Battle lines drawn across Nagoya land

Loss of 'satoyama' risks loss of face ahead of biodiversity summit

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — Home to a biologically diverse “satoyama” ecosystem, a Nagoya land tract is at the center of a struggle between the owners who want to develop it and local citizens who want it preserved to demonstrate environmental responsibility.

Nagoya will host a U.N. biodiversity conference in October, and the central government at that time will push its “Satoyama Initiative” to promote protection worldwide of natural habitats from urbanization. Thus if the site comes under development, this would be a major embarrassment.

Satoyama, literally “livable mountain,” traditionally refers to forested areas among small farm communities that help in the sustainable management of ecosystem diversity.

Under the satoyama method, farmers cut and plant trees in a way that maintains a rich forest environment, and the paddies they created as a result provided habitats for birds, frogs, fish and other life. But with the rapid postwar modernization, many so-called satoyama sites have been lost to development.

The Nagoya plot, known as the Hirabari satoyama, is a roughly 5-hectare miniature ecosystem in Tenbaku Ward. With four small unpolluted lakes, a wetland, three terraced rice paddies, and a broadleaf forest with plum and persimmon trees, it is one of the last such sites in the city.

“Between 1999 and 2005, Nagoya set aside 420 hectares of greenery, while 1,643 hectares were lost, often to development, during that same period,” said Nobuko Fujioka, a member of the Hirabari Satoyama Conservancy, which is trying to save the Tenbaku Ward site from development.

“While there are laws for protecting national parks and wilderness areas, it’s tough to protect an ordinary living mountain,” she said.

Surveys carried out last year by the Japanese Society of Limnology revealed one of the lakes thrives with Japanese rice fish, which are on the Environment Ministry’s red list of endangered species.

Despite a campaign that netted over 30,000 signatures, and the support of Academy Award-winning “anime” animation director Hayao Miyazaki to save the Hirabari tract from the bulldozers, the city and the owners failed to agree on a price that would have turned the land over to Nagoya for preservation.

Mayor Takashi Kawamura, who had campaigned to preserve the land as a symbol of the U.N. COP10 biodiversity conference this October and withheld permission while negotiations continued, reversed his stance in late December for reasons that are still unclear, and for which activists say they may pursue in court later this year.

But even after he granted approval, Kawamura warned that developing the site would embarrass Nagoya and Japan in the eyes of the world at COP10, which is expected draw 7,000 U.N. delegates, nongovernmental organizations and international media.

The embarrassment will be particularly acute because Tokyo is pushing the traditional woodland-rural landscape management — the Satoyama Initiative — as a model for global preservation of biological diversity.

“Can we allow Nagoya to be shamed by Hirabari’s development? The Environment Ministry has stated that, at COP10, Japan will present the Satoyama Initiative. Yet we in Nagoya are going to exploit Hirabari,” Kawamura told reporters in mid-February.

“There is nothing more shameful than this, not only for Nagoya but also for Japan,” he said.

Hirabari’s story begins in 2008, when the land was bought by developers after the farmer who owned the tract died.

Last April, one day before Kawamura, who was supported by the Democratic Party of Japan and had indicated he might oppose Hirabari’s development, assumed office, the developers applied to build a housing complex. It was later revealed they wanted to change the original plan to also allow a private school to build facilities on the site.

“The previous mayor, who was supported by the Liberal Democratic Party, as well as Nagoya city officials responsible for handling the application were close to one of the developers. The developers and city officials who supported the project likely worried what Kawamura’s victory would mean for the plans,” said Hiroaki Somiya, a Nagoya University professor.

Kawamura, after being briefed by Somiya, agreed to hold off on granting approval to the developers and instead tried to get them to sell the property to city.

The developers were willing to sell, but their asking price of ¥2.8 billion was well above the ¥1.95 billion Nagoya was prepared to pay and well above what conservationists believed the land was worth.

“We never got a clear explanation from the developers as to why they were asking for so much, or proof it was worth that much,” said Fujioka of the conservancy group.

As Kawamura and the developers continued negotiations through last summer, those fighting to protect the site stepped up their public relations campaign. In July, Hayao Miyazaki, who is involved in protecting forests in other parts of Japan, sent a letter of support and the conservationists announced they had collected more than 30,000 signatures calling for the land’s preservation.

Last fall, with COP10 about a year away and following the launch of the DPJ-led government and its Satoyama Initiative, Kawamura declared Hirabari was the symbol of the new government’s commitment to the preservation concept.

By this time, the developers were asking ¥2.5 billion, and Kawamura was calling on the Environment Ministry as well as local business group, including the Nagoya Chamber of Commerce, for financial support for not only COP10 but also for the land tract.

But while economic groups spent huge sums on local support for COP10, they declined to help purchase Hirabari. The mayor blamed the poor economy on the lack of corporate sponsorship. But Fujioka said there were probably other reasons.

“Many in the business community who give donations prefer general donations and don’t want to get involved in specific cases,” she said.

Nor could the mayor or activists find appropriate national or local environmental laws or regulations that might be able to block development.

There are virtually no city ordinances for establishing green zones within Nagoya’s commercial areas of the kind found even in Tokyo or the Kansai region. And while local developers are required to carry out environmental assessments before permission is granted, this only applies to tracts exceeding 10 hectares, or twice the size of Hirabari.

Catherine Knight, a New Zealand-based environmental policy analyst and an expert on Japan’s environmental history, said neither Japan’s local governments nor the Environment Ministry have sufficient regulatory power to protect natural habitats like a satoyama, which, in any case, is not a legal concept.

“Satoyama is extremely difficult to define and not a legal designation. Once permission to develop private land has been obtained from the local government, and as long as the developer remains within the conditions of the consent, I suspect they’d be able to do what they like,” she said in an interview with The Japan Times.

Yet despite the mayor’s approval, it’s still unclear when the bulldozers and backhoes will enter the site.

At the moment, the land remains untouched, while Somiya, Fujioka and others seek ways to keep it that way. They are considering suing the city, arguing granting approval was illegal because the city failed to probe where old, long unused and buried but still officially public roads at the site might be located before giving the OK.

“These were once city roads and, technically, there has to be an investigation as to how they’d be changed by development. But it will be quite difficult to win the suit on that argument,” said Seiji Fujikawa, a Nagoya-based lawyer involved in environmental issues.