HIKONE, Shiga Pref. — Rooftop solar panels provide energy and heat water. Rainwater is collected and used for washing and toilets. Kitchen waste and leaves are composted into fertilizers for crops. People work on farms and community businesses.
This is the Utopian “eco-village” that a group in Shiga Prefecture hopes to create on a 14.88-hectare area of farmland in Omihachiman, incorporating about 200 households, businesses and research, educational and welfare facilities that will provide jobs and services.
Construction is scheduled to begin in 2005, according to Ecomura Networking, whose members consist of 43 companies, seven organizations including municipalities and nonprofit and business groups, and 56 individuals. In addition, about 50 volunteer workers, mostly university students, support the project.
Individual members range from university professors and co-op officials to advisers on consumer issues and local residents.
Corporate members include Shiga Bank Ltd. and local branches of Kansai Electric Power Co. and NTT West, as well as area construction firms and building materials suppliers.
“We aim to build a community that will be a model for the future, both ecologically and socially,” said Takaaki Niren, a professor of environmental science at the University of Shiga Prefecture and head of the organization.
“Environment-friendly lifestyles and social systems can be best achieved in a small community created by those who share the same ideas,” he said.
Eco-villages in Europe and the United States are defined as communities where people strive for a supportive social environment with a low-impact way of life, including environmentally friendly ways of production, alternative energy use and “permaculture,” a term coined for sustainable human environments that combines the words permanent, agriculture and culture, according to Global Ecovillage Network, a Denmark-based group supporting eco-villages worldwide.
Some of the U.S. and European eco-villages trace their roots to the hippie movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Although communal, largely closed communities exist in Japan, the Shiga project is perhaps the first time people from so many different backgrounds have become involved, Ecomura Networking members said.
One characteristic of the organization is that it has many members from the business world, unlike eco-villages in other countries. Niren attributes this partly to the strong interest many businesspeople in the prefecture have in environmental issues.
“Since Shiga Prefecture has few special features that are well known nationwide besides Lake Biwa, both local businesses and administrators believe promoting environment-related projects is the only thing they can do to draw public attention to the prefecture,” Niren said, citing as an example Shiga’s environment-related business fair, held each year since 1998.
Niren said he actually came up with the idea of creating an eco-village while talking with a businessman who expressed hope that a community could be created where environment-friendly technologies and business models could work together.
“Joining this project is beneficial for businesses, since they can develop and experiment new (environment-friendly) technologies in a real community,” he said.
Ecomura Networking has spent the last two years holding workshops, seminars and forums, as well as conducting research and sharing ideas. Its members hope the project will pick up speed when the group forms a company in April to obtain land for the site.
The plot was abandoned by a group of firms after their plan to build factories for processing farm products failed, and is now in the hands of a bank whose loans for that project went sour.
Starting in April, Ecomura members will hold various workshops to talk over concrete issues, including energy, water supply and agriculture production, at the planned community.
Those hoping to take up residence there will start holding discussions on ways to live in the model community.
Niren said he does not want to rush to complete the project, because it is important for the people involved to take time and contemplate the process of its creation.
Although the project seems to be making smooth progress, Niren expects hurdles ahead, including problems involving regulations and administrative directives when, for instance, eco-friendly structures are built.
A major headache, he said, will be raising funds. The final cost of the project may reach 10 billion yen.
Niren said funding by local governments and corporate sponsors will be needed, adding that the creation of a contribution fund is also being considered because it is vital to involve as many people as possible.
But he is optimistic, as more people than he had originally anticipated have expressed interest in and support for the project. Niren believes this is because the project gives hope to the participants that they can change their way of life through their own efforts.
“People are encouraged by the thought that they can create a community they want to live in,” Niren said. “Although people think that it is impossible to change the nation, if several such communities are created throughout Japan, our efforts can bring about change.”
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