After 18 grueling months fighting desertification in Niger, Tony Rinaudo was near despair. As manager of a small reforestation project for SIM in 1983, he knew few of the 6,000 trees the missions agency had planted yearly since 1977 had survived the arid Sahel climate.
Locals called him the “crazy white farmer,” not wishing to waste valuable agricultural land on more failed efforts. But, trudging on, he loaded another batch of saplings into his pickup truck, struggling to fulfill his childhood prayer.
Years earlier in the threatened Ovens Valley of southeast Australia, Rinaudo lamented the bulldozing of hilly bushland and the killing of fish by drift from insecticides sprayed on tobacco plants—while children elsewhere went to bed hungry.
“God,” he cried out, “use me somehow, somewhere, to make a difference.”
Soon thereafter he stumbled upon I Planted Trees by Richard St. Barbe Baker. One line impressed itself upon Rinaudo, becoming his eventual life work.
“When the forests go, the waters go, the fish and game go, herds and flocks go, fertility departs,” he read from the 19th-century English botanist’s book. (The quote is attributed elsewhere to Scottish science journalist Robert Chambers). “Then the age-old phantoms appear stealthily, one after another—Flood, Drought, Fire, Famine, Pestilence.”
In 1981, Rinaudo settled in Maradi, 400 miles east of Niger’s capital, Niamey. The West African nation’s economic center, on its southern border with Nigeria, hosted SIM’s agricultural project, a hospital, and a local Bible school. Present since 1924, the mission—together with Catholics—established Niger’s largest concentration of Christians, though they numbered less than 1 percent of the population overall.
French colonialists and later international development projects contributed to environmental degradation through large-scale farming, clearing trees to maximize yield. Local farmers felled them further—out of poverty and hunger—to sell the wood, while women would walk miles to find kindling for their cooking fires.
As Rinaudo stopped to deflate his tires to traverse the sandy landscape for his delivery, he sighed and once again called out to God.
“Forgive us for destroying the gift of creation,” he prayed. “Show us what to do, open our eyes.”
Looking up, he spied a bush. On any other desert trek, Rinaudo recounted to CT, he would have passed by similar-looking shrubs soon to be consumed by wandering goats. But this time…
This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on November 10, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.