Forests Provide Cover for Recovery

In the wake of the massive tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region in March, Japan has witnessed a sharp rise in wood imports for temporary housing units and other recovery projects.

However, conservationists determined to make Japan lumber self-sufficient are pushing ahead with efforts to better manage wood supplies in a country that is two-thirds forest.

Two decades ago Japan topped the list of the world’s largest buyers of wood and affiliated products.

According to Koji Hattori, a representative of the timber trade division at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, “Wood imports started declining on an annual basis after the economic recession started affecting local housing construction in the late 1990s.”

Now, Japan is only the fifth largest importer of lumber, thought it continues to procure a full 70 percent of its building materials from overseas.

But recent government reports indicate that plywood imports – mostly from Malaysia and Indonesia – shot up 30 percent soon after the Mar. 11 earthquake and tsunami destroyed coastal villages and towns.

Government statistics indicate that orders for imports surged to over 420,000 cubic metres in April, up almost two-thirds from February 2011.

“Orders for plywood in particular rose spectacularly soon after the March disaster,” Hattori told IPS.

He added, however, that long delays in the arrival of plywood shipments from overseas also boosted demand for domestic lumber by forcing temporary reconstruction projects to rely on local wood, at least initially.

“Now we have a glut of plywood in the country. As a result, prices have plunged to about one dollar per cubic metre,” he explained.

Prof. Naoto Ando, forestry expert at the University of Tokyo, told IPS that Japan’s rampant wood exports in the early 1980s led to a scarcity of supply in the region and thus a dramatic increase in prices.

But new export sources such as Australia, China and the United States have pushed prices down again, as Japan’s local timber manufacturers struggle against foreign competition.

“Japanese wood prices have fallen dramatically in order to compete with cheaper imports,” Ando said. “The domestic industry is no longer lucrative and is unable to absorb the local labour force.”

For ecologists, the recovery-fuelled increase in plywood imports is an illustrative example of Japan’s mismanaged forests.

“Japan’s vast forest cover can not only make the country self-reliant in wood but also make it a major wood exporter, if we ensure better management of the local timber industry,” Ando stressed.

Meanwhile, green activists are deploying the ‘Furusato’ concept of sustainable community development through economic resilience in an effort to protect Japan’s forests while simultaneously reducing imports.

At a recent international conference on biodiversity rehabilitation and sustainable development led by the Organisation for Industrial, Spiritual and Cultural Advancement (OISCA), participants identified Furusato ecology as an important contribution to the principles of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Declaration on Environment and Development.

A noteworthy example of the viability of Furusato is Tabayama, a small village west of Tokyo that is surrounded by mountains of pristine cedar and pine trees.

Japan’s rapid economic growth post-World War II dealt a blow to Tabayama’s local timber industry when cheaper wood from Southeast Asian countries flooded the local market.

Traditional woodcutting families lost their livelihoods and were forced to flee the village, leaving behind overgrown forests and a shrinking population of just 700 inhabitants, Mayor Masayuki Okabe told IPS.

“We became severely dependent on government subsidies for our economic survival,” he said.

But the past few years have seen crucial changes. According to Okabe, “Tabayama’s Furusato project has rekindled the village’s forests through new programmes founded on a people-centered development model.”

The region now represents a major opportunity for reviving the local economy.

For example Tabayama has now become a huge tourist attraction, drawing urbanites from Tokyo into its unique ‘rest haven’.

Not only does this kind of ecotourism bring in much needed finances, it also benefits the forest industry by facilitating participatory activities for tourists, such as cleaning the mountain undergrowth and building pathways.

The Furusato effort recently received a generous injection of funds for a five-year period from the corporate social responsibility (CSR) kitties of two leading Japanese companies, Tokyu Hotel Corp and Summit Supermarket.

These CSR funds are handed directly to the village administration, which then distributes them to local projects run by small unions or NGOs. Such efforts have both stabilised and revitalised the Tabayama local economy by enabling replanting of forests and protecting the rich biodiversity of the region.

Another sustainable venture, spearheaded by the Juon Network, aims to increase production of wooden chopsticks made from Japanese lumber.

Currently Japan produces just 20 percent of its chopstick needs. China has hitherto filled the gap in supply but has been threatening to decrease exports to protect its own forests.

Takayuki Kasumi, founder of the Juon Network, told IPS that his organisation currently manufactures about 10 million pairs annually using local lumber bought directly from forest companies and unions.

“We are promoting the use of local wood for chopsticks. Our supplies are purchased directly from worker cooperatives, wood factories or Japanese forest management companies.”

“Although our chopsticks cost almost triple the amount of Chinese imports, our message is growing more popular,” he explained.

Kasumi founded Juon Network after the earthquake, when ecologically conscious companies began building temporary housing using local wood.

“Such efforts convinced me that we no longer need to depend on foreign imports if we change our attitudes. Tohoku must follow the many examples of ecological sustainability,” he said.

Original article published at

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