The importance of conserving forests

Forests play a vital role in preventing global warming and building sustainable societies. So the need to protect and develop them can never be stressed enough. Japan’s substantial forests make it a notable example. In brief, that is the message of the government report on forests and forestry released last week.

The white paper, the first to be prepared under the Forest and Forestry Basic Law that took effect last July, points out various problems, including financial ones, that stand in the way of forest conservation. The government has its work cut out: fleshing out the basic program approved by the Cabinet last October.

Forests have a variety of functions, including land conservation, securing of water sources, control of climate change, and creation of natural environs essential to human existence. The law gives new value to these “multifunctional” forests with a view to achieving harmony between them and society.

There is a hard lesson to be learned from Japan’s forestry administration in the postwar period. The government applied a rigid policy to developing forestry as an industry. As a result, domestic logs lost in the price competition with imported logs. The deficit has widened, pushing forest owners and forestry associations to the brink of bankruptcy. They are so depressed, it is said, they cannot perform even the basic task of thinning out their stands of trees.

According to the report, domestic log prices have dropped to one-third of their peak of 30 years ago. The average annual income from forestry was only 260,000 yen in fiscal 2000. Forests cover 70 percent of the land, one of the highest rates among the developed countries. But imported logs account for 80 percent of the domestic demand, making Japan the world’s third-largest log importer.

Recent studies prove, scientifically and economically, how important forests are. Of their various functions, those that can be measured in monetary value are worth 70 trillion yen, the report estimates. Reducing the burden on the environment and building a recycling-oriented society requires a well-defined policy focus on the utilization of domestic forests.

The relationship between forest conservation and global warming deserves special attention, given forests’ great role as an absorber of carbon dioxide. Under the Kyoto treaty on climate change Japan is committed to cut emissions by 6 percent from the 1990 level in the five years between 2008 and 2012. More than half that deduction, 3.9 percent, is to be achieved through forest absorption.

The Forestry Agency, however, believes the 3.9 percent target will be impossible to achieve even if forest development is promoted at the current pace. Actual figures, it says, will probably miss the mark by a wide margin. So the pace needs to be accelerated. In the long run, it is probably also necessary to introduce a carbon tax or a water-source tax, for example, because large-scale government spending is considered unavoidable.

However, the tax approach to the global warming issue — an issue that requires many years of patient efforts — is taking a back seat to immediate concerns, such as tax cuts for economic recovery and tax increases for fiscal reform. This is evident from discussions at the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy and the Tax Commission.

The report, referring to “tree culture,” raises new possibilities for the mountain villages that saw their populations dwindle during the economy’s rapid expansion. These depopulated areas, it says, “can set future models for efforts to create a recycling-capable society.” That is a promising prospect indeed.

The report rightly says that forestry should be seen as culture, not just as an industrial sector, and that forestlands should be treated as an integral part of human activity. This is a welcome attempt to rejuvenate these heretofore neglected regions through exchanges with cities.

Forest conservation is also essential to wildlife protection. The latest conference on the biodiversity treaty in The Hague urged governments to take protective measures by 2010. Japan needs to bolster domestic efforts under the forestry conservation program adopted by the conference.

The government should also improve the vertically divided administrative system so it can take an integrated approach to forestry development, environmental protection and tax reform. Another challenge is to set rules for the shared roles between the central and local governments, and between private companies and volunteer groups. Reviving forests and villages is a grand undertaking that requires the long-term, broad-gauged participation of communities and people across the country.