The environmental movement has been shaped by many inspirational people. Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, David Suzuki, Wangari Maathai, Al Gore, and Greta Thunberg to name but a few. These people have changed all of our lives for the better.
My inspiration was Richard ‘St Barbe’ Baker, who I learnt about as a fresh faced first year forestry student at Melbourne University, when I picked up my copy of I Planted Trees. Though still not well known, Richard St Barbe Baker or ‘St Barbe’ as his friends knew him, was surely the first global conservationist. He remains one of history’s greatest advocates for forest protection and restoration.
In the 1920s, long before the science of climate change was understood, St Barbe warned that forest loss would have a devastating impact on our climate. He campaigned for increasing to one third, the tree cover of every nation. He was a true pioneer of the modern environmental movement, and an inspiration for many well-known conservationists working today.
Born in 1889, St Barbe grew up in and around the woodlands of southern England. From a young age, he learnt about trees and forestry while helping his father with his small timber company. Trees soon became a source of solace and inspiration for St Barbe.
St Barbe initially chose to enter the priesthood, but changed his mind at the last minute and decided to train in forestry at Cambridge University. His professional career started in Kenya as a Colonial Service forestry officer after the First World War, tasked with finding new sources of timber. And it was during this time that he started to form the insight that would become community led forest restoration – the ethos which guides International Tree Foundation’s practice today. The value he came to place on local community knowledge and ownership, would inevitably bring him into conflict with prevailing racist colonial attitudes. Soon enough, St Barbe was blacklisted from the Colonial Service.
These formative years created the knowledge and motivation for St Barbe to begin his travels around the world. He spent the rest of his life working tirelessly to spread the wisdom of trees, to help protect forests, and to plant trees wherever he went.
The founding of ITF
In Kenya, 1922, St Barbe joined with Josiah Njonjo to set up Men of the Trees, now known as the International Tree Foundation (ITF) – one of the world’s first environmental NGOs. At its peak, there were Men of the Trees branches and in over 108 countries. St Barbe, along with ITF members, wase advocating sustainable forestry, and warning of the local and regional dangers of deforestation and desertification, decades before most people were aware of the threat. More than this, he grasped the part trees and forests play in an ecology that we’re all part of; and when we destroy our forest landscape, our biodiversity, we destroy that which we need to grow and flourish. In his own words: “You can gauge a country’s wealth, its real wealth, by its tree cover.”
There are many words and deeds attributed to St Barbe. Some seem unlikely but turned out to be true, for others we may never be sure. For example, he was certainly actively involved in the conservation of the redwoods in California. There is also some evidence that he helped to persuade Roosevelt to set up the Civilian Conservation Corps, which helped to restore the American dust bowl.
St Barbe was obsessed with reforesting the Sahara, the legacy of which can be seen today in the efforts of organisations such as the Green Belt Movement. He released the New Earth Charter, conceived the first UN Conference on Desertification, and in 2006 when the UK Government proposed the 100 greatest eco-heroes, he ranked higher than Charles Darwin, Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama!
St Barb passed away in 1982. During his life, he inspired and mobilised people to plant in excess of 26 billion trees. Richard Baker’s work continues to inspire me today.
In 2014, I was elected to the Board of Trustees for the International Tree Foundation, entrusted to ensure that Baker’s life’s work and legacy of a global community of people planting trees continues. And in June this year I was re-elected for a final three year term on the Board, which will see me take this historic organisation and its legacy to 100 years old. Which is both an honour and privilege.
Had we heeded the warnings and advice of St Barbe we could have avoided a good deal of the environmental crises we face today. It is not too late. Today, it is the duty of every thinking being to live, and to serve not only their own day and generation, but also generations unborn by helping to restore and maintain the green glory of the forests of the earth.
ITF’s vision remains unchanged: of a world in which trees and forests flourish and their vital role in sustaining planetary and human well-being is valued. We can realise this future.