Humans have been shaping the natural environment in Japan for a very long time. Starting with the advent of rice cultivation more than 2,000 years ago, virtually every accessible patch of land on these small and crowded islands has had its vegetation cut, cleared, burned, tilled or otherwise transformed. But surprisingly, say those who study the ecology of Japan's traditional rural areas, that may not have been such a bad thing for the archipelago's biological diversity.
Back before humans settled down in villages and learned about agriculture, Japan's wet and mountainous terrain was mostly wooded.
"Japan was a land of trees," says Kazuhiko Maita, director of the Institute for Asian Black Bear Research and Preservation. "But then, when farming communities began to grow rice in paddies they created, they cut the flatland forests."
I'm less impressed by the title of the article ("Japan's creeping natural disaster") which sounds like some editor had watched too much Jurassic Park on his summer holiday. Oh well, free-lance writers don't usually get to pick the title or even the lead sentence of articles like this. Ms. Bird gets a lot of information into this article, having talked to people in Mie prefecture, where life in the rural village has changed a lot:
Despite these fond memories, it was a hard life. Rice yields in the cool mountain valleys were poor, and with virtually no monetary income, villagers subsisted mostly on vegetables and chagayu, a gruel made with tea and rice.
The Biodiversity Center of Japan, which is part of the Environment Ministry, has an ongoing project to monitor changes in the satoyama ecosystem. The website is worth a visit, although the English pages are not updated as much as you would expect from a country that is going to host the next United Nations’ meeting in Nagoya, October 2010, for the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Protocol on Biosafety (also called Cartagena Protocol). More details over at Consumers Union of Japan: Protect Biodiversity in Nagoya.
The actual ecosystem monitoring is managed by the NGO called the Nature Conservation Society of Japan. The work is carried out by volunteers.
30-40 years is what we call a generation, and as far as I am concerned, we can never go back to where we were born and grew up, be it a busy city or a quiet rural town, and find that things are still the same. Even Tokyo, the city I first moved to 21 years ago, has changed a lot. You can't expect a small patch of satoyama to survive unless there are incentives - such as leveraging the isolation to their advantage - or finding new sources of income. Expecting things to "stay the same" is not realistic. That's just not how things work, and that's how I feel about the places I remember as a kid. Things change - a lot.
What is clear is that if you take "development" out of the "sustainable development" you are in trouble, just as if you take away "sustainable" - and if that is a creeping natural disaster, it is just the way life works, no more, no less.
(Hat tip both to Tom in Brighton and to Pandabonium in Kashima city, who both independently alerted me to this fantastic article!)