Early History from Kenya to Men of the Trees

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”.

International Tree Foundation

In 1992 Men of the Trees became the International Tree Foundation (ITF).

The cornerstone of Men of the Trees in the UK for many years was its network of volunteers organised into local branches. These branches organised tree planting and protection activities in their local areas. By 1994 the number of branches in the UK had grown to 33.  The ITF national office  also funded many local projects. One example is the creation of the Homeopathy Wood in 2002, featuring trees used in homeopathic treatments in partnership with the Homeopathy Action Trust and Northamptonshire County Council.

Education has always been a key feature of our work. In the 1930s Men of the Trees ran education programmes on tree planting for young tree planters, known as “Twigs”.  And the society has supported education and tree planting activities by children ever since. In the late 1950s St. Barbe toured 72 schools in England travelling on his white horse to give talks to pupils. A Children’s Art Competition in 2003 was judged by the late Dame Anita Roddick founder of the Body Shop.

Following St. Barbe’s death in 1982 the first St. Barbe Baker Memorial Lecture was held in 1983 and was then held annually until 2004. Following the death of Chief Josiah Njongo the Njonjo Memorial Fund was set up to commemorate Men of the Trees’ co-founder.

Over the years ITF has supported community tree planting projects in more than 30 countries including: Algeria, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia in Africa; Bangladesh, India, Nepal and the Philippines and Sri Lanka in Asia; Lebanon and Palestine in the Middle East; Belize, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru in Central and South America. In the 1990s we funded the acquisition of land in Belize to preserve a tropical rainforest and the Forest People’s Fund supporting forest peoples in Rondonia in the Amazon basin.

ITF was also instrumental in establishing National Tree Week in 1975 which has been organised every year since by The Tree Council.

A conversation with Catriona Baker

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