The beginnings of community-led forest restoration
In the 1920s, Richard St Barbe Baker was among the first proponents of what we now know as “sustainability.” His early advocacy of this concept seems prescient, but Baker’s decade in northern Africa, from 1920-29, had afforded him a preview of environmental conditions we are all too familiar with today. In both Kenya and Nigeria, Baker observed—and would soon warn the world about—accelerating deforestation, eroding biodiversity, desertification, a changing climate, and mass migrations of displaced people. What was happening in Africa, he realized, could sweep the planet.
“In schemes small and local or grand and global, he proposed reforestation and forest farming as a kind of ultimate solution to environmental and social ills.”
Though his job title in Kenya and later Nigeria was “Conservator of Forests”, Baker quickly learned that his actual work was facilitating the exploitation of the land and its people. Baker believed it possible, instead, to achieve a harmonious, sustainable relationship with nature, while increasing prosperity. He proposed novel efforts to rally the indigenous population to adopt sustainable farming methods. Not a strict preservationist, his approach was to develop agrifood systems that maintained ecological functions while increasing yields and income.
For Baker, the key to sustainability was, of course, trees. Conserve those we have; replant those we have harvested; and incorporate them in farming systems. In schemes small and local or grand and global, he proposed reforestation and forest farming as a kind of ultimate solution to environmental and social ills. This approach was typified by projects ranging from Igi Oki, a smallholder-focused agroforestry approach in Nigeria, to the Sahara Reclamation Project, starting with a Great Green Wall to stop the desert’s southward expansion.
We see in Baker’s analysis and prescriptions for Nigerian forestry and farming the elements of contemporary approaches to sustainable development: the need for grassroots, farmer-focused initiative; agroforestry and agroecological methods; the formation of producer-consumer cooperatives, North-South alliances, and fair trade arrangements; wealth redistribution in the form of profit-sharing; a central role for education; cultural and ecotourism; and a redefinition of prosperity itself.
“It would be impossible to have a sustainable relationship with nature if humanity was embroiled in conflict, Baker argued”
Baker’s then radical views did not endear him to the authorities. No longer welcome in the Colonial Service, he travelled the world in the 1930s and 40s, preaching the gospel of tree planting and building one of the first international environmental NGOs, the Men of the Trees.
In the 1950s, he refocused on North Africa and the Sahara, believing that the great desert was man-made and could be restored. Its restoration would add the equivalent of a new continent to the world, he argued, providing a new resource for an exploding post-war population. But success would require nothing less that the redeployment of the world’s armed forces as tree planters.
It would be impossible to have a sustainable relationship with nature if humanity was embroiled in conflict, Baker argued. Our real enemy was the accelerating process of environmental destruction—the worst example being desertification. Fighting that enemy would be a “One World Purpose”. Restoring the desert, Baker proposed, would become the means of building unity; unity was the key to peace; and peace would release humanity’s capacity and resources to restore the planet.
He realized that if we did not do this soon, it would be too late. In his New Earth Charter, a document that preceded the Earth Charter by some 40 years, he warned:
This generation may either be the last to exist in any semblance of a civilised world or it will be the first to have the vision, the bearing and the greatness to say, “I will have nothing to do with this destruction of life, I will play no part in this devastation of the land, I am determined to live and work for peaceful construction for I am morally responsible for the world of today and the generations of tomorrow.”
Visionaries are by definition ahead of their times, and many of Baker’s schemes failed from lack of support. Yet today, we see the elements of his prescription for Earth healing verified by environmental science, adopted in principle by international agencies and governments, and carried out in practice by individuals and organizations, including the International Tree Foundation.
Vision building builds hope. Hope, a commanding hope, is an essential ingredient in a transformative movement. Perhaps, then, Baker’s enduring contribution will be his own story: how one person, thus every person, can play a meaningful role, whether large or small, in building a sustainable, peaceful, and just civilization.
Paul Hanley is the author of the biography Man of the Trees: Richard St. Barbe Baker, the First Global Conservationist (University of Regina Press, 2016) and Richard St. Barbe Baker: Child of the Trees (Bellwood Press 2020), a short biography for middle school children.