IRIOMOTE ISLAND, Okinawa Pref. — Dubbed by some as the “Galapagos in the East,” Iriomote boasts subtropical forests, mangrove swamps and a surrounding coral reef.

Home to the rare Iriomote wildcats, the island, with its unique ecosystem, has been nominated by an Environmental Ministry committee for listing as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage candidate site.

One third of the 29,000-hectare island, which has a population of about 2,000, is a national park. The island, the second largest in the Ryukyu chain after Okinawa Island, attracted 360,000 tourists last year.

Local residents and environmental experts, however, fear their land of natural treasures is being threatened by a resort backed by big-money interests, alleging that officials looked the other way to let it get built.

Meanwhile, efforts to get court injunctions to halt construction have failed.

Opponents of the project also fault local environment protection ordinances that they feel are inadequate. The resort is not the first one built in the area — the earlier ones, however, failed.

The four-story Iriomote Sanctuary Resort Nirakanai opened for business July 1 on Todomari Beach, which is known for its “nakisuna” pristine sand. It was built by Unimat Real Estate, which is affiliated with Unimat Offisco Corp., a Tokyo-based restaurant management and office coffee service provider.

Unimat Real Estate had earlier built resort hotels and golf courses on Okinawa’s Miyako Island and Kohama Island.

The Iriomote resort for now boasts 141 rooms, but it will be further expanded into a 6.3-hectare compound that includes 19 detached units offering 98 rooms, shops and restaurants, according to Time and Tide, a Tokyo-based subcontractor of the project.

The hotel sits outside the national park in an area that for the last three decades has seen several resort projects planned but never completed.

Opponents of the latest project, specifically 414 lawsuit plaintiffs — 64 local residents and the rest nonlocals — are arguing that the resort threatens the habitats of six species of government-designated natural treasures, including the emerald dove and yellow-margined box turtles.

The area is also a feeding ground for the rare Ryukyu serpent-eagle, while 15 endangered species of fish, including the golden tank goby — found and named by Emperor Akihito — inhabit the Urauchi River, which flows into the sea by Todomari Beach.

Development of the site began in November 2002. Unimat Real Estate did not carry out an environmental impact assessment because prefectural ordinances stipulate that this procedure is only required if a project covers 20 or more hectares.

Some Iriomote residents demanded early last year that the developer halt construction and carry out a voluntary assessment, which was rejected.

Similar demands were issued later by WWF Japan, the Ichthyologic Society of Japan, the Ecological Society of Japan and the Japanese Association of Benthology.

About 100 residents of the island filed suit with the Naha District Court in March 2003, seeking a provisional order banning the construction. The court later turned it down.

Another suit was then filed seeking an injunction. The case is still pending before the Naha court.

The latter legal action has seen 414 plaintiffs, including some locals who have argued that tight island community relationships have made many other potential opponents to the resort hesitant to come forward because of their ties to people who support the project.

The opponents blame the current legal system for failing to protect the environment.

“The current environment impact assessment ordinance takes into account only the size of the area to be subject to development,” said Hiroshi Iguchi, chief attorney for the plaintiffs. “A developer should weigh the value of nature, such as Todomari Beach, before going ahead with a project.”

Iguchi added that, in a land reclamation project undertaken by the prefecture in the eastern part of the island, an environmental assessment was carried out even though the area fell short of the 20-hectare threshold.

Unimat Real Estate declined to be interviewed, referring the matter to Nansei Rakuen, which runs the Iriomote hotel. Nansei Rakuen meanwhile declined comment, saying the matter is being deliberated in court.

In a document distributed in 2002 to Iriomote residents, Unimat said it had been “invited” to develop the area by the Taketomi Municipal Government, whose administrative jurisdiction covers Iriomote. Taketomi Mayor Gen Nane, however, claimed it was Yoji Takahashi, owner of the Unimat group and president of Nansei Rakuen, who approached the town government about the plan.

In the document, Unimat explained that it hired Nansei Environmental Laboratory Inc., a third-party firm based in Okinawa, and researched the environment around the site before it began construction.

But Iguchi charged that the Unimat-hired firm merely studied what creatures inhabit the site — but not how the project would influence their environment, a step that would have been covered in a full-scale assessment.

Kinsei Ishigaki, who heads the plaintiffs’ group, said he is skeptical of Unimat’s claim.

“Since the hotel partially opened three months ago, sea turtles have not come back to Todomari Beach to lay their eggs,” he said. “The hotel is lit up until late at night. I doubt the validity of (the developer’s) research.”

Toshiyuki Suzuki, a member of the Ichthyologic Society of Japan’s natural environment protection committee, also warned that endangered fish that inhabit the Urauchi River could become extinct because of waste water from the resort.

According to Iguchi, Nansei Rakuen has promised that waste water from the hotel will be cleaned in line with local standards before it is filtered underground.

Mayor Nane acknowledged that the town gave the green light to the project without the full support of local residents, but stressed that the resort will translate into an estimated 300 million yen annual windfall.

But when pressed for a breakdown, Nane said local tax revenue from the hotel will be only 17 million yen a year and added, “I hope we will have a trickle-down effect of 300 million yen in the end.”

Locals opposing the project suspect the hotel was allowed in to cover the 950 million yen it will cost to build a new town hall on the island.

The town of Taketomi’s jurisdiction covers seven islands, the biggest of which is Iriomote. For 66 years, however, its office has been located on nearby Ishigaki, which falls under a different jurisdiction, for the sake of convenience.

Taketomi officials had been eager to move the office to their own administrative district, locals say.

Elected in 2000, Mayor Nane campaigned on a promise of accomplishing this. In 2001, he persuaded Takahashi into moving his residency registration to Taketomi.

The following year, Takahashi topped the nation’s billionaires’ list and Taketomi raked in 1.4 billion yen in his residential tax. That made up 80 percent of the town’s total income tax revenue.

Foes of the resort say attracting the resort was necessary to raise the 950 million yen needed to cover the bill for the new town hall.

A local resident filed a petition on June 5 for nullification of Takahashi’s resident registry, on grounds that he does not actually reside in the town. The local election administration commission approved the petition on June 15. Takahashi is now contesting this decision in court.

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