Monday, August 24, 2009

back to the forest

"Probably with my generation the village will go back to forest."

This quote is from an August 23rd Japan Times article by independant journalist, Winifred Bird, in which she offers an account of what she dubs "Japan's creeping natural disaster"--the loss of satoyama 里山 landscape in Japan's rural areas.

Find the original article here.

In her article Bird points out what I would argue are the two major causes of rural landscape transformation in Japan. The first, heavy over-cutting of mixed and broadleaf forests followed by afforestation using timber varieties in the second half of the last century. The second, rapid urbanization accompanied by mass migration of residents from rural to metropolitan communities. The result has been an unprecedented conversion away from human-managed satoyama landscapes, which fostered a mosaic of diverse eco-tones, to often uniform, un-managed plantation-style forests that are increasingly overgrown. The abandoned homes of dying villages are literally consumed by the expanding forest.

The anthropologist John Bennett wrote about humanity's use of the natural world as a transformative process in which nature is made social through human use. He labeled this process the "Ecological Transition", and suggested that it results in "socio-natural environments." Historical ecology is an approach to the study of human-environment interactions that draws on Bennett's ideas. One of the central tenets of the approach is that nearly all the earth's environments have been shaped by humans, often for thousands of years.

Bird makes a similar point, writing that:
In Japan, contrary to what may seem logical, much of the richness of its biodiversity flourishes where humans have followed traditional rural lifestyles for thousands of years.
This contradiction to what may seem logical--that humans and their activities can be benign or even beneficial in terms of the natural world--is an important point for the Japanese, and indeed all of us, to understand.

I must admit that I cringed a bit while reading other parts of Bird's article where she appears to locate the most drastic environmental transformations in the activities of humans in the satoyama, while only noting in passing that "natural forest in remote mountain areas was in some cases logged". Conrad Totman, among other scholars, has argued differently, suggesting that historically the desire for timber by Japan's elites has brought drastic ecological changes to forests. . .in some cases many times over. So, there are also political dimensions to take into account when considering the differential impacts that Japanese have had on the natural environment. Arguing that Japan's farmers have been the major transformative agents is a bit misleading.

Overall, I really liked Bird's article and applaud her efforts to interogate and raise awareness about Japan's mountain forests and human communities. Going back to Bennett's idea of the ecological transition it's interesting to think about how Japan's environments are presently changing. One might be tempted to call it an "un-transitioning", or perhaps a "reverse transitioning", in which the natural world pushes back against the social world of humans. However, my hope is that discussions of such issues can get away from nature/culture dichotomies. I find it useful to think of "ecology" in terms of its etymological Latin root "oikos", meaning house or household, as the study of a set of interrelated elements, not specifiying or limited to the environment. Bennett's "ecological transition" therefore becomes a transitioning of relationships between humans and the natural environment, rather than transitioning of one element into another.

In Japan, as elsewhere, beginning to emphasize the diversity of relationships that bind humans to the environment is an important step to make in forwarding discussions of how to manage and protect the environment. Bird's article points out the important role that the human species can play in a given ecosystem. A failure to place human activities in broader ecological contexts has created distortions surrounding questions of environmental protection and management. Here in Otaki this has resulted in a stubborn refusal on the part of the national forestry agency to recognize the local human community as part of the larger ecosystem they are tasked with managing.

I feel it's important that we begin to consider the potential losses that come with allowing the village to go "back to the forest".

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A map of common ground

This bill increases wildness, protects endangered species, and detoxifies — once and for all — the word “wilderness.”

In an op-ed piece by Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, writer Rick Bass offers a look at the collaborative process that has resulted in the “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act” (known as the "Tester Bill" after Senator Jon Tester", which would be the first wilderness legislation, the author claims, in Montana in 26 years. Find the original op-ed here.

I would love to see such collaboration here in Otaki Village. In a recent Asahi Shimbun 朝日新聞 article (no longer available online, but I can send copies to anyone interested--Japanese only), the author quotes residents as saying that national forests are "foreign country" and that local people have little or no say in management decisions. On the other hand, officials from the forestry agency are quoted in the article as saying that they consult with village residents once and a while and that they are listened to. Obviously there is a disconnect.

The quote at the top of this post is from Rick Bass. I like his choice of words when he talks about "detoxifying" the concept of wilderness. I'm not sure if it is his intention, but I'd like to think that he is posing a critique of "wilderness" as it is used in the U.S., as an area untouched by humans. In Japan, it's 自然 shizen, usually translated as "nature", that is the conceptual stumbling block that impedes discussions of how to best use lands.

Terms like "wilderness" or "shizen", with there associated conceptual baggage, are too easily grasped upon, purified, politicized and used by one group or another to forward their own agenda while attempting to intellectually pulverize "opposing" agendas. It seems to me akin to the increasingly willy-nilly use of the term "Nazi" to express dissent of the Obama administration's healthcare proposal.

Good democracies, like good ecologies, demand open space and diversity. Our human languages, unfortunately, are often not geared to this. It's important to employ critique and self-reflexivity to make sure that we don't get bogged down in the world of words. . .which is often much more complex than the physical world.