Trying to halt rapid desertification in Niger, Tony Rinaudo found the answer beneath his feet, where poking from the desert sand was evidence of an ‘underground forest’ waiting to be nurtured back to maturity. Jonathan Gornall reports on a find giving hope to the world’s arid wastes
It's a forest, you just can't see it
Tony Rinaudo has an astonishing theory about the vast and apparently lifeless desert wastes of the UAE.
He hasn't been here, mind, and his observations are based on examining photographs of the region. But Mr Rinaudo's theories merit serious consideration, because when it comes to bringing desert wastelands back to life, he is something of a legend.
Today, Mr Rinaudo is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of an agricultural technique known as farmer-managed natural regeneration, a low-cost, sustainable method of increasing the productivity of subsistence farmers working in some of the world's harshest environments.
Thirty years ago, he was a young Australian agricultural scientist who had just moved to Niger with his family to advise local farmers how to improve their crop yields - and he found himself in a state of shock.
Mr Rinaudo, now natural resources adviser for the charity World Vision Australia, told the story at a conference on sustainable farming methods, held in Amman, Jordan, in September 2011.
"Here I was, supposedly the resident expert," he told delegates to the 10th International Permaculture Conference.
And yet, faced with conditions on the edge of the Sahara Desert, a scorched, drought-ridden landscape of rapidly encroaching desertification, and the plight of farmers who had endured total crop failure for the second year in a row, "I was totally overpowered by what confronted me".
Famine was a common event in this part of the world, but in 1984 Mr Rinaudo witnessed such a bad example that he was "ready to give up and go home".
He and his team had been building windbreaks and planting trees - standard projects designed to protect the soil and the seeds planted in it from erosion - and, he says, "in summary it was probably a total failure". The problems he confronted had plagued several similar attempts to hold back the encroachment of the expanding Sahara Desert into vital farmlands across Africa.
"We were planting about 4,000 trees a year, but the odds were stacked against us," he says. "Even right from the nursery phase of the project, everything that could go wrong usually did," with attacks on seedlings by everything from termites and frogs to goats and camels.
"All the way through it was an uphill battle … what I was doing seemed to be as useless as trying to sweep back the sands of the Sahara with a broom and shovel. I wondered how many years would it take to make an impact, how many million dollars, how many staff."
In short, he felt he was wasting his time.
"NGOs and the government of Niger over 20 years had spent millions of dollars and planted 60 million trees and they just didn't survive."
Then, in his hour of desperation, Mr Rinaudo looked down - and saw something he had not seen before.
What he noticed at his feet for the first time were little clumps of greenery, which he had taken for desert shrubs or grass. In fact, what he was seeing was evidence of what he came to call an "underground forest" - the growth of shoots from hidden tree stumps, just waiting to be freed from their subterranean prison, "for a chance to be cared for and to grow back to maturity".
The answer to the devastating desertification that was depriving countries across Africa of the food they so vitally needed was not, Mr Rinaudo concluded, the impossibly expensive and rarely successful programme of tree-planting being pursued by governments and NGOs, but "a two-dollar pocketknife".
Prune the shoots emerging from the hidden forest and, provided they are protected from grazing animals and premature harvesting for firewood, the trees will restore themselves, halt desertification and promote the growth of crops.
The technique is not new , he says - "we simply revived an ancient practice that had fallen out of use" - but in Niger at least it is now widespread once again. Now, he says, the practice could conceivably take root in the Middle East.
While he was in Jordan for the 2011 conference, he visited the arid Wadi Rum and saw tamarisk tree stumps re-sprouting.
"It brought to mind," he says, "that in fact it was very likely that vast tracts of desert may very well have the tree stumps intact, but they never reach tree height because of constant browsing by animals and regular harvesting for firewood."
Contacted by The National to discuss his work, Mr Rinaudo looked at some aerial photographs on Google Images of a goat farm in the desert outside Dubai - and became intrigued.
"The 'bushes' growing in these very arid regions look amazingly like the 'useless' bushes we encountered in Niger, which turned out to be tree stumps," he says. "If you were born into a landscape with no trees, you will be very unlikely to make the link between those abused, miserable-looking bushes, and the magnificent trees that they once were."
If this turns out to be the case, "there is much hope for re-greening at least parts of the Middle East, which are commonly considered to be hopeless deserts".
And as the results from Niger show, this could be a significant finding for the UAE, which imports more than 85 per cent of its food and, increasingly concerned with food security, has invested large sums in agricultural land overseas.
In 1982, when Mr Rinaudo first went to Niger to manage a development project in the Maradi region, his charity's efforts were based on a series of false assumptions - that the southern part of Niger had no trees, that trees had to be planted to reverse desertification and, because indigenous trees were thought to grow slowly, fast-growing exotic species had to be planted.
"We were wrong and our programmes were misguided as a result," Mr Rinaudo says. "We put a lot of effort and money into tree-planting and the impact and sustainability of what we did was minimal - the survival rate was far less than 20 per cent."
What they discovered was that the forgotten, underground forest, "if given a chance, through changed land-management practices", grew rapidly and with a success rate close to 100 per cent.
As a result, from 1984 onwards average tree density on farms in southern Niger increased from three or four per hectare to 45 or even more. Today, it is estimated that there are about 200 million trees, none of which have been planted.
"All of this happened by word of mouth, from farmer to farmer," Mr Rinaudo says, "and, beyond the initial project investment in promotion, it happened with no external help. No expensive fences were erected. No guards were employed. No watering was required, and yet the rate of spontaneous uptake was about 250,000 hectares a year for 20 years."
On the ground, things certainly seem to have improved - farmers' crop yields have doubled. But the true extent of the success of farmer-managed natural regeneration is most obvious from space.
A scientist at the US Geological Survey recently compared high-resolution satellite images of Niger taken in 2005 and 2008 with others taken years earlier. He found that while elsewhere the Sahara was gaining ground against man's efforts, in Niger's Maradi and Zinder regions "approximately five million hectares of once degraded farmland now supported medium to high densities of tree cover".
But however successful efforts such as farmer-managed natural regeneration might be, governments and NGOs concerned with local and global food security face one intractable problem.
According to a report from the UN this month, the world's population is expected to expand from 7.2 billion today to 9.6 billion by 2050. Much of that increase will take place in Africa - and Niger, where the population is expected to increase by 766 per cent by the end of the century, is one of the fastest-growing African countries.
Within those statistics can be found the components of the ticking food-security time-bomb threatening the whole planet - and a difficult, if unavoidable conclusion.
"To my mind, re-greening in Niger has only bought some time," Mr Rinaudo says. "Even now, despite an estimated additional 500,000 tons of cereal grown per year because of the beneficial impact of trees on farmland, Niger is still suffering periodic severe famines.
"Without an equal effort in reducing population growth, the day will come when the limits of water and land are reached."