|Sahara (Photo credit: tonynetone)
Richard St Barbe Baker, of course, will be turning in his grave as he digests John Baird’s decision that Canada should leave the international anti-desertification effort in the Sahara.
In the 1950s he founded the campaign to stop the advance of the Sahara --- and not only to stop it, but to turn it back, after travelling round the entire desert and talking to leaders of 24 nations affected. But three decades before, when almost nobody else had noticed our destructive human impact on Earth, he had set up his organization Men of the Trees, that has planted and saved forests in almost every corner of the world, and provided the template for the thousands of citizen groups who now concern themselves with the fate of Earth.
He may have been born in England in 1889, but people throughout the world can put in a claim to him, because he became one of the first students at the University of Saskatchewan in 1908, in the 1920s he worked with Kikuyus and other tribesmen in Kenya and West Africa, and encouraged tree planting in Palestine, in the 1930s he persuaded President Roosevelt to set up the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the fruits of the New Deal, and crossed the Atlantic nine times to ensure survival of the California redwoods, in the 1940s he served his nation in war (for the second time) and in the 1950s, he set in train international efforts to halt advance of deserts everywhere through the planting of trees.
After Baker had twice travelled around the Sahara, and formulated his plan to motivate 25 million tree-planters to create a green wall that would stop the advance of the desert, his advocacy bore almost immediate fruit. An Englishwoman, Wendy Campbell-Purdie, inspired by his vision, bought a one-way ticket to North Africa and set to work planting 2,000 trees on 45 acres of Moroccan desert, which, within four years, were 12 feet high. In their shelter she grew wheat and barley. As a result of this success she persuaded the Algerian government to give her 260 acres of useless land on which to continue her work. Again, it was so successful that the government promised help in continuing her work. She raised money, and in the next few years planted 130,000 trees at a place on the edge of the desert called Bou Saada which within a few years was growing not only a forest but also vegetables, citrus fruits and grain. She has since formed an organization called the Tree of Life that has been incorporated into one of the most ambitious tree-planting programs ever undertaken --- to build a green wall right across Algeria.
Nevertheless, the challenge is so immense that still today the Sahara is said to be growing by 250,000 acres a year.
I met this remarkable man, St Barbe, as he was affectionately called everywhere, in the 1960s, when he was well over 70. His enthusiasm was entirely contagious, and over coffee in London he not only charmed me, but also the pretty young waitress, whom he almost persuaded to go out immediately to start planting trees in the desert.
By that time he was living with a new wife on a sheep station in New Zealand, but he had recently made a 1500 mile trip from one end of the country to the other and begun a campaign to convert New Zealand from animal husbandry back to silviculture.
Unlike most zealots, he was not at all boring on his favourite subject (although he did tend to go on a bit about his Bahai faith). He took great delight in telling me that when he ran afoul of the colonial officials in Nigeria, they packed him off upriver telling him, “We hope the mosquitoes’ll get you and you’ll be carried out feet first!” They almost had it right: he was carried out, suffering from a dreadful tropical disease.
Baker’s basic mantra about the value of trees could be understood by anyone.
“In the forest the processes of decay and growth always balance one another. The vegetable and animal wastes form a mixture on the forest floor that remains practically constant in depth. It is drawn upon by earthworms, fungi, and bacteria, who distribute the resulting humus through the upper layers of the soil. Thus the forest manures itself. Everything is done by Nature quietly and efficiently. No artificial fertilizers, no selective weed-killers, no pesticides, and no machinery are needed in the household of the natural forest.”
“I look at it like this: If a man loses one-third of his skin he dies; the plastic surgeons say, ‘He's had it.’ If a tree loses one-third of its bark it dies. This has been proved by botanists and dendrologists. Would it not be reasonable to suggest that if the earth loses more than a third of its green mantle and tree cover, it will assuredly die? The water table will sink beyond recall and life will become impossible.
“Under existing systems …. there is a constant threat of famine over wide areas, but if we treat reforestation as seriously as we do national defense, and turn from an animal economy to a sylvan one, we shall be able to look forward confidently to the time when food will worry us as little as the air we breathe.”
Really, an extraordinary visionary, Richard St Barbe Baker, who now, three decades after his death, is still honoured around the world.
Except, it seems, by John Baird, Stephen Harper and their ilk.