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Home » Archives » June 2007 » Japan Empowers Forests

Japan Empowers Forests

Tuesday, June 5, 2007 Posted: 03:58 PM JST

(by Nobuko Saigusa) - Kochi Prefecture in western Japan is the prefecture with the largest forest area in Japan. Forests here account for 84 percent of land area. It is therefore no surprise that this prefecture maintains a unique and assertive forest conservation program that is now being studied as a model by prefectures all over Japan.

Kochi Prefecture is located at the south of Shikoku Island, which comprises four prefectures, and is located southwest of Honshu Island across the Seto Inland Sea. Kochi has a long coastline facing the Pacific Ocean. The Shimanto River, known as the last pristine river in Japan, runs through the prefecture. Kochi is also famous for some training sites of professional baseball teams due to its mild weather in winter.

About 60 percent of Kochi forests are planted forests, most of which were created in the 1960s, a period of rapid economic growth in Japan. As a result, many of the planted trees are now over 40 to 60 years old, and based on the normal cutting cycle, logging operations should begin soon to cut these trees for use as lumber. However, because of a flood of imports of low-priced lumber, domestic lumber prices have been low since around 1970. The Japanese domestic forest industry has been in a state of decline, with its workforce shrinking to a quarter of its original size in about 30 years. This labor shortage has posed problems for forest management, resulting in forest degradation.

Such problems are not unique to Kochi Prefecture; they are common to every prefecture involved in the forest industry. Since most Japanese forests grow on steep slopes, a large amount of labor and special techniques are necessary to cut the trees and transport the timber. These special demands and the current difficulties in meeting them are among the reasons for the ongoing decline of Japan's forests. In the absence of good strategies, Japanese forests will deteriorate further. Various prefectures have taken various steps to address the problems, but Kochi's approach was to collaborate with companies.

Driven by the desire to restore its forests, Kochi began to ask for the support and cooperation of companies. This initiative was conducted by a special team in the prefecture's Department of Culture and Environment, which was originally established to promote an emissions trading system in response to the election pledge of the prefectural governor, Daijiro Hashimoto in 2004 and the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol in 2005.

Unfortunately the establishment of an emissions trading system in Japan has been postponed for future discussions. Therefore, the leader of the special team, Mr. Toshiyuki Ichihara, decided to place an emphasis on forest maintenance by shifting the team's basic focus to corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, with a view to the eventual creation of an emissions trading system. He also renamed the team as the Team to Promote Collaborative Forest Restoration.

Collaborative Forest Restoration is a program to explore the possibilities of environmental businesses in terms of corporate social and environmental contributions and new types of social services and programs utilizing forests in Kochi Prefecture. In a policy consultation in August 2005, it was decided that the program's orientation would be to organize programs mainly related to the role of forests in absorbing carbon dioxide, and the official program name was finalized as Collaborative Forest Restoration with Environmentally Progressive Companies. Mr. Ichihara wasted no time in making visits to companies with handmade leaflets. That was the beginning of the call for corporations in various parts of Japan to participate in forest restoration projects in Kochi.

"That's when the challenges really began," recalls Mr. Ichihara. "When we started visiting companies, the first thing we had to do was to explain what tree thinning means. Then, we had to explain why it was the forests in Kochi Prefecture that needed their attention, and that was very difficult." Now he looks back those days with a sense of humor, saying he tackled this task with a mindset of "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," yet the way he speaks about those days suggests that his team went through some difficulties back then. Although Mr. Ichihara and his team received some negative comments like "Kochi is too far away for my company to be concerned," they continued visiting companies to ask for cooperation and look for ideas for products using wood produced by forest management operations.

The first step in the actual program is to sign a partnership contract between a participating company, the Kochi prefectural government and the local municipality that has jurisdiction over the forest to be restored. The basic components of such a contract include identification of the forest area to be restored, the amount of funds to be paid for forest restoration activities, and an agreement to promote interactions between the partner company and the local community. The funds from a company are to be used for forest maintenance and environmental education. In return, the Kochi prefectural government offers the company the right to use the logo of Forest Power, publicity on the company's environmental efforts, an annual report on the program activities, and support to organize the company's activities utilizing a forest in Kochi by involving the local community and organizations, and the forest itself.

The agreement does not specify how a partner company should utilize Forest Power programs or collaborate with the prefectural and municipal governments. Kochi Prefecture chose not to have a set of rules written out clearly but opted instead to customize each agreement through discussions with partner companies, since they have different backgrounds, situations and expectations.

"Become a partner in restoring the great power of forests" is the message printed along a big Forest Power logo on a leaflet that explains the program details. Forests serve as carbon sinks to alleviate global warming. For people in Kochi Prefecture, forests also supported their daily life and economy.

The guiding philosophies behind the entire effort are that the forests must be restored, that forests planted by people can be restored by people, that restored forests will also invigorate both the natural environment and people's lives, and that ultimately, rescuing forests will also rescue humans. The motto of Forest Power, "People help forests. Forests help people," reflects the strong commitment of Kochi Prefecture to address forest issues.

The first cooperative agreement was concluded in May 2006 with Mitsui & Co., one of Japan's leading trading companies. Subsequently, Kirin Brewery Co., Electric Power Development Co., Shikoku Electric Power Co., Japan Tobacco Inc., and Sompo Japan Insurance Inc., etc. also joined as partners. As of the end of May 2007, 16 enterprises had signed the agreement, and the total forest area under reforestation projects stood at about 1,000 hectares. Restoration activities started at each of the targeted forests, and interactions between partner entities and local people have also been promoted through practical experiences, such as hands-on forest management tours. Local people say they are glad that interacting with people from other areas will help reinvigorate their region and will also help senior citizens--many of whom live in rural mountain valleys--have a purpose in life.

In July 2007, the Kochi prefectural government will start issuing a "CO2 sink certificate" in return for the partnership agreement. The government will calculate the amount of CO2 absorbed as a result of forest maintenance work, such as forest thinning, and issue the certificates to the companies involved. Kochi expects that these certificates will help companies understand the advantages of the partnership more clearly.

In fiscal 2003, ahead of other prefectures, Kochi Prefecture also introduced a "forest environment tax". Under this tax system, citizens and companies pay an extra 500 yen (U.S. $4.2) on their prefectural residents' tax. The aim is to have taxpayers, both corporations and individuals, bear the costs of protecting forests. The tax revenues are mainly used for forestry promotion projects with participation from citizens, and for urgent forest protection projects. Using the tax revenues, a total of about 22.43 million square meters of forests were thinned over a four-year period, from fiscal 2003 through 2006.

To encourage prefectural citizens to be more involved in forests, Kochi is making various efforts, such as designating November 11 each year as "Mountain Day in Kochi," supporting the annual event for the day, operating green tourism in forests, and establishing hands-on experience programs. To this end, it also helps to train people and organizations and grants subsidies. An opinion survey has shown that these efforts have helped raise citizen awareness and attention toward the forested mountains.

In Japan, similar forest problems are occurring nationwide, so Kochi's efforts are gaining attention from other prefectures. Modeled after Kochi's forest environment tax, 16 prefectures have introduced a similar kind of tax as of the end of fiscal 2006, three prefectures have decided to introduce it in fiscal 2007 or later, and 22 prefectures are considering introduction of such a tax, according to a survey conducted by Kochi Prefecture in August 2006. Now Mr. Ichihara has an even bigger dream. He hopes to connect the partner enterprises with each other so that people-to-people relationships established through Kochi's program can be expanded from the local level to the national level.

First published in May 2007 by Japan for Sustainability (JFS). Many thanks to JFS for their kind permission to reprint the article at iKjeld.com.

Keywords: special_report

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