image of St Barbe Baker founder of the International tree foundation

International Tree foundation St. Barbe’s Legacy: pioneer forester and global conservationist

In this post, we share an inspiring presentation made during the centenary celebrations by Hugh Locke, Co-Founder & President of Smallholder Farmers Alliance, on our founder’s legacy.

Today I would like to highlight some areas in which St. Barbe was a true visionary, and share contemporary examples that represent that vision made manifest. A few of these examples have a direct line to St. Barbe, while others have no direct connection.

But what I think is important is that St. Barbe’s legacy as a pioneering forester and global conservationist is exceptionally relevant to what’s happening today and should inform our actions moving forward.

St. Barbe Baker visiting the Grove of Understanding in Redwood National Park, California (1982)

Planting and growing increasing quantities of trees is the scientific solution to Earth’s environmental dilemma.
— St. Barbe Baker

These are words he spoke at a time when few shared his vision of world forestry as the beating heart of a global enterprise to restore our planet.

This headline story from the New York Times last week captures the current climate change zeitgeist. Planting trees is now widely accepted as key to our collective survival. Trees have become mainstream.

One of the defining aspects of St. Barbe’s work was his ability to make tree planting part of the cultural DNA of the communities he engaged with.

This began when he approached the Kikuyu tribespeople in Kenya to plant trees in the early 1920s. They had a dance to mark the planting of crops and again at harvest, and so St. Barbe proposed a dance of the trees. It is that first ‘dance of the trees’ that brings us here today.

Many of you will have seen this photograph...

Kenya, 1922, the ‘Dance of the Trees’ ceremony when ITF, formerly known as Men of the Trees, was founded.

But here is what St. Barbe wrote on the back of the original image.

That original photo is part of a large treasure trove that makes up the Baker Collection archives that I helped to set up at the University of Saskatchewan where St. Barbe had enrolled in 1909 when they first opened their doors.

My mentor

With St. Barbe as my mentor, he was very much on my mind when I co-founded a tree planting organisation in Haiti. And I tried to adapt his concept of embedding tree planting within the framework of the local culture. In this case we found that smallholder farmers needed seed, tools and training to improve their agriculture and so we provide these in exchange for their planting trees.

Six thousand members of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance now plant about a million trees a year in Haiti using what we call “tree currency” to get an expanded range of agricultural services in addition to seed, tools and training.

St. Barbe was a master at what we would now call social marketing. He understood the importance of building a public constituency in support of tree planting.

Just one case in point is this photo from Trafalgar Square in 1952.

In a radio interview the day before, St. Barbe had invited people to bring peach stones the following day that he would take with him as he undertook an expedition to explore the possibility of restoring the Sahara desert through tree planting.

A new generation of tree planters

This Trafalgar Square event got the kind of extensive coverage that would now qualify it as having ‘gone viral.’

One contemporary corollary is this comic book supershero, to use the gender-correct term. Her name is Tanama and she uses her superpowers to plant and protect trees. She was created by Haitian artist Thony Loui with support from the Smallholder Farmers Alliance, and the second comic book in the series, shown here, came out last month.

Our goal is to enlist a new generation of tree planters by connecting with them via a medium they understand.

Ahead of his time

St. Barbe pictured at the 7th World Forestry Conference

St Barbe was ahead of his time in understanding the need for international cooperation when it came to tree planting and desert reclamation. From 1943 to 1958 he organized regular World Forestry Charter Gatherings that brought together diplomatic representatives for this purpose.

The UN Environment Programme would not be founded until 1972, although without much of a focus on tree planting. Now the various international forums addressing climate change all include tree planting and forest restoration in one form or another.

St. Barbe was also ahead of his time in grasping the need for large-scale projects to undertake massive tree planting.

He lobbied Franklin Roosevelt about tree planting when he was Governor of New York State, and when he became President, Roosevelt enlisted St. Barbe as one of several people who shaped the tree planting component of the Civilian Conservation Corps... one of the largest reforestation efforts ever undertaken.

Surveying the Sahara

As I mentioned earlier, St. Barbe undertook an ecological survey of the Sahara desert in 1952. That led to his call for planting a green belt of trees across Africa as a “one world purpose” to reclaim the desert.

While his call was not headed during his lifetime, the Great Green Wall project currently underway in Africa certainly echoes St. Barbe’s vision. It is one of the most ambitious projects in history as it sets out to plant a strip of trees and grasslands along the southern edge of the Sahara desert.

St. Barbe’s life’s work is replete with remarkably prescient insights and practical examples that may have ended four decades ago, but which still read like the trouble shooting chapter in the owner’s manual for our planet.

Planting trees and restoring forest landscapes remains a “one world purpose,” to use St. Barbe’s terminology. A purpose that transcends international boundaries and institutional mandates.

I leave you with this quote from St. Barbe.

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.
— St. Barbe Baker

Thank you.

Hugh Locke was a friend and assistant to Richard St. Barbe Baker for the last six years of his life, and was appointed by him as a Literary Trustee of his estate. Hugh is Co-Founder and President of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance, a Haitian non-profit using a new agroforestry model that links improved agriculture with tree planting. He also writes and lectures extensively on smallholder farming and sustainable development.

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