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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Africa goal on track, green NPO boss turns to Tohoku


As a newly elected city assembly member of Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, Kaori Niitsuma has been busy coming up with ways to help her tsunami-ravaged hometown get back on its feet and to plant seeds of hope just as she did with a tree-planting campaign in Ethiopia.

News photo
Growth: Kaori Niitsuma checks seedlings in Ethiopia. KYODO

Together with civic groups from Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, Niitsuma, 52, recently launched a project to establish and promote a pilgrimage path along tsunami-damaged parts of the coast.

Taking a cue from the 88 Temples pilgrimage route in Shikoku, the project's aim is to pass on the lessons from the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami to future generations. By inviting people from other parts of Japan as well as overseas, it is also hoped job opportunities will be created for local residents to support economic independence, Niitsuma said.

"I want to make this a pilgrimage road that will relay the story (of the disaster) even after 1,000 years," she said.

Niitsuma is the founder and director of the Futaro Fund for Forests, a nonprofit organization that engages in tree-planting and water projects in Ethiopia to combat desertification.

She set up the fund in 1998 after traveling in Ethiopia and seeing how badly its forests were being destroyed. Since then, the fund has planted 1.6 million trees in the area of Lalibela, a village north of Addis Ababa recognized by UNESCO for its medieval rock-hewn churches.

In partnership with the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the fund also launched the Lalibela Water Project in 2004 to help villagers secure resources for irrigation and daily use.

Hisakado Honda, an agricultural engineering expert at the Fukushima Prefectural Government, recalled Niitsuma's fervent speech as she sought his help to introduce to Lalibela a traditional method employed in Soma to build reservoirs.

"She was very determined, just like a kidnapper. I was really forced into this," Honda said with a laugh.

For three years in a row, Honda used his annual vacation to travel to Ethiopia, accompanied by his wife. Under his guidance, eight reservoirs have been built in the Lalibela area, including one at an elevation of 3,500 meters.

Using hoes and shovels to firm the reservoirs' foundations with soil and rocks, the traditional method does not require cement or tarpaulins and thus retains moisture in surrounding soil. The construction process also created jobs for local villagers.

The fund's Green Campaign — named after the Green Belt Movement initiated by Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel laureate — distributes saplings to local people for free and pays a cash bonus when the trees are nurtured to a certain height.

At first, the villagers would throw the saplings away. But as the campaign gained more local acceptance, the saplings became so popular that some started to steal them.

"Our staff were delighted to learn that (local people) have developed such a great yearning (to plant the trees)," Niitsuma said.

After the March 2011 tsunami swept away her parents' home and killed a number of people in Soma, Niitsuma recalled getting a second activist wind.

"Let's also plant hope in the devastated land in the Tohoku region," she said.

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