At a water catchment in Buea, Cameroon, a pool is shimmering beside a dense tangle of branches. Though the surrounding 200sqm forest was only planted in 2020, the leaves of the castor bean now reach as high as three metres, with a further eight native tree and shrub species shooting up fast behind. The community depends on catchments like this for its water, but due to agricultural degradation of the surrounding landscape, they’re facing diminishing and poorer quality water supplies. The rewilding of this site aims to counteract this problem, as the newly planted trees capture, filter and retain water.

This forest in Cameroon is one of 85 planted by the rewilding organisation Sugi in the past two years. Sugi collaborates with a global network of forest makers to build biodiversity by planting small-scale forests worldwide using the acclaimed Miyawaki Method. These projects are funded via partnerships, subscriptions and one-off donations.

Currently, tree planting is seen as a quick fix to the climate crisis, but it isn’t always the ecological tool we expect it to be. A majority of forests planted today are monoculture plantations, only made up of one type of tree. These suppress native biodiversity and are often harvested ten years or so down the line, only sequestering 1/40th of the carbon that natural forests do.

Plantations sacrifice the forest for the trees, focusing on the number of trees planted, and forgetting the ecological importance of a forest as a functioning whole. Similarly, tree planting schemes today often attract corporations cashing in on carbon credits, neglecting the other social, ecological and environmental benefits of a healthy forest – how they can purify the air, manage water, regulate the climate, create oxygen, build soil and biodiversity, and provide food, medicine and shelter for many species. “With Sugi, I wanted it to be about ecosystem regeneration,” explains the founder, Elise Van Middelem, “not simply about planting millions of trees.”

As Sugi aims to regenerate nature-deprived areas, Elise opted to use the Miyawaki Method, pioneered by the Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki. The Miyawaki Method creates small-scale forests that grow ten times faster, are 30 times denser and 100 times more biodiverse than their conventional counterparts. These can be shoehorned into urban pockets as small as three square metres. “When using this method, we mimic how nature would recolonise the space if humans stepped away,” explains lead forest maker James Godfrey-Faussett. You begin by identifying the native trees of the area, then work the soil once to restore the missing biology before planting a diverse combination of these indigenous species. “Nature doesn’t plant in grids of 1.5m; seeds drop from trees randomly to create dense growth and competition,” James continues. By planting a huge variety of trees close together, we see an increase in forage and refuge for wildlife. Trees shoot upwards rather than sideways, and as you have many species, there are always others to step in if one falls to disease. A biodiverse habitat becomes self-sustaining, and after an initial mulch and weeding, Sugi forests become maintenance-free after three years.

“So many people do not understand what biodiversity is and how it’s integral for human existence,” explains Elise. “Sugi is about integrating these ideas into conversations, showing how anybody anywhere can help to restore it.” As the creative director, Daniel Diego Lincoln, comments, “if you want to engage with someone who wants to solve a specific problem, you first need to tell them the story of how planting a forest can help.”

By enlisting a team of local photographers, filmmakers and creatives, Sugi succeeds in intimately communicating the story of each forest they plant, community by community, year by year, so that the ecological and social impact of the projects feel tangible to those who’ve invested in them. This transparency enables those who donate to understand the why, what, where and how. The aim, explains Tamsin Smith, head of strategy at Sugi, “is to ensure that the community we build, even if they don’t have a forest in their own backyard, feel like there’s something they can do to redress biodiversity loss. We want to give people the tools to meaningfully act.”

“Storytelling gets people together,” explains Daniel. For Sugi, the human element of the forests they foster is as important as the ecological. As the organisation strives to reconnect humans to nature, they’re better able to do this by planting on a community’s doorstep. The majority of Sugi’s projects are situated in cities, villages and schools. The Miyawaki Method is made to be urban and community-based, and there’s something emotionally empowering about coming together to plant the future. “When a project is people-centred, they realise they can have control over their environment,” explains Daniel. “It’s about reclaiming public spaces,” Elise agrees. “The Beirut Riverless Forest we planted during the 2019 revolution has survived a blast, pandemic and political upheaval,” she continues. “People came from all over to plant a tree, almost as if it were a symbol of hope.”

You can either go out into the wilderness, or you can bring the wild to you. The Miyawaki Method enables dense forests to be grown almost anywhere, and it’s Sugi’s vision to transform the concrete jungle from grey to green. “We want to trigger possibilities in people’s imagination so that when they walk through the city and see an abandoned space, they can imagine it as a flourishing forest,” enthuses Tamsin. “We want people to see the possibility of an animated space as opposed to an abandoned space and then take that metaphor into their daily lives.”

Sugi’s city forests act as a hub and mental balm for the community and offer natural solutions to the difficulties cities face due to climate change. Increased green cover can help mitigate flooding, provide shade, reduce the urban heat island effect and slope erosion. “We need forests around us no matter where we are,” explains Daniel. In 2020, the largest Miyawaki forest in Europe was planted in Barking and Dagenham – one of London’s most polluted boroughs. The Forest of Thanks acts as a green lung, filtering toxic air. The innumerable benefits are so stark that the council is inspired to plant more with SUGi, wanting to rewild every forgotten pocket of the borough. “A forest is not a far-flung reserve,” concludes Tamsin. “They can be all around us.” “And when you engage people with nature in the city,” continues Daniel. “They then engage with these spaces further away and become environmental stewards.” Human civilisation was birthed from the forest, and for SUGi, the future of resilient cities goes hand in hand with these precious spaces. Now’s the time to rewild our urban areas and let nature back in.

Words by Emma Latham Phillips.

Images courtesy of Sugi. Find more information about Sugi and their most recent projects on their website.

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