Canadian Soldiers Hugged the Trees

Richard St.Barbe Baker and Mahatma Gandhi's vision of a green peace

By John Bacher

Richard St. Barbe Baker and Mahatma Gandhi shared a vision: turning the world's deserts green by converting armies into forestry corps. The power of this dream, rooted in the sacredness for life that has long been recognized by tribal peoples, is working today through the remarkable Chipko, or tree-hugging movement of India, which employs civil disobedience to protect forests.

Baker, the son of a tree-worshipping British clergyman, was born in 1889. In 1909 he left school for Saskatchewan, where he spent much time in nature study and came to appreciate Indians' harmony with their environment. Baker shared their reverence for life, often called animism, which he also saw embodied in the Baha'i faith, stressing the unity of all religions. Like the scientist James Lovelock, our contemporary who originated the "Gaia" thesis, Baker explained that, just humans die if they lose a third of their skin, or a tree after the loss of a third of its bark, so the earth would die if stripped of a third of its vegetative cover.

Gandhi drew examples from the tribals of India as inspiration for his theories of nonviolent resistance. One of the most powerful examples in Indian history was the ecological and pacifist outlook of the Bishnois. For 500 years in Rajasthan, they have lived on principles forbidding the cutting of any green tree or the killing of any animal. The Bishnoi were once killed by soldiers as they clung to trees to protect their sacred groves. Bishnoi villages still remain distinguished by an abundance of trees and the freedom of wild animals to wander about unharmed.

Gandhi's success in the Indian independence movement resulted from his shifting concern away from the slights faced by an affluent elite and toward the grievances of Indian tribals, pastoralists, and peasants. British forestry policies were among the hardships imposed by colonial rule. Such policies were dictated by their needs for timber for shipping and railway construction. Conflicts became intensified with the Forestry Act of 1927, which restricted villager's access to forest products. Villagers who defied this legislation and continued to gather herbs and dead wood from the forest were actually gunned down by the British. Gandhi' s nonviolent, satyagraha or "truth force" movement in the 1930's restored ancient village rights to forest lands. Likewise, Baker strengthened the pacifist tendencies in African tribal societies and ended inter-tribal warfare through promoting forest conservation.

Choosing forestry as a career as a reaction to his military experience of the destruction of life in World War I, Baker began his work in Kenya in 1920. He soon discovered that ''almost every constructive action by Africans started with a dance." This led him to promote a dance of the trees to encourage reforestation. Some 15,000 A-Kikuyu warriors arrived to take part in this dance. Baker saw a power 'generated with joyfulness that soon brought warring tribes together to vie with each other in planting trees." The former warriors became "Wattu wa Miti'or "Men of the Trees." The success of this experiment in eco-pacifism was revealed in the 1950s when much of Kenya was ablaze with the Mau Mau rebellion. Baker's close associate in Watu wa Miti, Chief Joshiah Njonjo, said his people had "no trouble," since they knew how to "protect our native forest and to plant native trees, providing "plenty of timber, plenty of fuel, plenty of water, plenty of food."

Baker's Men of the Trees had an international influence, including the ambitious Civilian Conservation Corps, which reforested millions of acres in the United States during the New Deal. A version of this program for American Indians proved so successful that for the first time significant numbers of Indians from Canada migrated to the United States for employment in such efforts to restore the land base of native communites.

While Baker's message was ignored by governments in Canada, it was taken up by army veterans. They liked his suggestion that army regiments of every nation be turned into forestry corps to launch a "green front" against the invading desert. Canadian veterans planted a memorial grove to each regiment in the World War One expeditionary force and to earlier conflicts going back ot the Fenian raids. This living memorial, Coronation Park, still stands near the Prince's Gate to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

The eco-pacifist vision of Gandhi and Baker was set back by World War Two and by the industrialization drive launched in India after independence -- a program that was as alien to Gandhi's ideals as partition along religious lines. On the day before his death, Gandhi called upon nonviolent freedom fighters to serve in villages and identify with the villagers. This provided the basis for the post-independence, Sarvodaya, movement, for "the welfare of all," as characterized by Gandhi's disciple, Vinoba Bhave. In his famous walk, asking for land gifts to the poor, Vinoba achieved a redistribution of four million acres of land. Some 7,000 villages in India have been organized on the Gramdan principle, where all the land is communally owned and parcelled out to individual families according to need, eliminating debt from farm mortgages. This has legally protected many tribal communities who have reforested lands once dismissed as waste areas. The Sarvodaya movement was established in the foothills of the Himalayas where, shortly after independence, the Chipko movement emerged.

Two female English colleagues of Gandhi, Sara and Mira Behn, gave early warning about the consequences of deforestation and encouraged co-operatives. A co-operative called the Sangh was established to produce such forest products as herbs and tree resin. The Sangh was alerted to the disastrous commercial exploitation of the foothill forest by the massive floods of 1970, which killed 200 people by dumping huge amounts of silt caused by the soil erosion that follows over-logging. In 1973, after futile efforts to convince the Indian government of the folly of its policies, a confrontation was led by Sangh activist, Chadi Prasad Bhatt, over a government permit to allow the Simon Company, a manufuacturer of tennis rackets, to cut down a grove of ash trees. This was prevented by Sangh workers, who hugged the ash trees, protecting them with their own bodies.

By 1977 the Chipko movment was strong enough to defend whole forests from logging. Villagers, especially women, tied sacred threads around the trees that had been marked for felling. They took pledges to save the trees even at the cost of their lives. Despite the aid of police, loggers were forced to turn away when confronted with the tree-huggers. Women also disrupted government auctions of tree-cutting privileges. At one point drunken gun-toting loggers threatened 30 women and children of the village of Reni. In response, Gawra Devi, an elderly woman, fended off an attack by baring her breast and declaring the "forest is my mother," stating that they would have to kill her before they could cut it down. After this brave defiance, a ban was won, prohibiting for ten years the cutting of any tree within a 450 square mile radius of Reni.

Now a "grand old Man of the Trees," Baker twice travelled to India to aid the Chipko movement, lending it scientific support and nurturing its vision. In its rituals, the Chipko movement has adopted much of style of Watu-wa Miti. It has used songs and marches to move the human heart to care for the forest. So far the longest Chipko march was a 4,870 kilometer trek from Kashmir to Bhutan. The marchers successfully appealed to the ecological aspects of the Hindu , Buddhists and Muslim religions. School children along the route showed enthusiasum for the marchers and began new nurseries. Villages along the way were inspired to have forest guards and to develop conservation plans.

The vision of a nonviolent, tree-loving army has been realized in hundreds of Indian villages, where daily patrols of women protect threatened groves. It has also resulted in the planting of over a million trees by the Chipko movement. The movement has also spread beyond India. In a fitting tribute of the power of the power of his vision to heal a plundered planet, a Chipko-inspired march on Gandhi's birthday in 1984 took place in Switzerland. It was held to protest the death of trees in Europe from acid rain.

Bacher, a Toronto-based historian, works wiith ACT for Disarmament.

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1989

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1989, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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