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Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010

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At the information center of Yuhidera Kenmin Shizen Park, staff member Akira Matsueda talks about the animal and plant species found in the park. SETSUKO KAMIYA PHOTOS

Neglected satoyama raise concerns


Staff writer

KANAZAWA, Ishikawa Pref. — For a city of more than 450,000 people, Kanazawa, the capital of this prefecture along the Sea of Japan, shouldn't have too much trouble hosting a few more visitors — unless those visiting are black bears. Locals have been on the alert for the large mammals that have been showing up in residential areas. The prefecture as a whole has already received twice the number of bear sightings compared to a year before.

News photo
The 77-hectare park, located in the suburbs of Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, has trails (right) that make it easy for visitors to enjoy nature.

"In Kanazawa, we've used tranquilizer guns twice to catch them in September alone," said Yoshitaka Nakamura, head of the Nature Protection Division of the Ishikawa Prefectural Government, referring to two cubs found foraging for food in people's backyards.

One reason more bears are looking for food near residential areas is this year's poor acorn crop, one of the bears' main food sources, some experts say. However, Nakamura said that as woods in the area become abandoned by humans, their growth encroaches human territory, reducing the buffer zone with the bears' habitat.

In the age of environmentalism, it may sound contradictory that leaving nature to grow back is a problem. That certainly is not the case if the woodlands are covered with naturally grown, old-growth vegetation. But when it comes to the woods formed and maintained by people for generations, withdrawing from that care takes away the balance that existed in the ecosystem, according to experts.

Such managed areas — considered the closest form of nature near many people and include forests, rice paddies, farmlands and even bamboo forests — are referred to as "satoyama" in Japan. The United Nations has been spreading the concept around the world through its Satoyama Initiative, promoting and supporting satoyama (what it calls socio-ecolgical production landscapes). The goal is to maintain and/or enhance these areas' contribution to human well-being while meeting the three objectives of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

As the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP10) to the CBD kicks off from Oct. 18 in Nagoya, the preservation of satoyama has gained the attention of environment experts as they have greatly contributed to biodiversity through the sustainable way people can coexist with nature.

Japan, where some 40 percent of land is generally regarded as satoyama, is promoting the need to preserve such areas. The declining management of satoyama woodlands, such as those around Kanazawa, is a rising concern across the nation.

Traditionally, people living in villages near woodland entered the woods to use the various resources nature provides. For example, villagers cut down trees for timber and firewood; they took fallen leaves for use as fertilizer; they harvested various kinds of nuts and mushrooms.

People's intervention in nature with satoyama had been done mostly out of economic need and was usually done in a sustainable manner. As a result, a rich biodiversity existed in the satoyama landscape.

But since around the 1960s, things began to shift as people's lifestyles changed. More people started relying on gas and oil for fuel, making less use of the woods. More people moved to cities, abandoning the farmland and rice paddies. The village populations gentrified and decreased.

Abandoning the woodlands affected the fauna and flora that inhabited the satoyama environment. In the case of Ishikawa, for example, about 60 percent of the prefecture's species listed in the prefectural government's Red Data Book of endangered species, compiled in 2000, have habitats in satoyama, which make up about 60 percent of the land area of Ishikawa.

Faced with this crisis, the national and local governments, together with businesses, educational institutions and local communities are pushing programs to revive the nature of satoyama.

Examples can be seen in various places, including in Kyoto Prefecture, where the Kyoto Model Forest Movement has been taking place since 2006, promoting activities to strengthen the protection of forests through the public and private sectors as well as through private citizens.

In Ishikawa, the prefecture started the Ishikawa Nature School in 2002 to offer various educational activities sponsored by the government and nonprofit organizations. Activities include observing the flora and fauna to picking mushrooms and eating them on-site.

Another program, dubbed "working holiday," invites locals to participate in clearing away the underbrush and cutting down some trees in the overcrowded areas to make the woods healthier.

"Humans created secondary forests out of necessity, so they are irresponsible to abandon them. But at the same time, it's impossible to return to the old ways of life," said Toshihisa Morinaga, who is in charge of Yuhidera Kenmin Shizen Park, a satoyama park in the suburbs of Kanazawa. "I feel that one way to maintain satoyama is to utilize it as an educational place. It is important to learn through experience."

Some programs are aimed at educating leaders who can begin their programs to revitalize satoyama. For its part, Kanazawa University has been running the Satoyama Nature School since 1999, which invites local farmers as special researchers to gain their expertise in reviving the area's satoyama.

While education will continue to be an important measure to revitalize satoyama, as well as to maintain the knowledge passed on by ancestors who have lived with the woodlands, Koji Nakamura of Kanazawa University says policymakers must take stronger leadership roles to support satoyama preservation.

A key report that may influence policymakers will be released during COP10, according to experts in fields ranging from ecology to sociology.

On Oct. 22, a Sub-Global Assessment will be released, giving detailed analysis on the status of the biodiversity of satoyama including scientific data that can help clarify the issues involved and what measures should be taken to make improvements, the experts said.

For the last four years, satoyama across Japan have been subject to assessment by experts, with the Operating Unit Ishikawa/Kanazawa of the United Nations University-Institute of Advanced Studies serving as the secretariat of the project, a first of its kind in Japan.

The assessment has been performed in line with the Millennium Ecosystem Management (MA) project, which tracks global data on the trends in different types of ecosystems as well as provides projections on the future of the environmental conditions. Compiled by more than 1,300 experts worldwide between 2001 and 2005, the MA is aimed at becoming the scientific basis for actions necessary to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of the ecosystem, according to the MA website.

"Compiling the Sub-Global Assessment is a major accomplishment, as it will show the direction that each area should go, but what's important is how it will be utilized," said Kanazawa University's Nakamura, who is also the co-chair of the Nippon Science Assessment Panel of the Sub-Global Assessment.

"To see the progress of the policies implemented, a system to evaluate its progress should also be developed and a thorough discussion should be held, especially with the involvement of people from the farming and forestry industries," he said.



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