Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889-1982)

A man of the trees

I am determined to live and work for peaceful construction for I am morally responsible for the world of today and the generations of tomorrow.
Richard St. Barbe Baker

Richard St. Barbe BakerThe Man of the Trees he was called, first by the Kikuyu people in Kenya. He had gone to Kenya to study the effects of centuries of land mismanagement. He set up a tree nursery, utilizing native species. His work of healing the land in partnership with the Kikuyus led to his becoming the first white person inducted into the secret society of Kikuyu Elders. He was given the name Watu wa Miti, The Man of the Trees, an appellation that became the name of an international organization.

Richard St. Barbe Baker grew up in England, loving the outdoors whether he worked in the garden or roamed through the forest. While doing missionary work in western Canada he became convinced that agricultural practices were degrading the soil and destroying the prairie. So he returned to England to study forestry at Cambridge. After suspending his studies to serve in World War I, he graduated and went to Kenya to begin his first reforestation project in 1922.

In 1924 he returned to England and was introduced to the Bahá’í Faith. He studied the religion and embraced it. Throughout his life St. Barbe was a dedicated practitioner of the Bahá’í faith, but he also had a deep affinity and respect for the animism of many of the indigenous people around the world with whom he worked closely. He wrote, It is with a spirit of reverence that I approach God’s creation, this beautiful Earth. He mourned the desacralization of Creation, turning Nature into a commodity for exploitation.

St. Barbe began to travel around the world developing his Men of the Trees organization. Eventually there were chapters in more than 100 countries, pursuing projects of reforestation and land restoration. In the United States he worked with President Franklin Roosevelt to establish the Civilian Conservation Corps that eventually mobilized 6 million youths in conservation projects. He envisioned a massive project to reclaim the Sahara Desert through strategic planting of trees, making a groundbreaking ecological survey in his 60s. Even at the age of 91, St. Barbe traveled to the Himalayas to join in the Chipko movement of peasant women in India seeking to protect trees.

Richard St. Barbe Baker in NigeriaFollowing his participation in the First World Forestry Congress in Rome in 1926, St. Barbe went to Palestine to set up a chapter of Men of the Trees. He gained the support of Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, who became the first life member of Men of the Trees in Palestine. St. Barbe then organized an interfaith coalition of Muslims, Jews and Christians as well as Bahá’ís to organize reforestation projects in Palestine.

As St. Barbe worked with religious people around the world, the task of healing the land was a task of spiritual renewal. He spoke of Nature as holy, as a sentient being. He wrote, I am determined to live and work for peaceful construction for I am morally responsible for the world of today and the generations of tomorrow.