Friday, May 22, 2009

Some of the Answers to the Future are in the Past

This morning I read a document written on the occasion of the 2009 International Day For Biological Diversity. It was written in Tokyo by Mr. Ahmed Djoghlaf, the Executive Secretary of the Convention On Biological Diversity. The article represents the perspective of the Japanese.

The document is available here:

It started out very eloquently. Mr. Djoghlaf wrote,
The Japanese have long appreciated the importance of nature. Nowhere is this more reflected than in the ancient practice of satoyama. Local agricultural communities and villages have been at the heart of Japan’s land-management techniques throughout much of its history, carefully preserving the forests that provided them with both wood and fertilizer in the form of leaves. Over time, satoyama has been applied to larger areas of forests, grasslands, streams and ponds, dry rice fields and rice paddies, and so has become a much praised model for the sustainable use of our biological resources.

I had never heard of satoyama before today, so I looked it up.
I found out that in Japan satoyama is very important historically and ecologically.
Satoyama (里山), whose literal meaning is Sato (里), “arable and livable land” or “home land”, and yama (山), meaning mountain, has been developed from centuries of small scale agricultural and forestry use. I also learned that these farming practices can also enhance biodiversity, if properly maintained by human activities.

The concept of satoyama has several definitions. The first definition is the management of forests through local agricultural communities. During the Edo era (running from about 1603 to 1868), young and fallen leaves were gathered from community forests to use as fertilizer in wet rice paddy fields. Villagers also used wood for construction, cooking and heating. More recently, satoyama has been defined not only as mixed community forests, but also as entire landscapes that are used for agriculture.

Various habitat types for wildlife have been provided by mixed satoyama landscape as a result of this Japanese traditional agricultural system. They system actually facilitates the movement of wildlife between a variety of habitats, and because of these ecosystems a rich biodiversity in the Japanese rural area has been maintained. Interestingly, it is the very disturbance of forests by humans -- such as harvesting trees for timber and charcoal, cutting shrubs for firewood and collecting litter as compost -– that has helped in the success of the satoyama ecosystems.

Yet satoyama have been disappearing in Japan due to the drastic shift in natural resources away from charcoal and firewood toward the use of oil, and the change from compost to chemical fertilizers. Importantly, the population decline of villages is considered a significant driving factor in the disappearance of satoyama from Japanese mountains.

The depopulation of villages has occurred because of recent economic events which have created significant social and economic gaps between people in modern cities and mountain villages. As a consequence, there are fewer people who can work in satoyama.

Understanding Japan

The Japanese understand how man and nature need each other and can thrive together. There are more than 500 environmental groups that are working for the conservation of satoyama in Japan, yet the main challenge for satoyama conservation today is rural depopulation.

For the Japanese, art and aesthetics are integrated within their daily life. They have an emphasis on process rather than product. They also do not separate art and aesthetics from ethics, religion, and daily life. There is an overlap with all other philosophies such as environmental ethics, ethics, and philosophy of the person.

Japan and Asia are of rapidly increasing importance in the world, so that from the point of view of self-interest, it behooves us to learn about them and what they know. Japan is completely different than China or Korea or any other Asian country and culture. Japanese culture is probably as different from our culture (however you define it) as a culture can be, and is almost as different from the other Asian cultures as it is from ours.

The paradox is that in spite of these worlds of difference, even for people from entirely different cultural backgrounds, when one works with the Japanese and one strives to learn and understand Japanese art and aesthetics, one can make connections. There will almost always be something you can find in common – something you can fall in love with.

And while Japanese culture is far from monolithic or uniform and most people find at least some of it infuriating or incomprehensible, there is so much that is compelling, and in so many different ways, that -- provided you strive to learn something from them -- you will come away in love with it.

If you spend the time to learn something new from them they will respect you, provided you never make the mistake of thinking you already know everything there is to know about a certain subject.

Back to the problem of the satoyama

The problem of rural depopulation is a difficult one to overcome. One of The most important things we can do is to make farming a more attractive job. Another important thing is to provide stable incomes for farmers.

Could the development and creation of an international Biochar industry actually help with the plight of the satoyama in Japan, by helping to secure these two critical conditions? Could it in fact lead to more people returning to the land... more farmers; with the consequent restoration of the satoyama? Could it in fact lead to the revival of a dying aspect of Japanese cultural and ecological history?

But more than this, could Japan's satoyama teach the rest of the world about what can be done? By utilizing the concepts of satoyama in the promotion and use of Biochar around the world, we have a chance to teach the world about how to achieve true sustainability.

Japan deserves to be known and understood in its own right because the use of charcoal in soils is not something new to the Japanese, who have been using charcoal in soils for thousands of years. They have different views of originality and obsolescence. Could ancient Japanese traditions teach the rest of the world about how to achieve a sustainable world?

Has the time come for Japan to shine again on the world stage?

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