Forests – Supermarkets of the poor

February 11, 2016

By Silvia Holten – World Vision Germany


Driving south to the Humbo region of Ethiopia takes about six hours from Addis Ababa. Many centuries ago, Ethiopia was a green country. Today, many regions are completely dried up. We are shocked by how degraded the land is. We often see three meter deep gullies gouged out by flooding. Here and there are individual trees dotting grey fields, parched by the sun. Cattle and goats huddle in the shade and the heat makes the air above the horizon flicker.

Tony Rinaudo, an expert on reforestation and agriculture at World Vision is with us. For more than 30 years he has been fighting tirelessly to publicise an inexpensive but successful method of reforestation in Africa, starting from Niger. In the early 80s the Niger government was planting millions of new trees to combat desertification but almost all died – hundreds of thousands of dollars sinking into the sand.

Learning from this Tony developed a regenerative reforestation method called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), which is based on existing and intact roots. He tried to convince the farmers in Niger to close-off small areas of ​​arable land to protect it, but no one wanted to believe that such a simple and inexpensive method could be successful. Development practitioners called him crazy, farmer themselves said it was all nonsense. But Tony had a good relationship with some of the local people and they promised to support him in his experiment. Their success inspired all. Already after one year, the roots of small trees and shrubs had grown again. Years later, an area of ​​more than five million hectares has been regenerated using the FMNR method . Deserts were green again, and the farmers who applied the FMNR method on their fields could sometimes were able double or triple their crop yield. Farmers awarded Tony the title “chief of all farmers”.

Through Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration the tree cover has returned on some of the hills around Humbo 

A dream becomes reality

Since then Tony has traveled around the world to workshops and conferences, trying to convince farmers of the merits of FMNR. However, there is still a lot of resistance. Many in the forestry sector don’t seem to see the benefit of this inexpensive and rapid reforestation method. I ask Tony about when he realised the potential of FMNR. “When I driving back and forth through the desert in Niger, I was on the verge of despair,” he says.

“It all seemed useless. But one day when I got out of my car to deflate the tires so I could better drive through the loose sand, I saw small tufts of green protruding everywhere on the ground. I dug deeper and realized that under these tufts there was a huge root system – an underground forest. This opened my eyes.”

The experience in the desert of Niger did not leave Tony. As the person responsible for World Vision’s projects in Ethiopia, he started in 2004 in the Humbo region with a workshop teaching the principles and practice of FMNR. Again, he was initially met with skepticism as the farmers thought World Vision wanted to take the land away from them. The situation in Humbo was so desperate due to over 20 years of famines that World Vision had had to provide food aid. For this reason, some farmers decided to help Tony to protect and maintain a small piece of land.

When we reach Humbo, we can hardly believe our eyes. After driving through dry regions we see a green paradise. Where previously only barren hills were visible, now the gentle landscape is covered with dense forest.

Farmer Ergene is a member of the local community and tells us what it was like before the forest grew back: “Before FMNR the hills were very dry and erosion was a serious problem. Whenever it rained, there were big floods. Huge boulders rolled down the mountain and destroyed our crops. Sometimes the rain would hold off completely and our crops could not survive. Without food aid, we would have all starved to death here.”

Today, they harvest a variety of vegetables and fruits, such as mangoes, bananas, papayas, potatoes, sorghum, coffee, soybeans and corn. Ergene’s ten children all go to school and the older ones are attending University. Previously the children had to walk long distances to fetch firewood and water for the family. Often, there was no time for school.

A smile spreads across Tony’s face. His dream has become a reality. “It’s wonderful what people have done here,” he says. He explained to the members of the cooperative how to prune the trees and discussed with Ergene why he should leave more trees standing in his field. This creates more shade for plants and increases crop yields.

Trees provide farmers with nutritious fodder for their livestock

The supermarket of the poor

The forest has a lasting impact on the lives of people in Humbo. The cut branches can be used as firewood and leaves can be used as fodder for livestock. The fruits from the forest can be sold in the local market. In the pas, people had to walk long distances and many could not afford to buy fodder and firewood. Today trees are a source of additional income. Some farmers have native African trees in their fields, such as the Moringa tree, so that even if crop fails these trees can supply additional food. The leaves and fruits can be eaten and other parts of plants are processed into powder that is used as a medicine for headaches and stomach pain. Today, even the World Food Programme in the region buys produce from Humbo to distribute it to people in need elsewhere.

“Nobody in the world should go hungry,” says Tony. “With FMNR, huge parts of the globe can be regenerated again. People only need to open their eyes to the trees growing everywhere, under the ground. The protection of nature and of trees was part of many African cultures, but that ancient knowledge has been lost.”

In Soddo, near Humbo, communities serve coffee in traditional huts built for tourists attracted by the regenerated forests

New dreams arise

We drive to another nearby regional development project further on. The region is mountainous, and dense forest grows everywhere. As we walk a little way along, we meet a stream with clear, cold water. Again, we are told that, in this area, 13 of the water sources were dried up 10 years ago, but this stream has water all year round. Before reforestation, water only flowed after the rain. There is even a waterfall, and from a far, you can hear the children who swim there screaming with pleasure.

We are all deeply moved. After an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, we drink the delicious coffee and wish the people of the region every success.