Reclamation claims Isahaya ecosystem

ISAHAYA, Nagasaki Pref. — As far as the eye can see, cracks running through dried soil have taken over what was a resource-rich wetland only 50 days ago.

The tideland in Isahaya Bay, known worldwide for its ecodiversity, is disappearing under a controversial reclamation project promoted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and supported by the prefectural government.

Controversial because it appears to serve no purpose.

Work entered another phase April 14 when a 1.2-km stretch of a 7-km embankment cutting across the bay was finally closed by a wall of floodgates despite vehement local protests. “About 25 years of our conservation efforts suffered a major setback when that ‘guillotine’ fell onto the water,” said Hirofumi Yamashita, 63, head of Japan Wetland Action Network, a local citizens’ group. “As long as the gates block the flow of seawater, the marine life inside the closed area has no chance of survival.”

Under the Isahaya Bay reclamation project, about 1,500 hectares inside the 3,550-hectare enclosure will be filled in by 2000. Although the total cost of the work is currently estimated at 237 billion yen, double the original projection in 1986, experts say it will rise.

The agriculture ministry, which is responsible for the project, believes most local residents are in favor of it. “The reclamation project has long been urged by local needs,” Agriculture Minister Takao Fujinami told reporters recently. “The current ecosystem may disappear, but nature will create another one.”

The project, however, is not so much a local dream come true but more the product of a longtime struggle between townspeople supporting the plan and those opposing it. The original concept dates back to 1952 when rice was in chronically short supply in early postwar Japan and there was a national priority to increase yields. Although the project was aborted twice, in 1970 and 1982, due to local opposition, it finally obtained official approval in 1986 under a new banner: managing the seasonal floods that had long plagued the area.

Isahaya, a city with a population of 90,000, suffered disastrous floods every time it was lashed by summer’s heavy rains. The heaviest toll was recorded in 1957 when 760 lives were lost after downpours continued for days. “Here in Isahaya, flood management has been a magic phrase since that catastrophe,” local resident Masayuki Takayama said. “There is an atmosphere here that will allow any public works project only if it is said to contribute to flood management.”

Although the project seems to have enough local support, Takayama said, the fact is that local residents who are skeptical of it are reluctant to speak up and oppose it for fear of being ostracized in their neighborhood. Yamashita, from the action network, however, is uncompromising when he talks about the project’s “absurdity.”

“Regarding agriculture, what the authorities say contradicts what they do,” he said. “They are the same officials who are urging farmers under a national policy not to produce excessively in case prices fall.

“According to my estimate, it would cost a typical farmer roughly 100 million yen to open a farm on the land to be reclaimed. Who can afford such an amount under the current economic situation?”

In fact, neither the authorities nor local farmers who support the project are sure about the specific use of the land to be reclaimed. Tsuyoshi Hishinuma, chief of the ministry’s Kyushu Regional Agricultural Administration Office, told reporters the project is intended to create new farmland, but he failed to explain how it will be used.