The Man of the Trees and the Great Green Wall: A Baha’i’s Environmental Legacy for the Ages

by Paul Mantle and Betty J. Fisher

Hugh Locke, a Bahá’í friend and the literary executor of the pioneering environmentalist Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889–1982), recently shared some internet links and the following summary of an undertaking bringing to partial realization a project that St. Barbe Baker proposed decades ago:

Planting a band of trees across Africa to stop the southern advance of the Sahara was first proposed by Richard St. Barbe Baker in 1952 as he set out on an ecological expedition through the desert. His appeal for a “Green Front against the desert” is finally taking shape as the first trees are being planted to create what is being called the Great Green Wall. This concerted international effort will eventually become a 4,000-mile-long wall of trees, nine miles deep that will pass through eleven African countries. It is already being spoken of as the greatest environmental collaboration in history.

A recent article in England’s Sunday Times about the initiative noted, “The idea was originally conceived by the British explorer Richard St Barbe Baker during his 25,000-mile expedition to the Sahara in the 1950s. Baker believed that tree-planting could reclaim the desert.”1

StBarbeBakerMany of us who were active in either Bahá’í or environmentalist circles during the twentieth century will recall with fondness the inspiration and fascination provided by the near-mythical exploits of our fellow Bahá’í, Richard St. Barbe Baker. A globe-trotting dynamo, he was responsible for setting in motion tree-planting initiatives around the world while campaigning and educating on an array of other forestry concerns as well.2

For the next thirty years “St. Barbe,” as he was called by his friends, promoted his 1952 proposal, calling for a thirty mile wide “Green Front” involving twenty-four African nations. The current initiative, organized by the African Union together with many local, regional, and international groups, calls for a nine mile wide “Green Wall” across eleven African nations, somewhat short of St. Barbe’s original conception.

Richard St. Barbe Baker was responsible for the planting of more trees than any other person in history. When one considers his pioneering forestry work in Africa; the programs he initiated in dozens of countries; the organizations he founded or co-founded; his prolific writings, radio and television interviews, lecture tours, Bahá’í meetings, films, press conferences, expeditions, visits to schools and government agencies, and consultations with heads of state, the scope of his legacy defies enumeration.

St. Barbe’s efforts and insights, bolstered by the World Forestry Charter Gatherings he began in 1945, effected changes in the science of silviculture at the planetary level. This beloved, versatile, spiritual genius wove the totality of his activities around a single purpose best expressed in the enchanted name by which he was known: “The Man of the Trees.”3

In the middle of the twentieth century he viewed the earth’s ecosystems as being in a state of crisis. He urged the mobilization of twenty-two million tree-planters, from the standing armies of the world, to reverse the desertification processes of the planet. If the governments of the world had acted, the current climate-change paradigm might be completely different.

Think of the regulating effect on the climate, and the implications for peaceful co-existence in Africa, if billions of trees, many of which would now be half-a-century-old, had been planted in a cooperative effort in lands that are now barren deserts. As St. Barbe effectively demonstrated while in the colonial administration of forests in Kenya and Nigeria in the 1920s and 1930s, mixed-age, mixed-species trees—with a heavy emphasis on native species—can be combined with local agriculture to benefit directly, and enlist the stewardship of, indigenous populations. He wrote and lectured extensively on these concepts that have come to be called “social forestry,” “agro-forestry,” and “permaculture.”

Decades before James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis formulated the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970s, St. Barbe spoke of the earth as a living organism. In this he echoed poets, seers, and holy Ones throughout the ages.4

He believed that Mother Earth was being skinned alive. He repeatedly stated this over the years, putting it in modern layman’s language in 1981, the year before his death:

Of the earth’s thirty billion acres, already nine billion acres are desert. And if a man loses a third of his skin, he dies; plastic surgeons say “He’s had it.” And if a tree loses one-third of its bark, it dies. And if the earth loses one-third of its green mantle of trees, it will die. The water table will sink beyond recall and life on this planet will become impossible. It’s being skinned alive today. . . .5

A few of Richard St. Barbe Baker’s many perceptions and accomplishments include these:

  • He categorically condemned forest clear-cutting, an idea that he took to governments and forums all over the world, pioneering and fearlessly advocating selective harvesting techniques.
  • He conferred with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and proposed what became America’s Civilian Conservation Corps.
  • He gave tenacious, determined, active leadership, over decades, that helped halt the destruction of the California coastal redwoods, groves that include two-thousand-year-old trees.
  • His research into, and cogent analysis of, the world history of forestry—which he pursued for most of his life—provides a benchmark for future generations.
  • He traveled to Central and South America and was among the first to propose and plead for an economic solution from the international community to halt the devastation of the Amazon rain forests.
  • At the age of ninety, St. Barbe made the first of two trips to a remote area of the Himalayas in India where the women of the Chipko tree-hugging movement had, in desperation, taken a bold stand against the deforestation of the region.6 It appears that he was the first Westerner to visit them in their villages and then publicly speak out in support.

St. Barbe had an early and ongoing collaboration with Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith. That story has yet to be fully explored, but a few details will suffice here.

In an initial meeting between the two in 1929, Shoghi Effendi became the first lifetime member of the Men of the Trees, an organization that St. Barbe founded. Shoghi Effendi helped launch the organization in the Holy Land with a financial donation. More than thirty personal letters that Shoghi Effendi wrote to St. Barbe have thus far come to light.

A letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to St. Barbe on May 31, 1953, includes a postscript in the Guardian’s own hand: “May the Almighty abundantly reward you for your splendid and manifold activities in the service of the Faith, and enable you to enrich continually the record of your greatly valued and meritorious accomplishments, Your true and grateful brother. . . .”7

Beginning in 1945 and for twelve consecutive years up to his death in 1957, Shoghi Effendi sent cables to the annual international World Forestry Charter Gatherings. Three samples of  Shoghi Effendi’s  laudatory and inspirational messages illustrate his concern for the environment and add further documentation to how far ahead of the curve St. Barbe was in desert reclamation:

DESIRE TO EXPRESS TO HIS MAJESTY THE KING OR HIS MAJESTY’S REPRESENTATIVE AS WELL AS TO ASSEMBLED GUESTS MY HOPE WORK OF MEN OF TREES SO IMPORTANT FOR PROTECTION PHYSICAL WORLD AND HERITAGE FUTURE GENERATIONS MAY BE RICHLY BLESSED AND AT SAME TIME CONSTITUTE YET ANOTHER FORCE WORKING FOR PEACE AND BROTHERHOOD IN THIS SORELY TRIED DIVIDED WORLD.
Shoghi Effendi to New Earth Luncheon, cable, May 23, 1951

DESIRE EXPRESS ADMIRATION YOUR ESSENTIALLY HUMANITARIAN WORK NOBLE OBJECTIVE RECLAIM DESERTS SPIRIT CO-OPERATION FOSTERED BY YOUR UNDERTAKINGS WISH YOU EVERY SUCCESS.
Shoghi Effendi to World Forestry Charter Luncheon, London, cable, May 21, 1956.

DELIGHTED STEADY PROGRESS ACHIEVED MEN OF THE TREES WORLD OVER ESPECIALLY HOPES PLAN RECLAMATION DESERT AREAS AFRICA.
On behalf of Shoghi Effendi to World Forestry Charter Luncheon, London, cable, dated 22 May 19578

In 1982, when St. Barbe passed away at the age of ninety-two, the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, cabled the following on June 10:

PASSING DISTINGUISHED DEDICATED SERVANT HUMANITY RICHARD ST BARBE BAKER LOSS TO ENTIRE WORLD AND TO BAHAI COMMUNITY AN OUTSTANDING SERVANT SPOKESMAN FAITH. HIS DEVOTION BELOVED GUARDIAN NEVER CEASING EFFORTS BEST INTEREST MANKIND MERITORIOUS EXAMPLE ASSURE FAMILY FRIENDS SACRED THRESHOLD BOUNTIFUL REWARD PROGRESS SOUL. . . .9

When the Universal House of Justice announced the formation of a new environmental office in its 1990 Ridván letter to the Bahá’ís of the world, it noted St. Barbe’s work: “Through the newly established Office of the Environment, the Bahá’í International Community, on its own initiative and in collaboration with other environmental organizations, reinstituted the annual World Forestry Charter Gathering founded in 1945 by the renowned Richard St. Barbe Baker; . . .”10

Ali Nakhjavani, a former member of the Universal House of Justice and, before 1963, a firsthand participant in important early events in Africa, wrote in 2004 about “St. Barbe who was such an outstanding figure in the Cause, and very much trusted and loved by the beloved Guardian,” referring to him as “our unique and spiritually endowed St. Barbe.”11

As further details of St. Barbe’s heroic life’s work come to light, of crucial importance will be access to the voluminous correspondence, journals, itineraries, and other records and artifacts, such as reel-to-reel films and tapes, which he has left behind. These go well beyond the more than thirty books he authored. His ceaseless travels have left a trail of puzzle pieces for future historians across time, oceans, and continents.

During the last four years of  St. Barbe’s life, his friend Hugh Locke worked with him to gather his papers and other materials and to organize the large volume of items. After St. Barbe’s death, Locke consulted with Dr. John W. T. Spinks, a former president of St. Barbe’s alma mater, the University of Saskatchewan, and a good friend of St. Barbe, about placing the collection under the care of that University.12 Dr. Spinks approached the University and guided Locke through the process of depositing the collection there in perpetuity.Locke is currently seeking funds to digitalize these precious holdings not only to preserve but to make accessible the insights and life story of Richard St. Barbe Baker, the Man of the Trees.

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Hugh Locke, Richard St. Barbe Baker’s literary executor (who also wrote St. Barbe’s In Memoriam for The Baha’i World: An International Record, Volume XVIII: 1979–1983 [Haifa, Israel: Bahá’í World Centre, 1986], 802–05]), can be reached by email at hlocke@earthlink.net or hugh.locke@haitifarmers.org. Paul Mantle can be reached by email at pmantle9@yahoo.com.

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1. The reference in the Sunday Times (“Kew’s Great Green Wall to hold back Saharan terror”) is mistaken. St. Barbe Baker’s first Sahara expedition in 1952 covered some 9,000 miles. His second expedition in 1964 covered 25,000 miles. He describes the two expeditions in Sahara Challenge (London: Lutterworth Press, 1954) and Sahara Conquest (London: Lutterworth Press, 1966).
For links to additional articles about the Great Green Wall project, see:
National Geographic: “Africa-wide “Great Green Wall” to Halt Sahara’s Spread?
TIME (YouTube): Africa’s Ambitious “Great Green Wall”
Forbes: “Great Green Wall Plans to Stop Sahara
The New Yorker “The Great Oasis: Can a wall of trees stop the Sahara from spreading?
FAO: “Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative
UN News Service: “African Nations Strive to Stem Desertification With a ‘Great Green Wall’
Wikipedia: “Great Green Wall
Climate Central: Africa’s Great Green Wall Against Climate Change Begins

2. One of the most balanced assessments of St. Barbe Baker’s work can be found in “The global vision of Richard St. Barbe Baker,” One Country 6, no. 2 (July-September 1994). A succinct compilation of St. Barbe Baker’s writings is also highly recommended: Man of the Trees: Selected Writings of St. Barbe Baker, ed. Karen Gridley (Willits, California: Ecology Action, 1989).

3. Through the course of his long life, St. Barbe Baker found himself in the following occupations and roles, among others: nurseryman, beekeeper, ship’s hand, carpenter, cowboy, lumberjack, homesteader, newspaper reporter, soldier and cavalry officer in World War I, inventor, scholar, forester, hunter, explorer, photographer, mystic, tribal elder, author, mounted policeman, lecturer, raconteur, educator, researcher, economist, horticulturist, organizer, philanthropist, vegetarian activist, ecologist, anthropologist, researcher, choral director, diplomat, environmentalist, botanist, filmmaker, publicist, lobbyist, consultant, spokesman, Bahá’í teacher. . . .

4. Including ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, one of the three Central Figures of the Bahá’í Faith, who stated on November, 3, 1911, in a talk in Paris: “This world is full of seeming contradictions; in each of these kingdoms (mineral, vegetable and animal) life exists in its degree; though when compared to the life in a man, the earth appears to be dead, yet she, too, lives and has a life of her own.” (Paris Talks: Addresses Given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1911 [London, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1995), 62, 20:14) [Emphasis added].

5. St. Barbe at 2:48 mark in http://www.nzonscreen.com/title/man-of-the-trees-1981 (Man of the Trees, Leon Narby, Director, Camera; John Maynard, Producer; Martyn Sanderson, Writer.)

6. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chipko_movement.

7. Shoghi Effendi to Richard St. Barbe Baker, letter, May 31, 1953, quoted in Hugh C. Locke, “Richard St. Barbe Baker, O.B.E., 1889–1982,” in The Bahá’í World: An International Record, Volume XVIII: 1979–1983 (Haifa, Israel: Bahá’í World Centre), 805.

8. Shoghi Effendi to New Earth Luncheon, cable, May 23, 1951; Shoghi Effendi to World Forestry Charter Luncheon, London, cable, May 21, 1956; and On behalf of Shoghi Effendi to World Forestry Charter Luncheon, London, cable, May 22, 1957, in Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, Memorandum with attached compilation, “Cables and letters of Shoghi Effendi to and about Richard St. Barbe Baker,” to Paul Mantle, June 1, 2005.

9. The Universal House of Justice to family and friends of Richard St. Barbe Baker, cable, in Bahá’í World, Volume XVIII: 1979–1983, 802.

10. The Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the world, letter, Ridván 1990, in Messages from the Universal House of Justice 1986–2001: The Fourth Epoch of the Formative Age (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing, 2009), 162, 90:5.

11. Ali Nakhjavani to Paul Mantle, e-mail, November 22, 2004; and Ali Nakhjavani to Paul Mantle, e-mail, December 5, 2004.

12. St. Barbe received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the University of Saskatchewan. He also earned a degree in forestry from Cambridge University and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of North Carolina, Asheville, the first forestry school in the United States. Among other honors, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain bestowed upon him the Order of the British Empire.

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