Tree of Life

(This piece was originally published in Manas, March 14, 1979.   I read it in The Next Whole Earth Catalog, published in the following year.  This article was originally posted several years ago on this site, and since that time I have received further information on desert reclamation which is included below.  Many thanks to the people who have contacted me re this.)

Twenty years ago (1959) an Englishwoman, Wendy Campbell-Purdie, having heard Richard St. Barbe Baker say that the spread of deserts could be stopped by a green wall of trees, bought a one-way ticket to North Africa and set to work planting trees.   On forty-five acres of desert in Morocco (Tiznit), she planted 2,000 trees, and four years later they were twelve feet high.  She proved that this manmade strip of oasis would change the climate (increase the surface humidity) by growing wheat and barley in the shelter the trees provided.  Then she went to Algeria, where a reluctant government, gave her a 260-acre dump.  The seedlings she set out there did so well that the astonished Algerian officials promised her help.  She went home to England to raise some money, and eventually she formed the Bou Saada Trust to wage biological warfare against the Sahara.  A few years later the 130,000 trees she had planted at Bou Saada (in Algeria) were flourishing and the fertile area they created was growing vegetables, citrus, and grain.  Plans were then made to invade the great desert with the green things growing.

How urgent is this campaign against deserts?  In 1977 a UN conference on Desertification reported that the world's desert areas are rapidly spreading.  One third of the land surface of the Earth's surface is now desert, and every year the Sahara gains 250,000 acres of once-productive land.  The lives of some 630 million people are threatened in the regions of the world now turning into desert wasteland.

Wendy Campbell-Purdie has recently formed a registered trust called Tree of Life to continue this project and undertake similar ones.  The idea is to save the "the vulnerable communities on the fringe of the Sahara and other world deserts by working with them to stop the deadly process of desertification, restore the life of the land and protect the livelihood of the people."  An explanatory booklet Tree of Life (London address is given, by now certainly invalid), describes the program:

The Tree of Life evolved directly from the work of the Bou Saada Trust in Algeria.  This successful pilot reforestation scheme has now been incorporated in one of the world's most ambitious tree-planting programs--the thousand-mile protective "green wall" right across Algeria.  The first task of the Tree of Life is to set up similar pilot projects, in cooperation with the Governments concerned, to continue the green wall along the entire northern edge of the Sahara Desert.

(Thanks to Stephanie for this additional information from the FAO Document Repository )

Two recent books published in England have called attention to the idea of reclaiming the Sahara desert. One is A woman against the desert by Wendy Campbell-Purdie and the other Sahara conquest by Richard St. Barbe Baker, founder of the movement known as Men of the Trees.

Miss Campbell-Purdie has established a plantation 130 miles south of Algiers at the Bou Saada oasis, and is trying to prove her theory that round the Sahara in the narrow strip between the cultivable land and the true desert there is land which can be afforested.

The scale on which her experiments are being carried out is modest. But what Miss Campbell-Purdie has undoubtedly achieved is wide publicity for her vision of a Green Front around the Sahara - an idea which is also the theme of St. Barbe Baker's book.

The Sahara being one and a half times the size of Australia, no single initiative can hope to do more than dramatize the idea in order to call the attention of the governments round its borders to the dangers inherent in bad land use practices which will allow the desert to encroach further, and to interest the general aid-giving public in the idea of trees holding it back.

Since the beginning of 1966 the United Nations/FAO World Food Program has also been assisting the Government of Algeria in large-scale reforestation and land reclamation operations through the Chantiers populaires de reboisement. Begun in 1962 under the Christian Committee for Service in Algeria, this work is directed at the eventual economic development not only of northeast Algeria but of other regions. Forestry operations in this desperately poor area provide work for thousands of workers and their families, who are paid in the form of food provided by the World Food Program.

Up to the end of the 1965/66 planting season a total of some 30 million trees were planted on about 28,000 hectares. Species used included Eucalyptus globulus, E. camaldulensis, Pinus pinea, P. radiata, P. pinaster and P. halepensis, Cupressus sempervirens and C. atlantica. Samples of seed from other Mediterranean countries are being procured for future trials.

A brief overview of the life and work of Richard St. Barbe Baker can be found here  He is the author of a number of books, none of which are in print at this time but many can still be found used at Amazon and