When the pioneer of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), Tony Rinaudo held a workshop in Kijabe, Kenya, the invited participants from the Beating Famine conference were baffled by the simplicity of what they heard and saw. During the FMNR tour, the message was clear and simple. That the best thing to do when confronted with a barren land crying out for regreening is to simply leave it alone and just wait for trees to regenerate from remnant tree root systems. All that the farmer must to do is to nurture the regrowth by pruning it periodically. Regardless of the environment, those advocating FMNR say other than pruning, there is no requirement to add fertilizers or water to the regrowth. They emphasise that farmers are there to simply catalyse a process that is managed by nature.
For a number of those who made the hour trip from Nairobi to Kijabe’s AIC CURE International Children’s Hospital, FMNR seemed too simple to be true. At one stage, to the utter disbelief of some participants, before and after images were showing such big improvements in land health. They were murmuring, can this really be true? Can a land that is terribly battered by desertification, suddenly spring back to life with minimum effort and zero planting? Tony Rinaudo’s team from Niger, Ghana and Ethiopia backed up their success stories with scientific data to satisfy the hardened sceptics in the group. Still, no matter how many images of regenerated lands they saw, some could not believe it was indeed so simple and yet so effective.
Reflecting on the early days of FMNR, Tony recalled that his light bulb moment came after looking at a barren land he was standing on in Niger and noticing patchy weed-like tree shoots covering the land. After carefully studying them, he noticed that these sprouts came up every year after the rains. To his dismay, he also noticed that the local farmers were cutting them for various uses such as animal feed supplements. “Sadly, nobody had realised their worth,” recalls Tony. “Fighting attitudes, practises, beliefs and policies were the hardest things to overcome to enable the locals to profit from the natural regeneration.” Once attitudes began to change, the farmers began realising “charcoal does not bring in as much money as wood that is value added via making tool handles or roofs.”
“With so many different plants germinating after a rainy period, one would imagine that it would be hard to tell which plants are trees and which are garden variety weeds,” some participants remarked. Surprisingly, Tony showed just how simple it is to pick out the trees from the weed. In his particular experience, the roots were identified by looking for sandy trenches left behind after the desert winds of Niger. He explained that trenches occur because of the resistance experienced by the soil when it encounters the tree stumps lying below the ground. Once the areas containing subterranean tree stumps had been discovered, Tony said farmers just waited for the shoots then fenced them off for some time before pruning them using any sharp tool of their choice.
He says “although there is no one right way of doing FMNR, for best results, practitioners need advice on pruning techniques and advise from tree experts such as at the World Agroforestry Centre.”
Hailu Tefera, who made a presentation on the ‘Humbo Ethiopia Assisted Natural Regeneration project’ said, “When the communities implemented FMNR, within a year, there was increased vegetation cover, reduction in soil erosion, improved microclimate and the community was able to get up to $USD 48 915 of carbon revenue,” adding that “if it was just planting trees, the planting would take more time and more money.”
Some participants who were still in disbelief asked “If FMNR is so simple and yet so effective, why are only few farmers practising it?”
So Bob Winterbottom from the World Resources Institute addressed the preconditions for scaling up the FMNR. He said “the main reason for the adoption of the technique has been largely due to demographic factors such as loss of fallow.” When farmers are desperate and facing land crisis, Bob notes that they were more willing to try FMNR. “The crisis combined with the low cost and practical nature of FMNR quickly appeals to them [smallholder farmers],” said Bob.
If “village institutions are not established and empowered then uptake of any tree planting is low because open access will mean anybody can cut a tree that he/she did not plant”. Bob says a number of studies show “there is a direct correlation between tree ownership and improvement of uptake and improvement of ecosystems.” In his experience, farmers lack the confidence to invest in trees because of challenges to accessing markets and often they have to pay taxes and spent money on permits. He says “They assess the risk and conclude there is limited chance of profiting from tree products so they
don’t participate.” Bob was very convinced that, by reducing barriers to adoption, reinforcing
partnerships and networks and supporting communication and outreach of FMNR, greater number of farmers will take up the practice.
Towards the end of the workshop, those converted to FMNR explained that in some parts of the world such as deserts, the effectiveness of FMNR outweighs tree planting because it involves minimal labour and water resources. They claimed that tree planting is much more laborious because of growing seeds in pots, transferring seedlings from pots to the farm and nursing tree seedlings until they form a root system. Supporters added that farmers cannot guarantee the survival of the seedlings the way they can with FMNR. Conversely, those comfortable with tree planting argued that tree planting on the other hand gives the ability to plant the right tree at the right place for different purposes. They argue that there are still lots of questions to be answered regarding FMNR.
Others who still needed further convincing asked “How can FMNR work in a society where there are no farmers?” They were commenting on the observation that in desert lands where FMNR is most useful, nomads outnumber farmers. They argued that establishing FMNR requires more farmers than nomads but that farmers cannot go to unproductive areas.
At the end of the day, it was clear that regardless of how sceptical or how supportive of FMNR participants were, one thing everybody agreed on was that FMNR is a very useful way of complementing other existing methods of sustainable agriculture. All participants were grateful that such a cost effective and rapid land regeneration technique can be used immediately by any farmer anywhere in the world.