Man of the Trees: Richard St. Barbe Baker, the First Global Conservationist

by Paul Hanley. University of Regina Press, 2018, 298 pages

By John Bacher (reviewer)

Paul Hanley’s biography of Richard St. Barbe Baker, Man of the Trees, like effective action against the perils of human-induced climate change, is long overdue. Baker’s visions of a green peace where armies can be reorganized to undertake tasks such as turning deserts into forests have inspired millions. These aspirations caused him to visit most of the world’s nations and transform them to varying degrees.

Although raised in England on his family’s tree nursery, Baker had deep roots in Canada. He attended the University of Saskatchewan, where he studied theology, from 1909 to 1912. He had originally planned to be an Anglican priest, but became determined to be a forester instead after seeing the devastation of the First World War. In Saskatchewan, Baker formed a life-long friendship with the future Canadian Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker.

Baker had a profound impact on Canada. He inspired Boy Scout troops to gather in jamborees for tree planting. The goal of one such jamboree was to reclaim the desert wastes around an army base near Angus, Ontario.

Baker moved to New Zealand in 1959 to marry his second wife Catriona Burnett. He then set out to ride on horseback from the most southern to the most northern Kauri tree. On the way Baker spoke to 92,000 people, and the speech was broadcast on national television.

New Zealand is a country whose economy is increasingly enriched by tourists coming to see the enchanted forests made famous by its film industry. It is also the place where Baker’s ideas have had the greatest impact. He inspired successive governments to restore forests on pastures where sheep had destructively grazed.

Baker warned in 1930 that New Zealand was becoming an “emaciated skeleton” from erosion cutting into tree-stripped slopes. The nation is now a global conservation leader.

The Sahara challenge

Baker’s greatest frustration was what appeared to be a losing battle to reforest the Sahara. Despite support from distinguished (but eventually deposed) leaders like President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Baker’s ideas got nowhere until 2002, some twenty-one years after his death.

In 2002, African leaders met in N’Djamena, Chad. Here they endorsed the “Great Green Wall”-a line of trees from east to west through the Sahara desert, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa, to stop the southward encroachment of the desert. The initiative has subsequently shown some success in pushing back the sands of the Sahara, especially in Senegal.

N’Djamena was chosen for the African tree-planting summit since this was where Baker first proposed the Great Green Wall in 1952. Here he pleaded, “Is it too much to hope that the Iron Curtains of the world will give place to the Green Front and the scars of the earth as well as the scars in peoples’ hearts may be healed by tree planting?” By 2016, fourteen years after the planned 700-mile wall had been proposed at the second N’Djamena conference, fifteen per cent of the Wall had been completed.

The Great Green Wall was only a small part of Baker’s ambitious plans for revitalizing the Sahara. Hanley captures one of the most eloquent passages in his writing. Baker had urged that a project was needed to unite all the world’s governments around a single purpose, which would serve as an alternative to war.

Hanley observes that it was a “colossal vision: nothing less that the reclamation of the entire Sahara Desert through the planting of trees … a force equivalent to all the standing armies of the world, some twenty million strong. [Baker hoped] it would give new purpose to the military industrial complex, which could handle the project like a military campaign of conquest.”

Hanley shows that Baker, in undertaking epic desert treks, eventually found evidence that humans had created the Sahara through environmental abuses, much like the dangers to New Zealand and Canada which he helped nip in the bud. Baker also found evidence that grazing was expanding the Sahara desert although thorn trees-tortured into twisted shapes-were still alive. Fossilized remains of great tree stumps were discovered in the desert.

It is astonishing that some of Baker’s techniques for transforming the Sahara have stood the test of time. One method he advocated, like a prophet in the wilderness, which is now being employed is to irrigate the land with treated sewage from communities bordering the Sahara. It is showing astonishing results in Egypt today. In the past fifteen years the city of Ismailia in northern Egypt has developed a mature 200-hectare forest using treated wastewater as irrigation. The former wasteland has become an economic asset. Valuable mahogany trees are among the species grown there. They have grown faster than expected, benefitting from the desert sunlight.

The barriers to Egypt’s conquest of the Sahara are not technical. The barriers are the hatreds that dominate the nation’s politics. Ambitious plans of reforestation have been shelved, not by the limitations of technologies, but by political turmoil.

Man of the Trees has a foreword by the Prince of Wales and an introduction by Jane Goodall. Hanley, in publishing the first biography of Richard St. Barbe Baker, has done humanity and nature a great service.

Baker died in Regina in 1981, aged 92. His death came several days after a ceremonial tree planting. A forest circling southern Saskatoon, the Richard St. Barbe Baker Afforestation Area, is named in his honour. His life is one of practical vision which should empower people with realistic hope for a green and democratic peace.

Reviewed by John Bacher, a writer and conservationist in St Catharines, ON.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2019

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2019, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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