November 3, 2020

Reforestation in Skógar, Iceland:
A Small Social Action Project and Participation in Global Discourses

For Bahá’ís the process of learning to improve material and social reality is guided by these words of Bahá’u’lláh: Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements. Bahá’ís are told to serve humanity selflessly and to contribute towards the betterment of the world by applying Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings to the challenges we face. Since the early 1980s the worldwide Bahá’í community has been consciously learning about social action through systematic activity and reflection and through working with others in various fields of social and economic development.

Bahá’í communities around the world have been engaged in social and economic development projects for a number of decades. Some of these projects emerge as a result of individual initiative while others emerge as a broad community endeavour, often when small dynamic groups within a population seek to further develop their community. Social action projects are initiated by children, youth or adults regardless of their cultural or religious beliefs. All who participate seek the common good. Universal participation by all, young and old, is the watchword of such endeavours. The desire to promote wellbeing and justice through consultation and collective action is a prominent element of individuals involved in the process.

Through their participation in social action, Bahá’ís have increasingly found opportunities to learn about challenges in the field, as well as to participate in global discourses taking place in a range of settings across the world. One such recent opportunity was an invitation for the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) and the Bahá’í Community of Iceland to participate in a global conference organized by “Faith for Nature: Multi-Faith Action”, an initiative aiming to take collective action to protect the planet. Sponsored by the Government of Iceland and the UN Environment Programme, the conference was addressed by the President of Iceland, Guđni Th. Jóhannesson and Bani Dugal, the Principal Representative of the BIC.

The story of how the Bahá’í Community of Iceland came to be invited to participate in this global forum is a story of collective effort by a small community learning about the science of reforestation, and the many qualities and skills needed to sustain a project over many decades. It started with one man, Jochum Eggertsson, who was ahead of his time and had a vision of the true “needs of the age” in which we live.

Jochum Eggertsson was one of the first people in Iceland to become a Bahá’í. He was the nephew of Matthías Jochumsson, one of the country’s best loved poets and the author of the national anthem of Iceland. During the early 1950s Jochum decided to buy back the farmland Skógar in Ţorskafjörđur (Fjord of the Cods) where his father and ten siblings, including Matthías Jochumsson, had been born, and where the family had lived for generations before losing the farm. Skógar, which is situated in the Westfjords in the north of Iceland means ‘woods’, and Jochum was convinced that it was his mission to revive the woods which had covered the Fjord centuries earlier. During the early 1950s he started to plant trees in one corner of the land.

When Beth McKenty, a Canadian Bahá’í of Icelandic descent visited Iceland in 1964, Jochum was one of eight registered believers in the country. Given that Jochum had no children, Beth encouraged him to bequeath the land to the Bahá’í community so it could continue to care for the land. This is what Jochum did. When he passed away in 1966 Skógar became an endowment property of the Universal House of Justice until the establishment of the National Spiritual Assembly of Iceland in 1972.

Although it was not well understood during the early 1950s, deforestation and soil erosion are, in fact, some of the most pressing and devastating anthropogenic environmental problems in Iceland. It is estimated that 23 percent of the land was covered with forest when the Vikings first settled there during the 9th century but by the mid-20th century forests would have constituted less than 1 percent of the land.

Over the past seventy years knowledge about deforestation and its effects has dramatically increased and today there is a concerted effort at all levels of Icelandic society to heal and reforest the land. Working closely with local landowners and organizations in the fields of soil preservation and reforestation, as well as with the Icelandic Forest Service, an agency of the Ministry of the Environment, a small but dedicated group of Bahá’ís has planted some 130,000 trees in Skógar since 2006. The continuity of the reforestation work over many decades has given the Bahá’í community of Iceland a tremendous opportunity to collaborate with individuals, NGOs, government agencies and international organizations. In September 2020 the Icelandic Forestry Association, a local NGO, selected a tree planted by Jochum as the Icelandic “Tree of the Year.” Representatives from various organizations attended a formal ceremony in Skógar and this was an opportunity to highlight the benefits of collaboration, shared learning and mutual support between countless like-minded individuals and organizations labouring in this area of work.

About the author The author of this article, Jóhanna Jochumsdóttir, grew up in the Fjord of the Animals (Dýrafjörđur) in the Westfjords of Iceland where her parents taught at a secondary school. Jochum Eggertsson was her father’s great uncle and Jóhanna, her husband Shamim, and their children Arían Helgi and Layla-Björt who live in Ottawa travel to Iceland each spring to plant trees with the local community in her ancestral home of Skógar.

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