Protecting Forest while Promoting People’s Welfare: Experience of Iriai Forest Management in Nakatsugawa

Forest and Communities in Japan

Over 66% of the Japanese land mass is forest. For centuries, the life of Japanese has been deeply connected with and dependent upon forests. Therefore, many communities in Japan have nurtured spiritual beliefs, cultures, and a diverse range of local customs, which assured the forests to be utilized in a sustainable way. Iriai is one of such indigenous practices of community-based resource management, which is generally defined as “a system or organization where the local residents of a community (or several communities) jointly utilize and manage forests, rivers, and land of the area.” In spite of the government efforts to modernize iriai system, as it is considered incompatible with the modern property system, the iriai practices have somehow survived in Japan.

The case of Nakatsugawa is one of such examples. In Nakatsugawa, majority of the forest is still maintained and managed by the residents on “Property Ward System”, which established by the government to accommodate the iriai practices under a government structure. By creating a unique scheme of forest management, people have secured and improved their welfare as well as protecting the forest.

Nakatsugawa in Brief

Nakatsugawa is located at the foot of the Mount Iide, in northeastern Japan. The total area is 19,109 ha, 96% of which is occupied by forests. Of those forests, approximately 60 % are iriai forests that have been jointly managed by the residents for centuries.

Before 1889, there were 14 communities in Nakatsugawa area. Each of them was more or less autonomous, managing its own iriai forest. As a result of the nationwide introduction of modern municipality system in 1889, these 14 communities were merged into one municipality called “Nakatsugawa Village”, and the communities have become its sub-unit. In 1958, Nakatsugawa Village was merged again with the neighboring villages into one municipality called “Iide Town”. At present, Nakatsugawa is one of the 4 wards of Iide Town, Yamagata Prefecture, and the iriai forests are managed by the Nakatsugawa Property Ward Management Committee, which consists of the elected residents of Nakatsugawa.

The population of Nakatsugawa is 439 (151 households) in 2005. It has experienced drastic depopulation, dropping from 3450 in 1960 to 439 in 2005. The population is seriously aging as well. In 2005, the ratio of population of over 65 years old exceeds 46 %. Communities are losing their function as a basic social unit of mutual help. Some of them are even on the verge of extinction.

Facing serious depopulation, people have made great efforts to revitalize communities and local economy through various measures, including formulation of the Nakatsugawa Community Development Committee, construction and management of various facilities for eco-tourism, provision of interest-free loans to the residents for their welfare improvement, etc. Almost all these efforts are either directly or indirectly benefited from the existence of iriai forests, which have been managed by the people based on the principle of “protecting forests while promoting people’s welfare.” The basis of their sustainable iriai forest management was made in the 1920’s, by formulation of the Nakatsugawa Village Forest Management Plan.

Formulation of the Nakatsugawa Village Forest Management Plan

In Nakatsugawa, the issue of incorporation of iriai forests into the municipality forest has first emerged in 1920, with the initiative of the then Village Head, Mr. Ito. At that time, iriai forests in Nakatsugawa were seriously devastated because of haphazard deforestation, especially to meet the demand of the rapidly growing charcoal industry. With the increasing demands for wood, few communities had clear plans for sustainable iriai forest management. There were even some communities that sold their forest.

Recognizing the severity of the situation, the Village Head proposed to the villagers that iriai forests should be incorporated into the municipality forest, and should be managed with a clear and overall forest management plan, in order to achieve both forest conservation and promotion of the people’s welfare. His idea was agreed by consensus at the Village Assembly in 1920.

However, the implementation of his idea was not an easy task, as each villager and community had different interests and rights to the forests. After 5 years of discussion and negotiation, the Nakatsugawa Village Forest Management Plan, which covers 6,800 ha of the village forest, was made in 1925.

What is unique and significant in this management plan is the formulation of a concrete scheme to achieve both human welfare and forest conservation, based on precise calculations and projection of the residents’ basic needs. This Village Forest Management Plan built the very basis of the forest management in Nakatsugawa. The philosophy as well as the major schemes for achieving both people’s welfare and forest conservation has basically come down to the present.

Resent Challenge and “Common Dream” for the Future

Facing the recent challenges of depopulation and forest degradation due to the lack of appropriate forest use and care, leaders in Nakatsugawa are now looking at a possible solution in a move towards the promotion of local production and consumption of wooden pellets. The woody biomass pellet is an alternative fuel source utilizing wood (usually the sawdust of timber production). In spite of its promising role in promoting forest utilization and local energy production, the production has not yet been increased because the production still costs too much. Leaders try to overcome this difficulty by creating an integrated system of forest utilization by combining wooden pellet production with mushroom cultivation which utilizes sawdust and timber production.

According to the leaders, the system will work more efficiently if people make the most use of the “rented forest scheme” established in 1925. They calculate that 5 ha of forest is sufficient for one household to obtain enough raw pellet material to cover the costs of securing its annual pellet needs, as well as to facilitate forest regeneration without causing deforestation. It is expected that the production of wooden pellets will facilitate the rented forest scheme to function again as what was originally intended in the 1920’s; protecting forest while promoting people’s welfare.

What is more important, according to one of the leaders, is that the introduction of wooden pellets is expected to make the residents conscious again of the benefits that they receive from the surrounding forests, which has been the core of their culture and identity for long. Without such a shared consciousness or identity as residents of Nakatsugawa, it is difficult to have a “common dream” that will engine the revitalization and development of Nakatsugawa. Although many challenges are yet to be overcome, people are now trying to find a possible solution for the better future.

Report by M. Shimagami (i-i-network)

Notes: Property Ward System

Property Ward System was established at the time of the nationwide municipality merger implemented in 1889 and in the 1950’s. When the government facilitated the merger, it also facilitated the incorporation of iriai forests into the asset of a new municipality. Yet, this policy was unacceptable to most of the communities or the former municipalities. In order to facilitate the process, the government established a “Property Ward System”, by designating a community or a former municipality as a “Proper Ward”, that had a right and authority to utilize, manage, and control its iriai forest.

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