Friday, May 30, 2008

The Politics of Resiliency

A recent trip to the Takigoshi 滝 越 section of the village got me to thinking about "resiliency", a concept I employ in my current research.

Located about 10 kilometers to the southwest of the central part of the village near Nagano's border with neighboring Gifu prefecture, Takigoshi is the smallest of Otaki's hamlets. One gets to Takigoshi by using a small, paved road laid out in bends and arcs in order to fit in a narrow canyon between the Otaki River and a steep embankment of vegetation and crumbling rock. When a large earthquake struck the Otaki area in 1984, an enormous section of earth broke free from Ontake-san and slid down the mountain's southeastern face taking with it a section of the road leading to Takigoshi, which it deposited in the riverbed below, forming a new lake in the process. The residents of Takigoshi, one of whom had watched his own house crumble from it's previously envied perch above the hamlet, had to be airlifted by Ground Self-defense Force helicopters to nearby shelters.

Thinking about resiliency on a previous occasion, I began writing the following:

Resiliency is an idea that stems from theories of systems—economies, ecologies, societies—as operating within transient webs of causes and effects, which guide behaviors and repel change--and yet all systems inevitably change . Preventing change, enabling change, recovering from change—this is the realm of resiliency thinking.

Change, then, becomes the operative word. Merriam-Webster defines the word, “a: to make different in some particular, alter; b: to make radically different, transform; c: to give a different position, course, or direction to” ( On TV, U.S. presidential candidate Barrack Obama talks for the need for “change” in American politics, while Republicans lament a “change” away from traditional American values; in the background we hear “climate change”. So, there is change we hope for, change we fear, and change that is inevitable—at times all at once.

How then are we to think about resiliency? Do we promote it, or actively strive against it? Well, it all depends on which “we” one is talking about. Defining “we” has always been a political act, which brings me to my topic: the politics of resiliency.

Temporality plays a role, in that causes and effects operate at. . .

. . . I’ll attempt to pick up on my train of thought from here. Temporality plays a role, in that causes and effects operate at a variety of disparate temporal scales--some fast, others slow. Making matters even more complicated, systems are not independent, but rather interdependent, meaning that systems interact with one another--again at different temporal, as well as spatial, scales. This will make more sense as I discuss the particular example of Takigoshi.

In Takigoshi I interviewed I-san, who was born in Aichi prefecture, which lies to the south of Nagano, and came to Otaki about a decade ago. I-san is in his thirties and lives in Takigoshi with his wife
and young daughter. I wrote about I-san in a previous post, he runs a park/eatery called suikouen. After our interview, I-san offered to take me up into the national forest that sits above Takigoshi and extends into Gifu prefecture. We had been talking about the heavy deforestation that had taken place in the past and I had wanted to see some of the areas. The landscape that I-san showed me there in the misty hills above Takigoshi graciously articulates, in more concrete form, some of the abstractions about resiliency that I've been babbling about thus far.

From the campground that I-san manages we headed southwest up a narrow forest road leading into the mountains. In the lower part of the forest we saw fresh cut trees--thinning to allow light in and to give space to surrounding trees. Further up we saw areas that had been replanted with cypress trees after being cut completely bare; probably about 30 years ago. These reforested areas are similar across Japan: simple two storied forests, a thick crown of pine on top and a blanket of bamboo grass (a remarkably adaptive plant) on the bottom; there's little room for anything else. Most animals can't forage well in this type of forest, so they have an eerie stillness to them.

we gained a bit of elevation the scenery changed: mixed forests dominated by broadleaf varieties, bright and noisy with birdsong. A few hundred feet higher and the forest transformed once again, shrinking this time--stunted pines with patches of taller broadleaf trees and huge patches of bamboo grass. I-san suggested we stop at a small turnout. Pointing west, I-san told me we were looking into Gifu prefecture (we were essentially standing on the border). A broad valley stretched out below us, the brilliant greens of newly leaved broadleaf trees were cut in places by huge swatches of dark pine. I-san motioned towards nearby pines that stood little higher than me. These trees had probably been planted about 15 years ago, I-san guessed; he suggested the pines should be much taller, but have little protection against the cold. Ideally, I-san continued, a forest like this would begin with broadleaf varieties, pioneer species that improve soil quality with fallen leaves that provide nutrients and deep roots that create stability. The pine varieties planted by the government forestry agency tend to develop wide, shallow root systems, which are unable create stable slopes in Japan's steep mountains. Furthermore, said I-san, the forestry agency tends to see broadleaves as nuisances and usually lops them down to make room for pine varieties. What kind of pines? Hinoki--cypress, sugi--cedar, and to a lesser extent, sawara--sawara cypress. Why? These trees have the potential to produce money through their sale in the future--never mind that currently no market exists in Japan for domestic timber, as the importation of cheap timber from abroad has increased since the 1960's.

east I saw Ontake-san sitting stern and proud above the blue hills that clamber below its white throne. I-san pointed out slopes to the south that I can best describe as the results of a serious royal fuck-up by the forestry agency. They've been doing their best for some time now to get trees to grow over there, but it's just not working, said I-san. One steep slope was comprised almost entirely of exposed dirt, with a few scattered pines hanging on for dear life. On other slopes a pine tree or two or three stood awash in a sea of light green bamboo grass--I-san suggested the forest agency had probably given up those spots.

The natural ecological system operating in Takigoshi, as elsewhere, has existed for millennium. Of course things have changed--at times drastically--but the biological processes that generate and sustain the area have been in effect since long before humans arrived on the scene. Surely there were vulnerabilities and rapid changes in this system prior to humans: lightening strikes and accompanying fire, pest damage to trees, et cetera; the biological system developed partly through these processes, and thus achieved a state of resiliency.

Human presence in this area appears to stretch back at least 4,000 years. Early humans had their own uses for the forests in Takigoshi. They likely hunted, gathered wild foods, and collected wood for fuel. Thus, the non-human biological system humming along in Takigoshi also became historical, with humans adding and subtracting through actions based not only on biological factors, but also social, cultural, and political.

The transition of this once purely biological environment to a partly humanized--a socionatural landscape--continued, I would imagine, at fairly low levels. Fire was likely used to help clear forestland, either for agriculture or to promote the growth of wild plants; trees began to be felled for human use; and foreign biological species were most certainly introduced. In other words, humans began to modify the environment in ways that met their needs, addressed their vulnerabilities, and created resiliency for them. Still, the tempo of these changes remained slow; the breadth of them narrow; and the intensity of them low.

About 250 kilometers south of Takigoshi, in the 8th century, a socially and politically elite group emerged and consolidated power in the Kinai Basin, modern day Nara. As with other civilizations, monumental architecture became a central aspect of social and political life. Heavy deforestation began to radiate in concentric circles from the capital city of Heijō-kyō, and by the 16th century the Kiso Valley, where Otaki and Takigoshi are located, had begun to be utilized for it's wealth of timber; before long powerful daimyo lords had claimed the forest resources as their own. During the political stable Edo Period that lasted from the 17th to the 19th century large parts of the Kiso Valley were controlled by the Tokugawa government. During this era the influence of human social, cultural, political, and economic processes in the Kiso Valley, including Takigoshi, increased in size, scope, and pace. Resiliency was redefined largely through the lens of the Tokugawa government whose excessive felling brought about new methods directed at reforesting and protecting valuable timber resources.

With the overthrow of the Tokugawa government and the "restoration" of the Meiji Emperor in 1868 Takigoshi's socionatural system faced a succession of rapid and dramatic changes. The majority of the forests in the Kiso Valley became the personal property of Emperor Meiji and thus resilience was again redefined. The Meiji government had been brought into existence partly through the aggressive actions of the U.S. government who had sent Commodore William Perry, along with many "black ships" to gently convince Japanese elites to open their ports for trade. In response to this vulnerability (whether real or imagined) the Meiji government took on the industrialization and modernization of Japan as their task. The light from this dawning of a Japanese nation carried the new country into the 20th century where it experimented with colonization, imperialism, and warfare. These new pursuits--a search for national resiliency in an international environment--were purchased (in small part?) with the natural capital that had accumulated slowly over time in the hills above Takigoshi. One person's resiliency is another's vulnerability.

The post-war era has brought new changes to the forests of Takigoshi; efforts
at reforestation, as I noted above, have been less than successful. In areas where trees have taken root, the varieties planted have almost overwhelmingly been pine varieties selected for their potential monetary value, rather than their ecological value. A lack of broadleaf varieties has forced animal species (Japanese macaques, Japanese deer, Asiatic black bear, and Japanese serow) towards villages in search of food. The residents of Takigoshi, whom, I apologize, I've largely left out of this narrative, continue to live with the outcomes of decisions regarding the forests that surround them made by bureaucrats who define needs, vulnerabilities, and resilience based on criteria that are often rooted far from the small hamlet itself. The people of Takigoshi are not powerless to influence the environment around them in order to guarantee their own resilience; indeed they always have, it’s just that their activities have been largely concealed beneath the larger movements of Japanese history. It's the busy forest soil, often overlooked, that allows the much admired trees to stand so tall. However, the soil, like the people, is often vulnerable to the goings on in the trees above them.

I wondered about all these things as I looked out at the scraggly slopes in front of me. The political nature of resiliency means that reforesting a mountainside requires more than clearing away bamboo grass to make room for pine trees. Resiliency is increased with diversity. On a mountain slope this means promoting a variety of tree and plant species. In a mountain village this means finding ways to promote democracy by listening to the various voices that hold stake in the forests. In Takigoshi the first voices heard should be those of the dozen or so people who live their lives along the forest's edges, at the base of the mountainsides. In other words, resiliency can be increased by broadening the “we” (the stakeholders involved) that define what exactly resiliency means.

I-san suggested we get going. He wore a warm smile on his round, dark face. I agreed, so we hoped into my car and began winding our way slowly down the forest road. After dropping I-san back at the campground I worked my way through newly planted rice paddies back to the main road leading to the village center. I was soon zooming through the tunnel that passes through the remains of the landslide that cut Takigoshi off from Otaki that day the earthquake hit in 1984. I'm sure the people of Takigoshi are thankful to have a road linking them to the rest of the village. Clearing the tunnel, I gazed up at the steep wall of the canyon and the noon-day sun filtering through the forest canopy. I dreamt of a future me visiting Otaki some years later and found myself hoping that the road to Takigoshi will still be open then.

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