Monday, December 14, 2009

Monitored: a visit from Japan's Forestry Agency

Image source: Makino, H. and M. Mitsuo (1953).
付知川に於ける材木伐出の沿革と檜解 (History of timber extraction in Tsukuchigawa).
Tsukuchigawa, 付知川営林署 (Tsukuchigawa Forest Management Office).

As I mentioned in my last post, a recent article in a Nagano newspaper, the Shinano-mainichi-shinbun 信濃毎日新聞, about my research and recent paper presentation in Philadelphia promoted the local Forestry Agency office to give me a call and set up a time to talk. Yesterday, I met with two officials from the Forestry Agency: the heads of the Agematsu 上松 and Setogawa 瀬戸川 offices (the latter is located here in Otaki).

I've used the word "monitor" in the title of this post and I intend the full range of meaning that the word embodies--from innocent watching to menacing surveillance. It seems to me this is the nature of monitoring; one never knows how closely they are being watched, or to what ends. In this instance monitoring came to mind for two reasons: 1) the swiftness with which the Forestry Agency suddenly expressed interest in my research, and 2) the sense I gained of the Forestry Agency's desire to closely control information about National Forests.

As concerns reason number one, the Forestry Agency contacted me the day after I returned from Philadelphia; they were eager to chat. To explain reason number two I'll briefly discuss the meeting we had yesterday.

I had met each of the two officials that came to visit me yesterday. The head of the Agematsu office (the senior of the two) I had met at a function hosted by Asahi Beer, who sponsors some forest maintenance projects in the village. The head of the local Seto-gawa office I had met previously when I went to interview him as part of my research. In our meeting the senior official did all of the talking, while his junior took notes. We sat across from each other--the two of them on one side and me on the other--in a small meeting room at the school I work at here in Otaki.

The senior official began by explaining that they were interested in hearing about my paper presentation. What seemed to be of particular interest to the official was how forests in the Kiso Valley and the Forestry Agency were perceived by other scholars in America (since I had presented at the American Anthropological Association meeting). This intrigued me. Why the concern over the "external gaze". . .perhaps the agency also feels monitored.

I explained my research a bit. I talked about forest history and changing conceptions of landscapes and the impact on local residents as actors and potential actors in arrangements of co-governance. I tried to emphasize the point that I do not think the Forestry Agency is useless, but that current governing arrangements are too lopsided and that there is room for more local involvement in forest governance. It seems to me this last part is the hard part for the Forestry Agency to swallow. I don't know for sure, but it seems to me that they are low on the governmental totem pole at this point and therefore feel threatened in their position. Again, I don't know this for sure and plan to look into it more.

The senior official next asked me if I thought that I had been misrepresented in the article that was published about me. I explained that since I am conducting research that will become a 200-300 page disseration, that yes, a 250 word article was likely a misrepresentation. However, I also suggested that I agreed with what was said in the article (the need for more local involvement in governance). The official explained to me that the Forestry Agency is also wrestling with issues of local involvement and that a 5 year plan for forests in the Matsumoto area (city about 90 kilometers north of Otaki) will include a survey of local citizens. He went on to explain that the 5 year plan for the Kiso Valley will come out a year later and will also have a similar component. "Good stuff," I thought, "but enough?"

"Hopefully you can look at those when the come out," he concluded. I told him that I'd love to and that up until now I had done most of my research about the Forestry Agency online and admitted that I had done little 'face-to-face' work, which I view as a bias in my research. He took this opportunity to explain that there are a lot of people on the ground doing forestry work and that it is hard to get a sense of it. Just as it is hard to get a sense of the history of a particular village like Otaki. He wondered if I really understood the whole system. Admittedly, I don't--no one does. . .and that's my main argument for more local involvement. All of this is too complex for any one of us to get a grasp on alone. So why leave governance and management solely up to a single agency? At this point in my notes I wrote: "Mr. ________ is trying to tell me that I don't know." I found, and find, this position quite paternalistic and see it as an attempt to control information about the agency and about forests in Otaki. I had heard this sentiment once previously, during my interview with the junior official who had told me that Forest Agency personnel know more about the forests than local people, with the implication that co-governance makes little sense.

Our meeting wrapped up soon after this. Bows and thank yous were exchanged with a slight air of awkwardness. I told the officials that I'd like to have a chance to come talk with them again and do more research. It's something I hope to do.

So, what does this little event tell us? Well. . .I don't know really. For me "monitoring" immediately came to mind and is a concept that I hope to explore further in this context. Foucault's theories of power, which I have been using to think about socio-natural environmental change here in Otaki, complicate ideas of monitoring by teasing out the subtle ways that actors are MONITORED, but also how they MONITOR themselves and each other. This is intriguing to me in that my opinions about the Forestry Agency developed partly out of conversations with local residents. However, I've yet to hear any comments about the newspaper article that prompted this meeting. Perhaps talking about such things is something that local residents don't feel willing to or capable of doing. Monitoring?

Talking about different ways of living in the environment is the first step. . .yet, perhaps the hardest.


Winnie said...

Hi Eric -
Interesting - and sort of creepy - post. I suppose the forestry agency would like to influence and control the message that goes out about their forest management - and since the information available in English is limited, you must seem, in their eyes, to have a larger-than-life role in that process. Of course they can't censor your work, so they want to win you over? I do think it is extremely valuable to meet with and talk to government officials in person - there's a lot you can't get from the web, and it can only add to the depth of your understanding. I'm curious to read about any more updates on this!

hanameizan said...

I was fascinated to read this account of forestry officials. I can understand them being particularly concerned about how they are viewed from overseas, if it might affect the annual budget they are granted, especially with the new government wielding the ax.

I wonder in what ways your local forest bureau officials are trying to attract local participation. I have seen a dramatic increase recently in the number of "forest bathing" (shinrinyoku) research papers from the FFPRI that I am asked to edit. Can you shed any light?

KenElwood said...

Eric, hisashiburi & welcome back to Japan. Ontake-san looked beautiful from the valley floor this morning.

"The official explained to me that the Forestry Agency is also wrestling with issues of local involvement and that a 5 year plan for forests in the Matsumoto area (city about 90 kilometers north of Otaki) will include a survey of local citizens. He went on to explain that the 5 year plan for the Kiso Valley will come out a year later and will also have a similar component. "Good stuff," I thought, "but enough?"

I've always thought it should be the other way around: Locals including the Forestry Agencies in their plans for the forest. But anyway, that's just a wet-dream, and recent history says it just isn't so.

I say let's hope for the best sort of forestry future that enables people to lead more satisfying lives, where “person” includes all humans and nonhumans on Earth for the foreseeable future, not just the townsfolk for the next 5 years. And by "hope" I don't just mean praying for change, but by doing something so inspirational that it positively changes both the lives of forest dwellers and townsfolk, forever.

Good work, Eric ! You are doing it. And now, like clock-work i'm sure, being monitored :-) But hey, that's how it works, eh ? I think C.W. Nicol did it right too. He voiced his opinion, got monitored, then sold a bunch of books and used the proceeds to buy up mountain land to fix, or revive.

Keeping on the topic of Japan Forestry plans, have you heard about the new 1o year plan ? I wrote about it at my blog.


Martin J Frid said...

I think if you gave them your mesihi on a previous occasion, they did the right thing by getting in touch with you after they noticed that you were doing good work (by getting published and doing the lecture). Hope they don't read this post and get the wrong impression.

By the way, I live in Hanno City in Saitama where they are currently doing a lot of local forest revitalization work. If you get a chance, do look into it, I'd love to hear what you think of their projects here.