"When I was a child, I grew up in a very beautiful part of Australia," agronomist Rinaudo told the World Council of Churches (WCC) in an interview during a one-day workshop hosted by the WCC and its partners.
"There was lots of bushland where we used to play in the mountain streams," Rinaudo recounted. "And at that time, a lot of bulldozing and destruction was going on use of heavy chemicals in agriculture was poisoning the river. So I was quite angry."
He spoke at the meeting, titled “Caring for the Earth, Transforming Lives: Linking Faith & Natural Regeneration.” It drew speakers from around planet Earth, onsite at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva and around the world, in virtual presentations.
Partners of the WCC in the initiative are Right Livelihood, Global EverGreening Alliance, Earth Trusteeship Working Group, Health of Mother Earth Foundation, World Vision International, and OikoDiplomatique.
FMNR in Niger
Rinaudo addressed the workshop where his years of toil in Niger in northwest Africa were noted and where he worked with local people to develop a technique called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, or FMNR.
The day began with an interfaith prayer, with holy texts from diverse faiths, short reflections from different religions and from the Indigenous perspective as participants delved into the linkage of caring for our natural resources and faith.
The prayers also incorporated a symbolic action, bringing together a fistful of soil, some water and seeds from different contexts and regions, placed in a sacred central space in the hall.
After completing high school, Rinaudo's studies focused on rural science and his faith; after a degree at Australia's University of New England in Armidale, he studied at the Bible College of New Zealand.
"I'd watch the news and realised that while in our valley, they had the so-called luxury of growing tobacco, children born elsewhere were going to bed hungry. And it didn't add up to me what were the values of the adult world, firstly, destroying the environment."
For several decades, Rinaudo put into practice the solution to the extreme deforestation and desertification of the Sahel region in Africa's northern part.
With a simple set of management practices, farmers can regenerate and protect existing local vegetation, which has helped to improve the livelihoods of millions.
Rinaudo and his work are the subject of a 2022 documentary by German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff called “The Forest Maker.”
Care for creation
He told his audience at the WCC event, "It's in the Christian context; we are charged to care for creation. And I believe it's the same in many other faiths, with that scriptural authority, that faith and faith leaders can lead with confidence. And in most cases, that people who believe will follow."
"A key influence on my life was my mum and her strong faith that gave you a framework for living, more important things to life than financial security; that we are our brother's keeper, and we have a duty to care for God's creation," said Rinaudo.
"So that's the very start of this long journey since then, but I always had a fascination with Africa. And then it was deeply concerning, shocking to me that the 1970s droughts and severe famine, and I wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."
Rinaudo initially served at a Farm School/Preparatory Bible College in Maradi, Niger.
He is the principal natural resources advisor for World Vision, Australia, and his work in starting FMNR made him a 2018 Right Livelihood Award Laureate. The awards are considered an alternative to the Nobel Prize.
"I speak within the World Vision partnership worldwide, trying to bring other officers on board. And I talk externally to policymakers, donors, government figures, and so on," said Rinaudo.
His next call is to engage with an involved minister in the European Parliament.
"So I'm reaching people who decide where the aid funding goes, how it's spent. I try to bring in a voice for nature-based solutions, like the one I developed in Niger."
Rinaudo's work in Niger was not easy.
"And over the years, it's been the most difficult, environmentally hostile, most likely place to fail in an intervention like this."
He asked his creator why he sent him there.
"In hindsight, because it worked there, it inspires the world. And I go to many places worldwide where people think, 'This is the worst place on earth. We must pack our goods and leave because life's not supportable here.’
"And I say, really? Is it worse than what people in Niger experienced in the 1980s?"
He shows his slides and gives his talk.
"And it gives us this little glimmer of hope. If those people there achieved so much with so little, what about us? So, it was actually the right place to go even though I initially struggled to wiggle out of it."
What will it take to re-green our earth? Daylong seminar sparks ideas and inspiration to act (WCC news release, 15 May 2023)
Photo gallery of the seminar "Caring for the Earth, Transforming Lives: Linking Faith & Natural Regeneration"