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The Underground Forest: Using Biodiversity to Help People

by Harry Byrne Wykman

One of the highlights of the tenth International Permaculture Convergence was meeting Tony Rinaudo of World Vision Australia. Tony is a living example of the posture required for the development of truly regenerative systems. Tony has come to see patterns of people, plants and landscape which allow deserts to grow trees again. He does this by opening himself to the voice of the land.

While working in Niger, Tony noticed that what appeared to be small shrubs were in fact trees which had been coppiced by continuous grazing pressure, firewood harvesting and the impulse of farmers to keep crop land free of trees. Tony calls these trees ‘the underground forest.’


‘Do you speak tree?’

Rather than continue to plant trees at great expense only to have them die, Tony began to work with the natural processes which would allow this underground forest to grow. He says that it is necessary to learn to speak a new language — ‘Tree’. Not knowing whether it would work but trusting the natural fecundity of the land, Tony worked with some farmers to select particular healthy stems, remove all but one to five of the remainder, cull to the required number of trees per hectare and prune to promote healthy growth. This simple approach Tony calls Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). FMNR is based on

“… the systematic regeneration of living tree stumps, roots and seeds.”

In Niger, 5 million hectares have been afforested in the last 20 years using FMNR. This change can be seen from space as a spread of green where once there was a growing desert. Niger, as a result of FMNR, is the only African country with net afforestation.

‘It’s not a bad thing to be ignorant.’

I listened to and spoke with Tony several times over the course of the convergence and what became clear was that Tony is not just peddling a technique. At the beginning I mentioned Tony’s ‘posture’. Tony’s posture is one of enquiry, not expertise; listening, not just advising. This same posture comes to characterise the farmers with whom Tony works. Each community or farmer does things slightly differently according to their circumstances. Where Tony recommended keeping a maximum of 20 – 40 stems per hectare, some farmers have begun to leave 100 – 150 stems per hectare with an increase in their crop yield. They have found out what works through their own observations of natural regenerative processes.

Using Biodiversity to Help People

The trees and shrubs which grow up from the underground forest are the native species which have sometimes not been seen for decades. As a result, the community comes to have not only double or triple the crop yield between the trees but also tree fruits and nuts, medicines, firewood, fodder and shade for livestock and habitat and food for birds and insects which bring fertility and other ecosystem services. FMNR allows for the regeneration of biodiversity and so also the regeneration and maintenance of ethnobotanical knowledge which might have dried up with the desert.

FMNR is almost scandalous in its simplicity. Working with nature, Tony has been able to be a co-creator with that force which lies at the heart of nature and would produce abundance. It was a great privilege to meet Tony and to learn about his work. FMNR is one of the best examples of permaculture in practice and gives me great hope for the future.

Tony also has a lot to share about edible Acacias but that is another story altogether and a post for another day.

Further Reading/Watching:

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