Reviving rice paddies is tied to reconstructing livelihoods in parts of Japan's Tokoku region

Story highlights

Projects to restore Japan's tsunami-hit areas that focus on environment

'Green Renaissance' project in Tohoku partners with big business

Printer manufacturers like Canon provide funds via recycling program

From volunteers to corporations, numerous stakeholders involved

CNN  — 

Bulldozers clearing mountains of wreckage and rubble have been a common sight in Japan’s Tohoku region.

But one restoration project in Miyagi prefecture is taking a more sensitive approach to the tsunami-devastated landscapes, going as far as clearing debris by hand, planting organic rice and choosing native flowers to beautify the area.

“We even pulled a car out of a paddy field just by human power,” says Tsubasa Iwabuchi, of Tohoku University, who is leading the Tohoku “Green Renaissance Project” on Sabusawa Jima, part of the Urato Islands in Shiogama Bay.

Iwabuchi says that there’s a good reason why the hands-on approach is better than using diggers and heavy machinery.

“If you clear land by mechanical movers, you destroy the layer structure of the soil, which means you need to restructure it. That can take a long time and even longer for people to make a living from it.

“We also flooded the rice paddies with water to dilute the salt. In about one month the salinity decreases to a level where it is okay to grow rice. In other cases they use chemicals and that can harm the surrounding eco-systems.”

Iwabuchi hopes the project, in partnership with the Satoyama Initiative that promotes traditional methods to balance eco-system conservation and management, will prove that restoring devastated landscapes and livelihoods is best achieved when both are given the same respect. Similar eco-system monitoring projects are underway in other parts of Tohoku, including Kesennuma, Ishinomaki and Sendai City.

“You have to restore society and eco-systems together; you can’t separate them. These coastal areas (in Tohoku) have been dependent on eco-systems like forestry or fisheries for a long time,” said Iwabuchi.

Around 230 people live on Sabusawa Jima and restoring its rice paddies and fisheries is just one way to get residents back to work. Beyond the island’s organic “restoration rice” (the first crop sold out), eco-tourism is being promoted as a potential money-spinner.

But as well as diversifying activities on the island, bringing in stakeholders from different parts of society is key, believes Iwabuchi, including the support of big businesses.

A Japanese medical equipment company is supporting a fisheries restoration project on another of the other Urato Islands, while international printer companies Canon, Brother, Dell, Epson, HP and Lexmark are directly supporting the Satoyama Initiative’s work there through an ink cartridge recycling program.

“So far the total amount of donations made to the (Satoyama) Initiative… comes to around 2 million yen ($24,000),” said a spokesperson for Canon.

Before Canon and other companies partnered with the Satoyama Initiative, the “Ink Cartridge Homecoming Project” was donating three yen for every ink cartridge collected to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) operations in Japan.

Large scale clearance and reconstruction has often focused on expedience rather than environmentalism to repair the estimated $300 billion damage across the country, a reason why Iwabuchi see corporate funding as extremely valuable, to smaller, alternative projects like his.

“Financial problems are always on our minds. We don’t have a good connection with the local government right now. Currently we have funding for three years from these companies to do eco-system monitoring, and two years for Urato Islands project, but there’s no funding for the entire ‘Green Renaissance’ project.”