Kinkasan Island near Minamisanriku.
TEXT: Adam Fulford
Our story starts in the forests of Minamisanriku, one of the communities devastated by the tsunami following the massive earthquake in 2011.
Sugi, in this part of Japan, grow straight and tall, and the wood inside is dense. You get great timber from these trees. But for that to happen, you need to take good care of the forest. What condition is best for the trees? Sato Taiichi, a local forest manager, surprised me with his answer: forest with dense undergrowth is healthy, he said.
What you want for your trees is good soil, which requires multiple inputs, including decomposing plants and leaves, as well as bird and animal droppings. Where there’s little undergrowth, the supply of plants and leaves is weak, and there are few creatures to leave droppings. Undergrowth helps to prevent soil rich in nutrients from being washed away by rain, and the diverse plants that make up the undergrowth contribute to the soil in various ways.
If too many trees occupy a given space, the light available to each tree for photosynthesis will be limited, and healthy growth will not be possible. Also, the treetops will intercept most of the light, leaving little to nurture the undergrowth on the forest floor. So the trees need to be thinned out, but the amount of wood produced is more or less unaffected, and it is a higher quality product.
Since 2011, thinking like this, which reflects a deeper understanding of various connections, has been spreading as Minamisanriku strives to become a more resilient community.
The head of a local fishery union, Abe Fujio, recalls how difficult it once was for just a few fishermen to see eye to eye. There was one thing in particular that he wanted them to agree to do: stop over-farming the local oyster beds.
After the tsunami swept away all the oyster beds, government funds were made available to get the farms back in business, but there was one important condition: you must cooperate. Abe-san probably still can’t quite believe what happened next: dozens of fiercely independent people started working together to rebuild the oyster beds.
Once the lines were spaced farther apart, the oysters became not only bigger but better. These days they are ranked among the very best in Miyagi. Better still, the new production method has won acclaim. This year, the oyster farm of Togura in Minamisanriku earned Japan’s very first ASC Aquaculture Certification: international recognition of responsible aquaculture.
But it gets better. Minamisanriku also has FSC-certified forests—including those managed by Sato-san. These international certifications are extremely tough to earn, and they are only made available after strict evaluations. Both the FSC and ASC inspections in Minamisanriku were performed by a company that is playing an increasingly important role in building sustainable hope for Minamisanriku: AMITA CORPORATION.
AMITA is part of the AMITA Group, a Kyoto-based enterprise that aims to design the future. Full disclosure: Eisuke Kumano, Chairman and CEO of AMITA HOLDINGS Co., Ltd, is known to me personally. But it was precisely because of this close association that I leapt at the chance to visit Minamisanriku and see what the company has been doing there, guided by AMITA employees.
Quite far apart from certification-related activities, in partnership with the town authorities AMITA recently completed and is now operating a groundbreaking new facility: a biogas plant. The inputs to the plant include sewage and raw garbage. The ultimate outputs include electricity and liquid fertilizer. The benefits include not only reduced waste-processing costs in the long term, but also a new way for local residents to think about themselves and their community, because it is waste from their homes that is being fed into the new facility. Their waste is being put to good use for their town.
The individual beneficiaries include Abe Katsuyoshi, who has been using liquid fertilizer from the biogas plant on his crops. Not only does he get a better yield of negi or rice, for example, the liquid fertilizer is much cheaper than the conventional artificial fertilizer that he would otherwise be using.
But fertilizer is only one part of a bigger picture, with many connected parts, that is coming into focus for local residents. A healthy forest will release a good volume of healthy water into the rivers. That water will nourish crops downstream, then contribute to the healthy growth of oysters and other marine resources in the bay. And after those tasty items have been consumed by the local population, the waste they produce will boost the yields in local fields.
Minamisanriku is writing the first pages of an intriguing new story that is paving the way for people all over Japan and around the world. As explained by Takahashi Kazukiyo, the person in charge of local industrial promotion, this is a story about the whole community feeling happy about investing in a happy future for the whole community.
It is also a story that Minamisanriku would love to share with the world, because the world means so much to Minamisanriku. Even before the disaster, the town was known for a warm welcome and a very large number of family-style lodgings. Since the disaster, the town has received a great deal of support from the international community. And now Minamisanriku is eager to start giving back.
I urge you to go to Minamisanriku and see the community’s value for yourself. Don’t miss this great chance to be part of a story of hope and happiness!