By Tim Costello, Chief Executive, World Vision Australia
Almost thirty years ago the world was stunned by the scenes of hunger and suffering caused by a devastating famine in Ethiopia. The scenes of starving, stick-like children with distended bellies were seared into the collective memory of a generation – as was the Live Aid concerts that were inspired by the demand for urgent action.
At the same time, in the shadows of these headlines an Australian development worker, Tony Rinaudo, was toiling away in Niger in a tree-planting project. Frustratingly, he found that just about every tree he planted died in the hostile climate of the Maradi region, which included scorching winds of 60-70 kph and soil temperatures up to 60°C.
One day he noticed tufts of scrub poking out from parched landscape where normally nothing grew. On closer inspection he found that they were trees sprouting out from old stumps or mature root systems. By pruning the bushy tufts to two or three stems, they would grow to maturity in a couple of years.
Working with just 12 farmers, he found that growing trees amongst crops increased yields and improved grazing pastures. The trees could also be used for building timber and fuel-wood. Now instead of the women walking for most of the day to gather their cooking fuel, it was at their doorstep.
Tony found the going tough – he was known as “the mad white farmer”. It took the disastrous 1984 famine, that also hit Niger hard, to gain recognition for the initiative and turn things around. Within a year the Maradi region had 500,000 trees. It was to be the start of revolution in farmer managed natural regeneration that would transform large swathes of faming land across the country.
Today 6 million hectares across Niger, over 50% of its farmlands, have been revegetated and the environment repaired.