Hannah Gray reviews “The Forest Underground” by Tony Rinaudo

I read ‘The Forest Underground’ whilst on holiday in France during a heatwave, though the temperatures didn’t approach the baking heat of the Sahel, where this book is set.  

The content is half autobiography and half commentary on a specific approach to environmental restoration. It is a pleasure to read, generously sprinkled with full-page colour photos and written with plenty of humour and humility.  

Tony begins the narrative in his childhood home in rural Australia in the 1960’s. He noticed the beauty of the natural habitats around him and lamented the mistreatment of the environment in pursuit of profit. As a child, he was angry with environmental destruction, injustice and poverty, and prayed a simple prayer that God would use him to make a difference. 

Tony met Liz, a fellow student on his rural science degree course in New South Wales, and discovered they shared a calling to become missionaries in the Sahel. They married, had their first child, and started a placement in Niger, where they spent many years delivering agricultural development programmes and bringing up four children. There are amusing anecdotes evoking all the senses, bringing to life the places and people. The background context of their life in Niger sets the scene for the second part of the book – the inkling of an idea and maturing of a method to restore life to damaged ecosystems.  

‘The Forest Underground’ isn’t all light-hearted reading. Tony gives a heart-breaking account of famine in Niger. His experience of being a missionary during a humanitarian crisis is vivid and honest, with difficult decisions, insufficient resources and sad tragedies. The famine demonstrated how former approaches to agricultural ‘development’ in these drylands had totally failed. Tony’s earnest passion to find a better way for the communities to be resilient, combined with careful attention to the ecology of the land, eventually unlocks a transformative understanding.  

Tony realised that native trees which had been cleared to make space for crops were still alive underground; the forest was waiting to sprout back from stumps across the desert. Instead of planting saplings to reverse desertification, Tony and his staff persuaded a few farmers to allow some stumps to regenerate. In between the regrowing trees, small-holders’ crops fared better in the dry climate, and year on year crop yields improved. Why? The trees created a moister microclimate, drew up water from deep in the soil, offered habitat for predators of pests, and provided fruit and other products for the farmers to use or sell.  

Slowly, very slowly, the evidence became clear to see, and the method was accepted by more and more Nigerien rural communities. After twenty years of patient faithful work, satellite photos showed that significant swathes of Niger had turned green, an estimated 200 million trees were growing in former desert!  

This simple low-cost approach, a form of agroforestry, was given a grand name – Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) – and is now a recognised system of sustainable land management which has rehabilitated over six billion hectares of ruined land across the global south. Tony has even won a Right Livelihood award for the scale and impact of FMNR’s implementation. 

One aspect of the book I really appreciate is how Tony weaves Nigerien proverbs into the prose, for example: Albarkacin kaza, kadangari ya sha ruwan kasko – the blessing of the chicken is that lizards get to drink from their watering bowls (which means, what benefits one can inadvertently benefit another). Indigenous wisdom helped to awaken his understanding of how land and society function, alongside his scientific and mission training (there are some Bible references in there too!). Their story is an excellent example of the importance of building trust, spending time getting to know places and people, and being open-minded to different knowledges when it comes to international development programmes.  

I do have a couple of minor criticisms. I picked up the book wanting to know about FMNR, and it took a long time to get there – half-way through. And I want to hear more from Liz’s perspective! We get some intriguing details about being a wife and mother in Niger, but I would have devoured a chapter about her lived experience. Personally, I’d love to find out how she feels about Tony leading the work when they were equally trained and equally called.   

The Forest Underground is an authentic account of the realities of development work in a mission context, with critical reflections of what went well and what didn’t. Most of all, it brings hope that there are simple low-cost solutions to the nexus of challenges faced by our planet and its peoples, if only we take time to really look, and are prepared to patiently work with the land and its custodians.  

Hannah Gray is a Programme Manager for WaterAid. She is mum to two children and is a member of Light of Life Baptist Church in Norfolk and coordinates the Baptist Union Environment Network in the eastern region. Hannah graduated from the CRES course in 2020.