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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Is expo living up to environmental theme?

Major conservation groups charge disregard for nature and pull out


Staff writer

The World Exposition 2005 in Aichi Prefecture spotlights "nature's wisdom" to tackle global environmental problems and emphasizes participation of citizens, but some activists say the expo organizer's words don't match its deeds.

News photo
Visitors check out an exhibit by the environmental organization Whole Earth Nature School during a preview of the 2005 World Exposition in Nagakute, Aichi Prefecture.
PHOTO COURTESY OF WHOLE EARTH NATURE SCHOOL

Japan's three major environmental organizations have recently announced they are backing away from the expo, saying they are dissatisfied with the organizer's decision in February not to hold a meeting of a joint environmental watchdog panel before the expo kicks off Friday.

The groups are the Nature Conservation Society of Japan, WWF Japan, and the Wild Bird Society of Japan. The panel session would have reviewed the environmental impact of the expo's construction.

The feud between the three groups and the Japan Association for the 2005 World Exposition came to light earlier this month, when the groups said they wouldn't join a nature conservation symposium at the expo scheduled for April. The absence of the three groups means it is now unclear whether the symposium will be held.

Since December, the three groups had asked the association to hold the next session of the joint environmental watchdog panel before the expo's opening, with the aim of minimizing the event's impact on the nature-rich Kaisho Forest in Seto, one of the two expo sites.

Set up in April 2001, the panel of 10 environmental and construction experts, including representatives from citizens' groups, has met seven times.

At the next panel session, the groups wanted the association to report on the results of a study of flying squirrels in the forest and the transfer of endangered loaches within the forest conducted earlier by the Aichi Prefectural Government.

Hidenori Kusakari, WWF Japan's assistant director of conservation, said the panel's last meeting was more than a year ago, which is enough to show the association's disregard.

Despite the groups' accusations, however, the expo organizer stresses how much it has cooperated with participating citizens' groups.

During the six-month-long expo, 80 nongovernmental organizations will take turns displaying exhibits on such issues as conservation and sustainable development in a pavilion named NGO Global Village.

Tetsuya Yumoto, spokesman for the organizer, said it is the first world expo to invite citizens' groups on a large scale, adding their participation is indispensable in light of the expo's theme.

"The number of nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit organizations are increasing," he said. "We cannot ignore their roles" in tackling environmental problems.

Indeed, the organizer's message has reached some NGOs, who are eager to take this opportunity to publicize their activities.

Keiko Ito of Whole Earth Nature School said that because previous world expos showcased the power of countries and businesses, it is significant this version is accepting citizens' groups.

"Visitors at the expo will include those who are not interested in nature," she said. "They are the people whom we want to see our activities."

In fact, the antagonism between the organizer and the three big environmental groups is deep-rooted, stretching all the way back to when they led a protest against the expo's original blueprint drawn up in 1994.

At that time, the Aichi Prefectural Government and the central government had planned to build the main venue in the Kaisho Forest, and it would be replaced by a massive housing complex after the expo ran its course.

The environmental groups argued this would destroy the habitats of such endangered species as the goshawk.

After rounds of negotiations, the expo promoters in 2000 gave up on the housing plan, the site in the forest was largely scaled down, and the main venue was moved to a nearby park in Nagakute.

Then the organizer and the citizens' groups began to find common ground, discussing ways to reduce the event's environmental impact.

Kusakari of WWF Japan said his group has agreed at one point to join the April symposium because it appreciated the organizer's efforts, such as minimizing the width of roads built in the forest for the expo.

But because the watchdog panel won't meet before Friday, the group will not take part the symposium, he said.

The expo organizer explained that the decision not to hold a panel meeting is not the result of its disregard for nature conservation but because of a lack of manpower.

Hisanori Goto, head of the expo association's project planning group, said it is impossible to have the meeting before the opening as officials are busy with the final stage of preparation.

The association also said it has already publicized the results of the study on Kaisho Forest, which shows the construction caused no harm to the flying squirrels.

But Masahito Yoshida, director of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan and a member of the watchdog panel, said the expo association should not finalize the report before it is reviewed by the panel.

"Our group compromised on using the forest as a site, under the condition that the association would hold panel meetings," he said.

Yoshida said the panel could have reviewed the current state of flying squirrels and discussed measures how to limit the impact on the nocturnal animals by, for example, changing the lighting at the expo site.

Some other citizens' groups taking part in the event also note the organizer's insufficient understanding of nature conservation.

Friends of the Earth Japan told the organizer the group won't join a project to be sponsored by Cosmo Oil Co.

By offering emission reduction credits earned through afforestation projects in Australia, the company plans to offset carbon dioxide emissions generated from the NGO village and publicize its conservation efforts.

In theory, consumption of electricity at the expo's pavilions can be calculated in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, because a certain percent of electricity in Japan is generated from burning fossil fuel.

Ryoko Seguchi, spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth Japan, said the oil maker failed to give satisfactory reasons why it chose Australia, which has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Also, the NGO won't support a company unwilling to promote renewable energy, she added.

At the expo, the group will hand out "expo report cards," with which visitors can check if the organizer is doing enough to conserve energy and minimize waste disposal.

To protect nature, it is best not to hold such an event at all, Seguchi said. But now that the expo is set to begin, the group wants to use the opportunity to appeal to the public.

"It is the role of NGOs to monitor whether the event is truly environmentally friendly," she said.



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