A Year After Tragedy, Can Japan Build a More Sustainable Society?

On March 11, 2011, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami that obliterated entire towns, claimed thousands of lives and led to a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan. One year later, CI-Japan’s Yoji Natori reflects on how the country’s people — and environment — are recovering.

Cherry blossoms in Tokyo. (© Olivier Langrand)

Q: It’s been a year since a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan. How has the country changed since before the tsunami?

A: One year is too short to recover from the catastrophe in which so many lives were lost. I don’t know that we can ever fully recover. The earthquake and tsunami disaster is compounded by the nuclear power plant accident. Hundreds of thousands of people are still living away from their homes and communities due to destruction and nuclear pollution.

Since the disaster, there has been much discussion against nuclear power plants and promotion of renewable or “natural” energy generation. However, we have to be careful that nature-based power generation sources — such as solar, wind, geothermal and biofuel — do not cause irreversible damage to the natural environment. Pursuit of convenience should not come at the expense of natural ecosystems.

I hear a lot about converting to natural power sources. I hear much less about reducing energy use. After the power plant incident, people made great efforts to minimize energy use; however, these efforts have largely faded away. Reducing our energy footprint should be a priority for our society.

This is not just an issue for the areas affected by the tsunami, but a challenge that the entire country has to face and tackle. There is no question that the March 11 incident was a tragedy, but in another sense it has presented us with an opportunity to seriously consider the problem and start taking actions toward a more sustainable future.

Q: How did the tsunami impact Japan’s ecosystems, and how have they recovered — or not — since then?

A: The coastal environment and plains were affected by the tsunami and the debris it created. Agriculture was a major form of land use in the region, and among the hardest hit. It will take a long time for these environments to be restored.

Last year, CI-Japan released a list of Japanese key biodiversity areas (KBAs), some of which were most certainly affected by the tsunami. We have not conducted surveys to document the impacts ourselves, but according to local researchers, forest ecosystems are mostly intact.

Again, those in coastal regions and river mouths are much more severely affected, but there are also stories of recovery. For example, the oyster farm of Shigeatsu Hatakeyama — who received a Forest Heroes Award from the U.N. Forum on Forests last month — demonstrates the positive impact that intact forests can have on the resilience of coastal ecosystems.

Q: At the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Nagoya in 2010, a number of partners — including CI — launched the Satoyama Initiative to conserve biodiversity in human-influenced landscapes. What is the status of this initiative?

A: The International Partnership for Satoyama Initiative (IPSI) now includes 105 members and counting. The second global conference of IPSI will be held next week in Nairobi. I will co-facilitate one of the three working groups and discuss with international participants how the Satoyama Initiative can contribute to a green economy in Japan — including in areas affected by the tsunami.

In all corners of the world, there are cases of harmonious coexistence between humans and nature. But in our modern world, this human-nature relationship is changing; some people are finding solutions while others are facing difficulties. At this meeting, we will share lessons learned, discuss innovative solutions and produce action plans to revitalize local communities. I hope the outcomes of this conference will bring insights that will help the restoration challenges in the areas impacted by the tsunami.

Q: In the wake of the tsunami’s impact, why is it so important for Japan to protect and restore healthy ecosystems?

A: Faced with disasters of this magnitude, I do not pretend that natural ecosystems — or human measures to prevent damages — had a role in mitigating their effects. However, it is reported that natural ecosystems are coming back. Nature is the irreplaceable ingredient of sustainability; its strength lies in its capacity to recover from destruction.

Yoji Natori is CI-Japan’s ecosystems policy program manager.

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