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Problematic forestry management law

An unusual thing happened in mid-May involving the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry and its subordinate body, the Forestry Agency. The Cabinet failed to approve the annual white paper on forestry at that time. It has been customary for that paper to be published together with its counterparts on agriculture and fisheries around the middle of May. This year, its Cabinet approval was delayed into June.

Although Forestry Agency officials attribute the delay to “technical reasons,” obviously they feared that an early publication of the white paper would have adverse effects on the Diet deliberations on the forestry management control law.

Since the law, which the government was in such a hurry to enact, will lead to facilitating the sale of such national assets as state-owned forests to the private sector, it is similar to the abolition of the Main Crop Seeds Law, which this publication has criticized as an act of selling off the country. Worse yet, for funding the new law will use revenue from the forestry environment tax, which is virtually a perpetual extension of the tax to help restore the areas devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.

The bill for the new law was submitted to the Diet on March 6 after being approved by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s personal advisory panels. It was enacted into law May 25, making little news in the media.

To gain early Diet approval of the bill, the farm ministry and the Forestry Agency resorted to fabricating data. In a report submitted to the Diet, the agency said that 80 percent of forest owners had low motivation to pursue their business. But the survey from which that percentage figure was drawn did not include any question on managerial motivation. One question only asked the respondents what they think of the size of the forestry business. Of the respondents, 71.5 percent replied maintaining the current size of their forest business while another 7.3 percent answered that they will scale down the size.

In the report to the Diet, the agency combined these two numbers and concluded that 80 percent of forestry owners had low motivation for their business. Business size and business motivation are two entirely different things. The agency’s report is nothing other than the fabrication of data.

For the past several years, the Forestry Agency repeatedly pointed out that there has been a sharp decline in the number of people inheriting forestry businesses from their parents and that the ownership of a growing number of forests has become unknown. It also asserted that Japanese red cedar and Japanese cypress trees, which had been planted in large numbers following the end of World War II, were reaching the right age for felling. To cope with these problems, the Liberal Democratic Party has decided to introduce in 2024 a forestry environment tax to “properly preserve forests.”

What matters is what came next: the forestry management control law. It says that forest owners have a duty to plant saplings at the right time, to ensure they grow and to fell them. In the case forests are not properly managed, the right to their management will be combined and transferred to municipalities. If the forests are likely to be profitable under integrated management, the felling and reforestation will be commissioned to “forestry managers who have both motivation and capability.”

The law stipulates that forest owners who do not agree to entrusting their ownerships to municipalities will be deemed to have agreed to transferring their ownership to the municipalities following certain procedures — a coercive provision similar to the postwar farmland reform.

The general framework of the law is a mirror image of the Abe administration’s previous action of concentrating abandoned farmland in the hands of the so-called farmland bank to integrate the plots under “motivated and capable” farmers.

This comes as no surprise. The law is the result of the enthusiasm with which Masaaki Okuhara, administrative vice agriculture minister, pushed for reform of forestry and fisheries, following the reform of agricultural cooperatives. Under his leadership, the new law was drafted with farm ministry technocrats, who thought that a revision of the Forest Law would be enough, left on the sidelines.

Forestry is a time-consuming business. It takes decades to go from planting saplings to felling mature trees. It is impossible to assess the usefulness of integrating forest business management in one go. At a time when timber prices are hovering at low levels like now, deciding not to fell trees is the proper judgment from a long-term viewpoint. The farm ministry and the Forestry Agency have deliberately taken this business strategy as a sign of willingness to abandon the forestry business. By propagating this illogical conclusion, the agency and major mass media are controlling the mind of people.

Most people concerned thought that since the law uses revenue from the forestry environment tax as funds, projects under it would promote the absorption of carbon dioxide by forests, the prevention of mudflow disasters and preservation of water resources. But a close look at the law shows that its real purpose is accelerating the commercialization of the nation’s forestry.

As in the case of the abolition of the seeds law, the forestry management control law was enacted with the opposition parties lacking a full understanding of its aim. Forest owners are given a heavy responsibility. The volume of felled trees will increase, keeping them busy. But timber prices will inevitably go down. Those who benefit from this practice are “downstream” businesses such as timber processors, housing construction industry, biomass power generators and timber exporters. This fits in perfectly with the Abe administration’s pet policy of serving the interests of big business.

At a meeting on future investment policies on May 17, Abe stressed the importance of the new forestry law by saying that forestry should play a key role in revitalizing regional economies and that, therefore, the scale of the forestry business must be enlarged vigorously. He then told the agriculture and forestry minister to prepare yet another legislative measure to push integration of forests by enabling large-scale forestry business management including in some of the state-owned forests.

Abe’s words point to the likelihood of the Law Concerning Utilization of National Forest Land being amended for the worse next year, with the aim of enabling private companies to use the forestry resources owned by the government. Combined with the forestry management control law, this will only accelerate the piecemeal sale of the national wealth to the private sector.

What measures are available to cope with the new forestry law, which has already been enacted? The best hope lies in resistance from local governments, as has been the case since the seeds law was abolished. As soon as the new forestry law takes effect, forest owners and municipalities should file administrative litigation. At the stage of drafting, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau raised a concern that the law may run counter to the constitutionally guaranteed right to private ownership and the Civil Code. There is a good chance of the law being held unconstitutional. The opposition parties for their part should introduce a bill to abrogate the law.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the June issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. More English articles can be read at www.sentaku-en.com