A 68-year-old oyster farmer working in the sea off Kesennuma, a coastal city in Miyagi Prefecture devastated by the March 11 tsunami last year, has been chosen by the United Nations as one of the winners of the Forest Heroes Awards. The U.N. Forum on Forests newly established the awards to celebrate individuals who dedicate their lives to nurturing forests.
For a quarter century, Shigeatsu Hatakeyama, who believes forests play a crucial role in preserving the ocean environment and biodiversity, has planted trees in mountains along a river flowing into the cove where he cultivates oysters. His efforts to clean the water and conserve ocean resources have been recognized as worthy of being praised as heroic. But the bountiful sea that offers so much to people has claimed many invaluable lives. The Asahi Shimbun recently talked with Hatakeyama to find out his thoughts about what happened on that day and its consequences.
Excerpts of the interview follow.
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Question: Your “Mori wa Umi no Koibito" (The forests are lovers of the sea) campaign is attracting international attention. What motivated you to start planting trees in mountains in the first place?
Hatakeyama: It was the fact that the sea off Kesennuma, where I lived, suddenly started getting polluted. It was around the time of the Tokyo Summer Olympics (in 1964). We began to see red tide occur frequently within the cove, causing oysters to die and dyeing the oyster meat red. Many oyster farmers in the region gave up on their businesses and changed to new jobs on land. But I tried to figure out a way to turn the “red sea” back into the “blue sea.”
Q: But why did you start working on mountains, instead of the sea itself?
A: Oysters grow in estuarine areas where river water flows into the sea. Since Miyagi Prefecture supplies seed oysters, I visited oyster-growing areas in various parts of the nation. And I found that in many of these areas' oysters had stopped growing well apparently because of a polluted river or destroyed mountain forests in surrounding areas. Reviving forests is often crucial for reviving the sea. As I had learned that from my experiences, I, together with friends, started planting trees in Mount Murone, which lies along the Okawa river, which flows into the Kesennuma Bay in 1989.
Woodland near villages in Japan were mostly covered by deciduous trees. After the end of World War II, however, deciduous trees, which are less valuable because they are harder to use as construction materials, were cut down to make room for planting Japanese cedars.
Since Japanese cedars were planted close to each other, the cedar forests needed thinning. But when the time for thinning came, these cedars were unsellable because of the yen’s appreciation and trade liberalization (which caused sharp increases in imports of cheap foreign lumber). As a result, many mountains have been left untended.
Since trees prevent sunlight from reaching the ground in such dense forests, there are usually no weeds covering the floor. Soil in such a forest is dry and runs out easily when it rains heavily. As I had learned these problems, I set out to recreate forests of deciduous trees. As many people have joined our afforestation efforts year after year, we can now harvest high-quality oysters and scallops in the sea.
Q: Last year, however, the Great East Japan Earthquake ravaged your community and many others in coastal areas in the Tohoku region.
A: Yeah, it did. On that day, I was working at my seaside workshop. As I felt a really extraordinary shaking of the ground, I ran up to my home, which stands on a hill, holding my 3-year-old grandchild in my arms. I experienced the tsunami caused by the 1960 Chilean earthquake when I was a high school student. Last year’s tsunami was more than 10 times bigger. I ran further up the mountain with the grandchild in my arms.
Q: The city of Kesennuma and the Karakuwa Peninsula were devastated by the tsunami, weren’t they?
A: While my house on a hill avoided damage, I lost almost all of my work-related properties. I lost some 70 rafts for oyster farming, five boats, five vehicles, a workshop, a processing factory, a refrigerator, an icemaker and other things. They are worth 200 million yen ($2.41 million) in total. Most of all, I lost my beloved mother. My 93-year-old mother was on the second floor of a retirement home in Kesennuma at that time and got caught in the tsunami. What really depresses me is the thought that I was unable to save my old mother from drowning in the cold water.