Driving to southern in 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 how degraded the land is. Often we see deep trenches three meters deep and more have eaten into the ground through rain and the floods. 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 publicize an inexpensive but successful method of reforestation in Africa. First, he tried at the beginning of 80s by planting millions of new trees in Niger, but almost all died - hundreds of thousands of dollars sinking into the sand.
Learning from this Tony developed a regenerative reforestation method FMNR (farmer-managed natural regeneration), 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. Farm labourers called him crazy, farmer themselves said it was all nonsense. But Tony had a good relationship with the local people, because they trusted him, 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 method from Niger. Deserts were green again, and the farmers who applied the FMNR method on their fields, could sometimes yield two to three times more than before. Farmers awarded Tony the title "chief of all farmers".
A dream becomes reality
Since then Tony has travelled 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 of those in the forestry sector are not interested in an inexpensive and rapid reforestation method. I ask Tony where he intends to find this energy and he had this to say, "When I drove back through the desert in Niger, I was on the verge of despair," he says.
"I asked God, why have you sent me here? It is all but useless. But 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 anywhere on the ground. When I dug deeper, I realized that under these tufts 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 FMNR. Again, he initially met with skepticism since the farmers thought that World Vision wanted to take away their land. But the situation in Humbo was so desperate – for more than 20 years there were famines repeatedly in the province. Again and again, World Vision 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 was covered with dense forest.
Farmer Ergene is a member of the local community and tells us how it was before the forest grew back: "Before FMNR the hills were very dry. Erosion was a big problem. Whenever it rained, there were big floods. Huge boulders rolled down the mountain and destroyed our crops. Sometimes the rain held off completely, then dried the grain. Without food aid, we would all starve 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; the older ones to 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. Temperatures can reach Maximum up to 36 degrees of heat can endure plants, explains Tony later.
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, people gather straw for their pets. The income and fruits from the forest can be sold in the local market. Previously, people had to walk far and shopping for straw and firewood was expensive. Today it brings them additional income. The native Africa trees that have grown back provide additional food and medicine. Some farmers have useful trees in their fields. Even if the crop fails, these trees provide additional food, such as the Moringa tree. 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 it to distribute in other countries.
"Nobody in the world should go hungry," says Tony. "With FMNR, huge parts of the globe can be planted again. People need only open their eyes to the trees growing everywhere, under the ground. The protection of nature and of trees was part many African cultures … but that ancient knowledge was lost.”
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.
Featured image: Tony Rinaudo talks to farmers in Ethiopia about reforestation