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".


Winnie Bird said...

Thanks for your comments on my Japan Times article. I think you are right to point out that I underemphasized the historical impact of logging in Japan. I have read Totman's The Green Archipelago and regularly refer to his A History of Japan, and agree that there have been major episodes of overharvesting. Most biologists and forestry experts I talk to also confirm that there is virtually no true old growth forest in Japan - one plant biologist recently told me that even the forests in Yakushima were probably cut at some time! However, I think it's important to keep in mind that 90% of plantation forests have been created since WWII. Don't you think it's accurate to say that in the past there was more natural forest (whether secondary or not) in the deep mountains and less around villages, where as now that situation is often reversed, with plantations reaching deep into the mountains. I look forward to learning more from your research, since getting my head around the history of human-nature interactions in Japan can be a daunting task.

Winnie Bird said...

PS - I don't know about Nagano, but here in Mie the problem with unmanaged plantations is not really that they are "overgrown." Rather the opposite - inadequate thinning leads to a lack of understory growth. It is the abandoned fields and woodlands that are more likely to return to wilderness and overtake a village.

Taintus said...

Hi Winnie,

Thanks for visiting and for your comments.

I was just re-reading and editing this post and realized that Perhaps I wrote a bit too hastily. I also re-read your article, and agree with your assertion that in contemporary Japan many forest landscapes have been turned upside down, with plantation forests in places they perhaps never had been before the post-war period.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but in Mie I believe the majority of forestland is privately owned. Here in the Kiso Valley the majority of forestland belongs to the nation (the citizens in theory) and is (mis)managed by the Rinyacho. So, I often seek to highlight the unequal power relations that have historically shaped forests here. . .perhaps this doesn't apply as well to the Kumano region.

Finally, "overgrown" was perhaps the wrong word, though I've kept it in my post. Mainly I meant that the timber varieties themselves have become overgrown. . .largely unusable from the accounts of many villagers I've talked to. In addition, here in Otaki bamboo grass is out of control. It thrives in the sunlight after clear-cutting occurs and then chokes everything else out. However, I have also witnessed areas such as you describe. . .but, again, they may be more prominent in the private forests in Mie.