“God revealed that actually everything that we need is already there. As humans we just have to learn to work with nature, rather than hitting it on the head all the time.”
– Tony Rinaudo
Australia: The Christian who regenerated 240 million trees
“God revealed that actually everything that we need is already there. As humans we just have to learn to work with nature, rather than hitting it on the head all the time.” – Tony Rinaudo
Promising new technologies can make this world a better place. Take Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), a reforestation technique developed by Australian Christian agronomist Tony Rinaudo.
We first published about Rinaudo five years ago, in JNI 922, a special edition on ‘turning the deserts into forests’, but his story is so valuable that it deserves more attention.
Rinaudo, who now works as Principal Advisor for Natural Resources Management at Christian charity World Vision Australia, is known as the Forest Maker or Tree Whisperer. He is one of the very few people on earth whose achievements can be seen on satellite images. This man is responsible for regenerating no less than 240 million trees in the last 30 years.
In 1983, after two years of doing reforestation ‘the old way’ in Niger, namely by planting trees, Rinaudo despaired: “I was in charge of a reforestation project that was failing miserably, it wasn’t that I was particularly dumb, it was the same story all over West Africa. And I remember the frustration that just hit me: north, south, east, west, was a barren landscape, and I knew perfectly well that 80 or 90% of the trees I was carrying in my car for planting would die.”
But then Rinaudo took a closer look at the few bushes scattered around the land. He knew these bushes were in fact trees that had been hacked down. Suddenly he wondered: what if we would prune these left-over trees and allow them to grow? In that moment, which he describes as an ‘answer to prayer’, everything changed. “We didn’t need to plant trees, it wasn’t a question of having a multi-million dollar budget and years to do it, everything we needed was already in the ground.”
Rinaudo had found an ‘embarrassingly simple solution’ to a seemingly insurmountable problem. The root system of the chopped down trees remained alive under the ground; a whole ‘underground forest’ was still available, as Rinaudo would describe it. The only thing needed was some human care and protection, allowing the trees to grow and heal themselves. In Rinaudo’s words: “The only thing needed was some humans working with nature rather than hitting it on the head all the time.”
After his discovery, Rinaudo had to overturn generations of accepted wisdom, as well as a resistance to giving some land back to nature. “When you’ve got people who are on the edge of starvation every year, not just in famine years, you’ve got this perception that you need every square inch of farmland to grow food crops. And here’s this nut telling people they should sacrifice some of their land for trees.”
But as soon as farmers started to see the results of Rinaudo’s method (called Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration, or FMNR), the new technique took off. And here we are: 3 decades later and 240 million trees richer. At the UN’s global climate talks in Katowice (December 2018), Rinaudo explained the profound impact of these trees. They:
improve farming yields;
reduce ground temperatures;
hold water in the soil;
make farming in hot places more comfortable;
and last but not least: all these trees act as a powerful carbon sink, with the potential to draw in billions more tonnes of carbon.
A satellite image of the Humbo region of Ethiopia, showing tree cover in 2005 (left) and in 2017 (right). The images below show the situation on the ground before and after. (Courtesy of World Vision)
Working with World Vision since 1999, Rinaudo has taken his technique across the world, from arid Somaliland to tropical East Timor. His big dream: to see FMNR introduced into at least 100 countries by 2030, as a powerful way of improving people’s lives and pursuing Sustainable Development Goal #15.
In September 2018, Rinaudo received the Right Livelihood Award, often described as the Alternative Nobel Price. Rinaudo received the award “for demonstrating on a large scale how drylands can be greened at minimal cost, improving the livelihoods of millions of people. Rinaudo’s reforestation method has the potential to restore currently degraded drylands with an area the combined size of India.”
FOR FURTHER READING
For further reading you might want to download the free short e-book ‘Tony Rinaudo: The Forest Maker’ (pdf). Or read this transcript of an interview with Rinaudo for ISCAST (Christians in Science and Technology) on theology and agriculture, the challenges of cross-cultural development, the sins of an affluent West, and of angrily wrestling with God in prayer. More information on Rinaudo’s method can be found on the FMNR website.
Source: Evert-Jan Ouweneel, World Vision Australia
Joel News # 1125, May 19, 2019
Global: Turning the deserts into forests
The prophet Isaiah once spoke about new things God is doing: a way in the wilderness, springs in the desert, streams in the wasteland, a new season of blossoming and fertility. But is this really feasible in dry places like North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia? Luc Gnacadja believes so. “Drylands are a mission field, an opportunity for transformational business models and prosperity,” he says.
Gnacadja is the former Minister of the Environment for Benin. He brings his Christian faith to his campaign against land degradation, promoting global sustainability through care for land and soil. For the past seven years, he was the executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. He is a passionate advocate of Zero Net Land Degradation by 2030 for the sake of healthy and productive land for future generations. Gnacadja believes desertification is the main cause of the surge in migration into Europe. Already this year 110,000 illegal migrants have been caught trying to cross the Mediterranean on boats, compared to 20,000 in all of 2012. Most of these refugees are coming from North Africa and the Sahel, the Middle East and Central Asia. They are trying to flee from the effects of decades of environmental degradation which have been compounded by escalating climatic shocks such as droughts. These regions are today’s most human-insecure and conflict-prone globally, but also the majority of the world’s unreached peoples live here.
‘Christians should be prophetic. Drylands are a mission field.’
Perhaps it’s a responsibility for Europe to address the ‘push-factors’ of forced-migration, Gnacadja suggests. “Drylands are not marginal regions, they represent one third of the world’s land mass and population, nearly half of the world’s food production, half the world’s livestock and are home to the largest diversity of mammals.”
Driving his point further still, Gnacadja unpacks the concept of ‘land footprint’, the area needed for any region’s food production. ‘Virtual land’ describes the foreign land needed for the region’s imports and exports. In the case of the 28 European Union member states that is over a quarter of the globe, creating a huge virtual land trade imbalance. Asia, Africa and Latin America are Europe’s main ‘virtual land‘ suppliers. Yet another related concept is that of ‘water footprint’, and again Europe’s footprint, and therefore ecological responsibilities, extend far beyond her geographical boundaries. Africa’s problems are therefore also Europe’s problems, and Europeans should seriously consider how best to invest in renewable energy, education, health, water, woodland and re-forestation projects in that continent.
There might be a role for Christian professionals and entrepreneurs here, says Gnacadja. “Drylands are a mission field, an opportunity for transformational business models, a new frontier to engage in co-prosperity. Christians should be prophetic. Jeremiah chapter 12 talks of wasteland and parched ground mourning God. We have a mission to restore the people and their land, and thus mitigate the push-factors of forced-migration.”
‘One of the world’s most successful approaches to restore the land came as an answer to prayer.’
Mission agencies in Niger are already experiencing remarkable results in making man-made barren land to thrive. “When you understand desertification,” Gnacadja says quoting Australian Tony Rinaudo, “you can restore the land.” Rinaudo, also a Christian, developed ‘farmer-managed natural regeneration’ (FMNR) literally as an answer to prayer. This approach has been recognised as one of the most successful and cost-effective regenerative agro-forestry schemes in the world.
Tony Rinaudo with a farmers’ family in East Timor.
Rinaudo realised that beneath what seemed to be arid desert were hundreds of tree stumps buried in an ‘underground forest’. Instead of destroying the growth from these stumps as was standard farming practice, this indigenous growth needed to be nurtured. Seemingly treeless fields could contain seeds, living tree stumps and roots with the ability to sprout new stems and regenerate trees. Biodiversity could be increased, soil structure and fertility improved, wind and water erosion reversed and dried up springs coaxed to reappear.
Already five million hectares of land in Niger had been regenerated in this way, feeding 2.5 million people with 500,000 tonnes of new cereal production. In this video and this interview Rinaudo, who currently works as a natural resource management advisor for World Vision, explains the approach. Farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) is explained in detail here.
Source: Luc Gnacadja, Jeff Fountain
Sri Lanka: Turning salt water into sweet water
Promising new technologies can make this world a better place. Christian relief organization World Vision has a keen interest in turning salt water into sweet water.
Today, 2.1 billion people lack safe drinking water at home, a figure that is expected to increase as our water use is growing twice as fast as our population growth. For this reason, 193 countries committed in 2015 to Sustainable Development Goal #6: access to safe water and sanitation for all by 2030. Not an easy goal to pursue. The world is facing severe water challenges: more droughts, melting ice caps, pollution, lack of water infrastructure, growing bio-energy demands, growing meat demands, and endangered ecosystems.
But here is an intriguing fact: most countries have a coast line and therefore direct access to plenty of salt water. So desalination (turning salt water into sweet water) might be one of the most obvious solutions to the scarcity issue. But as desalination plants cost a lot of money, there is a need to find more affordable, small-scale and distributed solutions.
Take this World Vision project in Sri Lanka, where they make pure water using solar desalination, a sustainable drinking water supply from all types of contaminated water.
“Looking after the Earth is a God-given responsibility. Not to look after the Earth is a sin.”
– John Houghton
Houghton, drawing from his faith, spoke frequently about the importance of Christian hope. “He believed the goodness of the Lord will be seen in the land of living, and that sustained him.” He prayed regularly that God’s kingdom would come – “Fast!” – and set things right. Houghton thought it was impossible to convince people to protect something they didn’t love. He wanted Christians to learn to love their environment and let climate change science move them to repentance.
The sixth report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is alarming – but not surprising.
The panel’s first assessment of scientific research on climate change in 1990 found that burning fossil fuels substantially increase the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, causing a rise in the global mean temperature and warming up the world’s oceans. The second, third, fourth, and fifth IPCC assessments found more evidence and growing consensus that human activity is causing climate change and that its impact will hurt a lot of people. The sixth assessment, released in August 2021, is more urgent and reaches the same conclusion – it is inevitable that climate change will have a significant impact on society.
Photo: John Houghton
‘The root problem of climate change is sin’
Policy makers, scientists, and concerned citizens who pick up the final version of the report might be surprised by one thing, though: it is dedicated to an Evangelical Christian who said the root problem of climate change is sin. “Looking after the Earth is a God-given responsibility,” John Houghton once wrote. “Not to look after the Earth is a sin.”
Houghton, who died of complications related to COVID-19 in 2020 at the age of 88, was the chief editor of the first three IPCC reports and an early, influential leader calling for action on climate change. His concerns about greenhouse gases, rising temperature averages, dying coral reefs, blistering heat waves, and increasingly extreme weather were informed by his training as an atmospheric physicist and his commitment to science. They also come out of his evangelical understanding of God, the biblical accounts of humanity’s relationship to creation, and what it means for a Christian to follow Christ.
“We haven’t lived up to the call to holiness,” Houghton’s granddaughter Hannah Malcolm explained to Christianity Today. “We’ve been conformed to the patterns of this world, with the desire for wealth accumulation and the desire to increase our comforts, and that’s not the demand that is placed upon us as followers of Christ.”
Photo left: Hannah Malcolm
‘The biggest thing that can ever happen to anybody is to get a relationship with the Creator of the universe’
Houghton was born in a Baptist family in Wales in 1931. As a young man he realized he needed to make a personal decision for Christ, and he did. To the end of his life, Houghton described it as the most important choice he’d ever made. “The biggest thing that can ever happen to anybody is to get a relationship with the one who has created the universe,” Houghton told a Welsh newspaper in 2007. Houghton began attending Oxford University at 16, earning a bachelor’s in 1951 and a doctorate in 1955. He became one of the first scientists working on the problem of climate change, and a natural choice to chair the working group of the IPCC when it was set up by the World Meteorological Organization and the UN in 1988.
After the first report came out, it became clear to Houghton that careful science, carried out with the utmost transparency about levels of certainty, would not be enough to move the world’s governments to take action on climate change. There were too many short-term incentives to doubt warnings about devastating consequences that were far in the future. Houghton increasingly found himself called to the role of communicator to politicians and leaders. “Whenever he talked about it he would begin with ecological devastation and the question of justice was a constant reference point. I’ve heard people say he had the urgency of a prophet,” Malcolm said.
‘Humans are called to care for creation as gardeners’
In 1995, when the second IPCC assessment was published, Houghton started talking about climate change explicitly in terms of sin. He was influenced by John Zizioulas, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan bishop of Pergamon, who argued that sins against nature were also sins against God, since humans were given God’s creation to care for. “Some Christians have misinterpreted the ‘dominion’ given to humans in Genesis 1:26 as an excuse for unbridled exploitation,” Houghton wrote. “However, the Genesis chapters, as do other parts of Scripture, insist that human rule over creation is to be exercised under God, the ultimate ruler of creation, with the sort of care exemplified by the picture of humans as ‘gardeners.’”
Houghton began to reach out to Evangelical leaders to talk to them about the coming ecological crisis. He was influential in convincing Richard Cizik, John Stott, and Rick Warren to make climate change a priority and talk about it as a spiritual problem.
After the third and fourth IPCC reports, many advocates for dramatic cuts to carbon emissions began to despair. Change wasn’t happening quickly enough to make a difference. But Houghton, drawing from his faith, spoke frequently about the importance of Christian hope. “He believed the goodness of the Lord will be seen in the land of living, and that sustained him,” Malcolm said. He prayed regularly that God’s kingdom would come – “Fast!” – and set things right.
‘May God’s Kingdom come fast and set things right’
In retirement, Houghton returned to Wales, where he served as an elder at a Presbyterian Church and taught his grandchildren to love the Welsh mountains and windswept beaches. According to Malcolm, who is now preparing for ministry in the Church of England and writing a doctoral dissertation on theology and climate grief, Houghton thought it was impossible to convince people to protect something they didn’t love. He wanted Christians to learn to love their environment and let climate change science move them to repentance.
“Our desire to be gods drives a great deal of the destruction around us,” she said. “There is something in the work of climate science that reveals the consequence of our sin, troubles those in power, and calls for us to sit with that, but also be aware that an alternative is possible – an alternative to our sin.”
Houghton didn’t live to see the release of the sixth IPCC report or to promote it to Evangelical Christians. But the scientific assessment dedicated to his memory echoes a core theme of Houghton’s life’s work: Now is the time, it says, to turn from the path of destruction.
Source: Hannah Malcolm, Daniel Silliman, CT
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