International Tree Foundation (ITF) is a pioneering environmental organisation whose origins were in Kenya with the creation of Watu wa Miti (People of the Trees) by Dr Richard ‘St. Barbe’ Baker and Chief Josiah Njonjo. St. Barbe was generations ahead of his time in terms of recognising the importance of trees and forests in sustaining life on Earth and he inspired thousands of people across the world to join him in planting and protecting trees. Returning to the UK in 1924 St. Barbe established the society of the Men of the Trees, which subsequently spread to many countries around the world; starting in Palestine in 1929 and another 53 countries by 1959 and as many as 100 at some point according to some reports. Unfortunately a detailed record of the history of the organisation has never been kept and such a research project is long overdue. This chapter is merely a glimpse into just a few key events and achievements during the organisation’s lifetime.
In 1936, the first annual Trees journal was published by Men of the Trees and edited by St. Barbe who wrote: “In our work of preservation we have endeavoured to keep a balance between the purely sentimental on the one hand and the material and economic on the other, and have shown there need be no conflict between the useful and the beautiful. Above all, the society has endeavoured to emphasise the importance of planting for those who will come after us”.
During the Second World War Men of the Trees established a summer school in Dorset which by 1949 had become a week long event held at Exeter University embracing ideas of organic farming and formulating a new manifesto: “We believe in the development of a fuller understanding of the true relationship between all forms of life in order to maintain a natural balance between minerals, vegetation animals and man. We believe that forests and woodlands are intimately linked with biological, social and spiritual well being”.
In the early 1950s St. Barbe launched his concept of an international Green Front to promote reforestation worldwide with the largest single challenge being to reverse desertification and reclaim the Sahara Desert through the strategic planting of trees. In 1952-53 St. Barbe led a team on a 25,000-mile ecological assessment throughout the Sahara and the Sahel regions. Sahara reclamation and Sahel regreening efforts have been a continual theme of ITF’s work ever since.
In 1959, St. Barbe edited his last issue of Trees before emigrating to New Zealand and issued the following appeal:“The time has come for our women, the creative element, to take their part in guiding nations. We of the Men of the Trees would welcome women volunteers from every part of the UK to form local branches. If women would like to Change Men of the Trees to Friends of the Trees, as founding member, I would welcome it”.