tidy plowed fields, with orderly rows of plants, and no trees. They didn’t ask why local people grew their gardens as they did. Instead, they got local people to plow their fields and remove tree stumps, and governments also adopted this ‘scientific’ cultivation, often with disastrous results.
In ‘Seeing like a State”, James C. Scott calls it the triumph of ‘techne’ – apparent technical expertise – over ‘metis’ – local ingenuity, skill and knowledge. And now we know what ‘metis’ looks like in action, a story that stunned the development and research world once they finally learned about it, two decades after it began.
It is the story of how, “over three decades, hundreds of thousands of farmers in Burkina Faso and Niger have transformed huge swaths of the region’s arid landscape into productive agricultural land, improving food security for about 3 million people.”
In Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, French colonial administrators had urged farmers to plow their fields and remove tree stumps, and the Niger government supported the idea, thinking that peanuts were a crop that could bring in export earnings, says National Geographic.
The administrators didn’t realize that the tree stumps were an underground forest that would grow back, enriching the soil and nurturing the crops grown by the farmers. And as farmers tore out the stumps, the land dried, crops died, and drought brought disastrous famines.
Then, in the 1980s, a group of men who had been overseas seeking work, arrived back too late to clear their fields before planting. So they planted around the stumps, and discovered that they got good crops, and the next year, got the same good results. Neighbouring farmers, seeing their success, started to leave the stumps to regrow, and planted around them.
About the same time, 50 miles away in Maradi, an Australian agronomist named Tony Rinaudo made a surprising discovery. After studying agricultural science, he had joined the missionary organization Serving in Mission and moved to Niger in 1981.
Like many other development specialists, he thought planting trees was the answer to the region’s droughts and famines. He organized a tree nursery and worked with communities to plant and protect the seedlings. But barely 10% of seedlings survived the heat and dust storms, and they were eaten by goats or cut down by people for firewood. He had almost given up when, in 1983, traveling between rural villages, he took a closer look at one of the common small “bushes” and realized that it was actually a tree re-sprouting from the stump. Trees might grow naturally from this “underground forest,” he thought.
“Reforestation was no longer a question of having the right technology or enough budget, staff or time. It was not even about fighting the Sahara Desert, or goats or drought. The battle was now about challenging deeply held beliefs, attitudes and practices and convincing people that it would be in their best interest to allow at least some of these ‘bushes’ to become trees again.”
He developed what he called farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), which actually was what farmers had done in earlier times, and in 1983, promoted the idea with 10 farmers. Then, during the 1984 famine, Serving in Mission began a food-for-work program that introduced it to some 70,000 people on around 12,500 hectares of farmland. It caught on, and between 1985 and 1999, he organized exchange visits and training days for NGOs, government foresters, Peace Corps volunteers and farmer and civil society groups.
That work inspired a farmer-led movement that has since spread widely, regreening lands, improving livelihoods and helping to combat climate change. In Niger alone, more than five million hectares of land were restored with 200 million trees, and 2.5 million people benefited. Dennis Garrity, former head of the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, considers it “the most outstanding environmental transformation I can think of in Africa.”
But for a long time, the outside world didn’t notice this neighbour to neighbour development. “Because of its simplicity, local adaptability, low cost (about 20 US dollars per hectare), easy combination with other agricultural methods and quick results, the method spread through peer-to-peer learning among farmers, with limited need for outside intervention.”
Not until June 2004 did the outside world start to grasp the huge transformation. Dutch forest scientist Chris Reij was in Niamey to make a presentation when a dean at the university mentioned that in Maradi, farmers were protecting trees. Reij, who remembered Maradi in 1988 as being a ‘desolate place’, saw young trees everywhere this time – maybe as much as 25,000 acres of fresh trees, he thought.
He got in touch with Gray Tappan of the U.S. Geological Survey, who maps land-use and vegetation. Flying over the land in a small plane, Tappan realized that as much as 80% of Niger’s cropland had been regreened, and aerial photographs from 1957 and 1975 showed that the change was massive. By 2009 he had documented new growth across at least 12 million acres. Some villages had 20 times more trees than before.
They talked about their discoveries at a presentation in 2008. The regeneration happened, even as the population grew steadily, because farmers had protected the trees, not because anyone had planted trees, Reij said. And no one had documented it in any scientific literature. The farmer-led regeneration of one million acres had flown under the radar, he said. Tappan pointed out the dramatic increase in how much carbon had been sequestered by the new growth.
Trying to sort out what factors had created the amazing change, Reij noted that until the 1980s, most trees belonged to the state. But the drought crisis caused the farmers to take ownership of the trees themselves and thus to protect them. ‘If you ask the farmers now who owns the trees, they say that they are my individual property,” Reij explained. But forestry laws were still based on the assumption that foresters had to protect trees against the farmers, he said, ‘whereas we say, in most cases, the trees have to be protected against the foresters.”
On-farm regeneration had covered at least five million acres over 20 years, an average of 250,000 hectares per year, and assuming 40 trees per hectare, that represented 200 million trees, their research showed. At the same time, projects in Niger had planted about 60 million trees, only half of which survived. So the farmers’ work, done by themselves, had far surpassed the work done by projects funded from outside.
The farmers said they noticed more rainfall, and less dust storms. More young people stayed in the village because they could make a living now. Food production became more complex, because there was fodder for livestock. The 200 million trees produced an estimated 200 million euros, or 130 billion CFA per year, in natural products like fodder and medicine annually. They saw wood products for sale everywhere, and women said it only took half an hour to collect the same amount of wood that used to take 2.5 hours. Conflicts between herders and farmers – which caused such terrible conflict in Darfur – had dropped by 80%.
“When the land is freed of vegetation, it becomes bad and less productive. Your ability to grow plants reduces and it is less profitable. People’s frustrations increase,” Rinaudo told Deutsche Welle in 2019. “There is, thus, a close relationship between land degradation and conflict and soil degradation and migration.”
When they began to look at whether farmer-led regeneration was unique to Niger, Reij and Tappan discovered many other examples around the Sahel, including Mali.”We feel there are many other examples of such grassroots successes to be uncovered, and should be documented,” they said in 2008. For development, the challenge was to build on these grassroots successes.
And that has happened. At least 25 countries, mainly in Africa, are using farmer-led regeneration. Rinaudo, now working with World Vision as Natural Resources Management Specialist, keeps spreading the word. In 2018, he won a Right Livelihood Award, often known as the ‘alternative Nobel’, and used the media attention to spread global awareness.
In 2020, the World Economic Forum launched an initiative to restore and plant one trillion trees before 2030, with FMNR one of the techniques to be used. World Vision has been recognized as a formal partner supporting the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, launched in 2021. FMNR is also listed as a “best practice” by a UN platform promoting the Sustainable Development Goals.
The World Resources Institute, which estimates that over 300 million hectares of degraded land would respond positively to farmer-managed natural regeneration, has formed the Evergreen Agriculture Partnership with the World Agroforestry Centre and World Vision, to help people learn the technique.
Rinaudo is an “everyday hero” who has helped people understand how “the root networks in the earth, which belonged to trees that stood all over before being cut, can be switched on again like an energy reactor,” says German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, who made a film about his work. Rinaudo cites 1940s British tree activist Richard St. Barbe Baker, who said that “when forests vanish, water vanishes too, and so do fish, wild animals, the harvests and the herds. Fertility is lost. And then all the spirits of the past revisit quietly, one after the other: floods, drought, fire, hunger and pestilence.”
And the farmers did it all themselves, with a little bit of help from Rinaudo. Neighbour to neighbour development works.
How farmers in Earth’s least developed country grew 200 million trees. National Geographic, Apr. 27, 2022
“Scale, Causes and Impacts of Re-Greening in Niger”. Chris Reij, Gray Tappan, presentation at University of Chicago Program on the Global Environment’s inaugural conference on the Social Life of Forests, May 30-31, 2008. You Tube.
Regreening the Sahel. Farmer-led innovation in Burkina Faso and Niger. Chris Reij, Gray Tappan and Melinda Smale. Chapter 7 in Millions Fed, Proven Successes in Agricultural Development.
Tony Rinaudo, Right Livelihood Award laureate, 2018.
Documentary ‘The Forest Maker’ portrays a reforestation pioneer. Deutsche Welle, Apr. 5, 2022.
The Forest Maker. World Vision Australia.
Forestmaker – Training on FMNR. World Vision DE.
The Forest Underground: Hope for a Planet in Crisis with Tony Rinaudo. ISCAST – Christians in Science and Technology.
Tony Rinaudo: Forest Maker, Famine Fighter. ‘I’m just the messenger’, World Vision Canada.