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“What do you call these? Needles?” asks Ana Yoko of Brazil, running her fingers along the lightly prickled stem of a salmon­berry bush.

It’s late morning in Ravenna Park and a canopy of big-leaf maples rustles high above her.

“Thorns,” says Kym Foley of EarthCorps, an environmental nonprofit based in Seattle, “Sometimes ‘prickles,’ but usually they’re called ‘thorns.’ ”

Yoko nods politely, but she and her fellow corps members have taken a momentary break from today’s plant-identification lesson — they’re busy popping the yellow berries into their mouths, quietly conferring over the tart juice and crunchy seeds.

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Yoko is one of 12 EarthCorps volunteers who recently arrived in Seattle from around the world as part of what Foley refers to as a kind of “reverse Peace Corps.”

These international volunteers will spend the next six months learning about the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest and conducting habitat restoration — from pulling blackberries in parks to curbing riverbed erosion and repairing hiking trails.

They’ll also eventually coordinate and lead volunteer conservation projects around the region.

They come from places as diverse as Haiti, Cameroon, Morocco and the Philippines, but they share in common the desire to help lead a new generation of environmentalists around the world.

“I was born in a small village,” says 26-year-old Natasha Tugutkhonova, describing her childhood on the Russian-Mongolian border. “It was so sad for me to see how people cut our forests to sell to China, how they threw garbage everywhere.”

Now living in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, Tugutkhonova works with an organization fighting for the preservation of Lake Baikal — the world’s deepest lake.

She says the biggest environmental threats to her region are litter, industrial pollution, population growth and deforestation.

“I think that many people in Russia know that [it] is a great big country with tigers, big forests and lots of animals,” says Tugutkhonova, “But we don’t realize that we can lose it.”

So how will six months pulling out invasive Himalayan blackberries in the Pacific Northwest help her address those issues back in Siberia?

Tugutkhonova says she hopes to gain leadership skills and experience working with international communities — especially as she helps develop sustainable eco-tourism along the shores of Lake Baikal.

And that’s exactly what EarthCorps hopes to provide with their international program — an opportunity for young people from diverse backgrounds to gain skills that can translate to environmental projects around the world.

“There’s a restoration corps in the Philippines and one in Fukushima started after the tsunami,” says Sharon London, a director at EarthCorps, listing off successful alums from the now 20-year-old program.

London says there’s even a graduate from India whose environmental models are now used by the United Nations.

“He said it was grubbing blackberries and removing the roots that really inspired him,” London says proudly.

And back along the steep slopes of Ravenna Park — amid the Oregon grape, salal and snowberry bushes — you can sense that inspiration taking hold among these newest corps members.

“Want to learn one more tree or are your brains too full?” asks Foley as the berry break ends and the group begins heading back to the van.

“One more tree!” shouts a young woman from Cameroon.

The gravel pops under the volunteers’ stiff new work boots as they jostle to gather around a majestically droopy Western hemlock.

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist,, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections.

Sarah Stuteville: Twitter: @SeaStute

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