• The world lost nearly 12 million hectares of tropical forest last year.
  • Now one organization is helping prisoners plant a native forest inside a correctional facility in Washington State.
  • The “healing forest” aims to transform inmates’ lives.
  • The 1t.org platform coordinates efforts to plant one trillion trees by 2030.

Planting trees to fight climate change and restore biodiversity is nothing new. But a project in Washington State has brought inmates out of their cells to create “a lush forest” of 100% native species on barren prison land – and its benefits go beyond helping the environment to helping rehabilitate the prisoners and reconnect them to nature.

SUGi, a leader in community afforestation, has recently organized a project at a correctional facility in the United States where inmates have been planting what they call “the healing forest”. The project is funded through SUGi’s partnership with the global brand Breitling.

“Part of the philosophy is to bring a type of rehabilitation programme to our inmates that would get them out of the detention facility,” said Chief Vernon Alvarez, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho and Chief of Yakama Nation Corrections.

Inmates preparing the ground for planting at the Yakama Nation Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility in Washington State.
Image: SUGI

Community of roots

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. We’ll begin with 5,000 trees planted in two phases and within two years, the forest will be self-sustaining.”

SUGi’s global community of Forest Makers, whose work is showcased on the World Economic Forum’s UpLink innovation collaboration platform, uses the Miyawaki method of planting. Pioneered in Japan, this involves planting diverse species close together.

“It was discovered that, by planting the trees in close proximity and through the community of the roots communicating, and the microbiology thriving, the trees will grow 10 times faster,” said Ethan Bryson, founder of Urban Natural Forests & SUGi Forest Maker, who spearheaded the ‘healing forest’ project.

In total, 36 species will be planted in the healing forest, including medicinal plants.
Image: SUGI

And what of the impact on the inmates?

“You know, 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.”

It’s about identity

In total, 36 species will be planted in the healing forest, including medicinal plants. “Our identity lies within these plants,” says caseworker Marylee Smunitee Jones, a member of the Yakama Nation. “They show us that it’s OK to be unique, that we all have our own medicines and the healing forest is needed, it’s needed very much.”

And what of the impact on the inmates? “You know, 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.”

Brazil, which has the world’s third-largest prison population, has tried a similar approach at a jail in Rio de Janeiro state. Including the inmates in reforestation projects is said to have reduced violence in the country’s overcrowded jails and given prisoners new skills to use when they leave prison.

Tree cover loss woldwide in 2018, by select countries (in 1,000 hectares)
Russia saw the highest tree cover loss in 2018.
Image: Statista

Reforesting the world

The world lost nearly 12 million hectares of tropical forest last year – equivalent to a football pitch of forest every six seconds – according to the World Resources Institute and based on monitoring by Global Forest Watch. If the current rate of loss continues, total global tree cover could shrink by 223 million hectares by 2050, reports Science.

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