Image for The ‘healing forest’ planted by indigenous US inmates

The ‘healing forest’ planted by indigenous US inmates

A project in Washington state has brought prisoners out of their cells to create a lush forest – and helped them reconnect with their land

A project in Washington state has brought prisoners out of their cells to create a lush forest – and helped them reconnect with their land

Eyeing the barren landscape at a correctional facility on tribal lands in Washington state, Ethan Bryson had a vision. He decided to turn the patch of earth at the Yakama Nation Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility into a thriving, lush forest – with inmates at the heart of the project.

Bryson is a ‘forest maker’ for US conservation organisation and app Sugi, which specialises in community forestation. He set about organising the project and, in March this year, inmates began the second phase of planting 5,000 native trees there. Some 36 species will eventually make up the ‘healing forest’, including medicinal plants. 

“Our identity lies within these plants,” said Marylee Smunitee Jones, a member of the Yakama Nation, who has helped lead the project. “They show us that it’s OK to be unique, that we all have our own medicines and that the healing forest is needed – it’s needed very much.”

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Sugi’s global community of forest makers uses the Miyawaki method of planting. Pioneered in Japan, it involves planting diverse species close together. According to Sugi’s founder, Elise Van Middelem, native forests are “30 times denser, capture 16 times more carbon and are 100 times more biodiverse than conventional tree plantations”.

As to the impact on inmates: “I am going to be able to come by here and show my kids that I did that,” said one prisoner. “It feels great. It makes my heart feel good.”

A similar tree-planting project that was trialled in Rio de Janeiro state in Brazil is said to have cut levels of violence in the area’s overcrowded jails.

I am going to be able to show my kids that I did that. It makes my heart feel good

Meanwhile, the world lost nearly 12 million hectares of tropical forest in 2019, according to monitoring by Global Forest Watch.

The 1t.org platform was launched at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos in 2020 to encourage and coordinate efforts to plant 1 trillion trees by 2030.

Main image: Stephen Couling for SUGi

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