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The Sustainability of Food in Japan

March 28, 2022
By 19606

Motivated in part by his experiences living in Japan, 2002 Sylff fellow David D. Sussman conducted a review of current research about the sustainability of food in the country. Here he shares his findings, observations, and recommendations for improving Japan’s food sustainability—in a nutshell, eat less meat, consider the origin of food and associated energy use, and reduce waste in food and packaging.

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Japan is renowned for both its popular cuisine and the health and longevity of its population. At the same time, present concerns about planetary health and climate change are receiving more attention than ever, with food playing an essential role in achieving sustainability. Given these circumstances, what does a review of existing research (in English) reveal about steps that Japan can take to increase the sustainability of its food?

My research on this topic is motivated by personal experiences while living in Japan, as well as my work as a fellow at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. I conducted a review and assessment of the latest literature, both international and within the country, about the sustainability of food in Japan. This summary presents relevant research findings, alongside some personal observations, and provides three key evidence-based recommendations. The observations are not a critique of Japan—as an American, I know that my own country’s per-capita ecological footprint is more than 1.5 times that of Japan.[1] Instead, my approach is one of noting the current situation and thinking about how Japan can apply some of its cultural strengths, such as planning, attention to detail, cohesion, and following social norms, to improving the sustainability of its food.

Importance of the Topic

While there is now overwhelming evidence that humans are influencing the Earth’s climate, what might not be at the forefront of everyone’s mind is the important role that food plays in sustainability. In short, to be sustainable means using natural resources in a way that is balanced in the present but also enables them to be preserved for future generations. However, the global threat posed by climate change is now readily apparent, and the food system accounts for approximately 18.4% of all carbon emissions. This is an astounding number—with these emissions from “agriculture, forestry and land use” in the ballpark of those from energy in industry (24.2%), transport (16.2%), and energy in buildings (17.5%).

Another important reason for examining food is its basis for human health. If we were to eat in a way that is planet friendly by consuming more plant-based food and cutting back on meat, there would also be health benefits amounting to, by one estimate, more than ten million lives saved annually.[3] As Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, stated in 2018 at a sustainability conference in Yokohama, “If we get it right on food, we get it right for the planet.”[4]

What is the current situation with food in Japan? When living in Tokyo, I have seen both Japan’s prosperity, such as a large spread of food at a restaurant meal with friends, and its profligacy, with the same event leading to half a plate of unfinished items that would be thrown away. My curiosity about food and sustainability in Japan was another motivation for to this investigation.

Food waste in Japan. (photo: Kyodo news)

What Can Be Done

Food can be considered “from farm to fork,” which means analyzing how it is produced, manufactured, transported, sold, and used—and also disposed of. The research I reviewed suggested a focus on core areas where actions could best be implemented and make a difference—namely in diets and choice of eating, the production of food, and the issue of food waste.

Food Choices

Japanese (as with denizens in many other industrialized countries) generally view having a piece of meat or fish as an integral part of every meal. Some restaurants—like popular ramen places—do not offer a nonmeat option, with the broth also based on pork or beef. Bento box lunches found at school, social, and business gatherings inevitably include meat or seafood. Anecdotally, I have found many Japanese to be unaware of or uncertain about vegetarianism, whereas it is commonly offered as a meal option in the United States.

Increased meat consumption in Japan is not surprising given the post–World War II time period when hungry populations benefited from food imports, while advertising companies also presented Western plates of food as an ideal.[5] Over the following decades, supplies of meat increased 5.8-fold and trade pressure from the United States led to further imports, ranging from beef to oranges.[6]

As a basic step to increase sustainability, people can eat more vegetarian meals. Food is personal and for that reason accessible as a means for change. Multiple times a day, what we eat is an opportunity that we (in more developed countries where access to food options is generally not a concern) have to make an impact on the Earth—or at least to lessen our impact.[7] In the aggregate, our individual choices make a difference, and when we eat morning, noon, and night, we can see it as an opportunity for choosing the more sustainable option.

Food Production

Japan’s level of productivity and development is special given that more than 80% of its land consists of mountains. It is not surprising that many foods need to be imported, with approximately 63% of food calories coming from outside the country. What happens, inevitably, is that Japan’s reliance on food from overseas leads to the use of land, energy, fertilizer, and fuel for transport, which are associated with carbon emissions embedded within the foods. As such, the Japanese could further consider the origin of their food. With high levels of imports, there are sometimes significant production- and transportation-related carbon emissions.

Conversely, it is also worth noting that some foods grown in Japan are very energy intensive; in some cases, it would therefore be more eco-efficient for them to be grown elsewhere, in warmer climates. A 2011 study of hydroponically grown lettuce in Japanese greenhouses found that its CO2 emissions per kilogram were seven times greater than those grown in open fields in California, United States.[8] A BBC story titled “Japan’s Obsession with Perfect Fruit” featured a melon grower who said that despite his extremely careful methods, only 3% of his melon produce achieved the top grade, even as his three medium greenhouses burned through more than 50 liters of oil on a daily basis.[9]

In the end, the complexity of the food chain is apparent. Even though food is an essential part of our daily lives, we rarely know how something was grown and where it traveled from before ending up in our supermarket. What we have better control of is our use of the food after purchase and on our plates.

Food Waste

Waste associated with food occurs across the supply chain, from farm to fork, and must include all waste that happens from production onward. Related to this investigation, “significant quantities of food waste are generated by supply chains originating outside of Japan.”[10] Within Japan, the previously mentioned focus on perfect-looking fruit means that more resources are expended on producing them and items that are not up to an exacting standard discarded. Composting is still rare, meaning that food scraps and leftovers end up being incinerated with other trash.

Japan, as with other industrialized countries, prizes convenience, and this leads to a reliance on pre-prepared meals. The presentation and packaging of food in Japan is readily apparent to outsiders, with a commonly cited example being the plastic-enclosed bananas (which already come with their own natural protection) or individually wrapped apples or pears. It is not anything new to say that Japan is big into cleanliness—and with this comes a reliance on single-use products as well as packaging. Plastic or foam bento boxes are almost always single-use disposables. When it comes to drinks, vending machines seem to be on every corner and plastic bottles ubiquitous. In modern society, little thought is given to using something for a minute, or ten minutes, and then tossing it away.

Imperfect fruit does not have to be thrown away. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Japan, however, is also a leader in terms of its focus on food waste through policy initiatives. A Food Waste Recycling Law, for example, led to measurable improvements, though more at the level of manufacturers. While households account for about half of the food waste that is incinerated, “there has been little behavioral change towards food waste reduction at the consumer level.”[11] In the end, “food waste and loss remain a critical issue, owing to the country’s low food self-sufficiency rate and shortage of available landfill sites for waste disposal.”[12]

Next Steps

The sustainability of food in Japan can be seen as a challenge but also as an opportunity. In particular, the country’s food sustainability is worth considering because it may be a harbinger of the future. A highly industrialized country, “Japan’s diet and demographics make it a bellwether for other Western and Asian nations” in that the population is highly urbanized, aging, and eats foods that is less traditional and more processed and convenient.[13]

When Japan sets its focus on something, it can really make terrific progress. Its rebuild and development after World War II is a classic example. More recently, we have seen how it started more slowly on COVID-19 vaccines but steadily progressed so that it now stands as one of the most vaccinated countries in the world. Its approach to food and sustainability can be the same. There are available options, and it is now a matter of aligning policy with the most planet-friendly options—shifting people’s preferences so that they eat less meat, focusing on environmentally sound growing practices, and cutting down on waste. It will be exciting to see what the country does in the coming years.

 

[1] “Ecological Footprint by Country 2022,” World Population Review, https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/ecological-footprint-by-country.

[2] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” OurWorldInData.org, last revised August 2020, https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions.

[3] Walter Willett et al., Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems (Stockholm: EAT-Lancet Commission, 2019), 3, 14, https://eatforum.org/eat-lancet-commission/eat-lancet-commission-summary-report/.

[4] International Forum for Sustainable Asia and the Pacific 2018, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.

[5] Atsushi Watabe et al., “Uneaten Food: Emerging Social Practices around Food Waste in Greater Tokyo,” in Food Consumption in the City: Practices and Patterns in Urban Asia and the Pacific, ed. Marlyne Sahakian, et al. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), 162–3.

[6] Watabe, 163–4.

[7] Kate Hall, Reducing Your Carbon Footprint in the Kitchen (New York, NY: Rosen Publishing Group, 2009), 5.

[8] Eugene Mohareb et al., “Considerations for Reducing Food System Energy Demand while Scaling Up Urban Agriculture,” Environmental Research Letters 12, no. 12 (December 2017), https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aa889b.

[9] Roland Buerk, “Japan's Obsession with Perfect Fruit,” BBC News, March 15, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-radio-and-tv-17352173.

[10] Chen Liu et al., “Food Waste in Japan: Trends, Current Practices and Key Challenges,” Journal of Cleaner Production 133 (October 2016): 563, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.06.026.

[11] Liu et al., 562.

[12] Liu et al., 558.

[13] Keiichiro Kanemoto et al., “Meat Consumption Does Not Explain Differences in Household Food Carbon Footprints in Japan,” One Earth 1, no. 4 (December 20, 2019), 465.

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Role of Water in Geopolitics

July 8, 2021
By 28927

Eliska Ullrichova, a 2019 Sylff fellow, offers an overview of the concept of water wars and its implications. Given the rise in water scarcity—the major causes of which include overpopulation, overconsumption, and climate change—diplomacy has an important role to play in easing tensions over water supplies and managing international relations, Ullrichova assers.

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Water does not respect political boundaries and, therefore, may be a source of leverage for upstream riparian states over those downstream. However, it is important to underline that water encompasses not only rivers, which are primarily associated with it in international relations, but all surface and groundwater. Based on the concept of water wars and related terms, this short paper illustrates what role water plays in geopolitics.

Water might play a manifold role in a violent confrontation.

Water Wars

The concept of water wars identifies three dimensions of water in geopolitics. Firstly, water resources or infrastructure are prone to be casualties of a violent confrontation either intentionally or accidentally. As an example, pollution of water resources is a well-known consequence of a conflict. Secondly, water resources may be used as a tool in achieving one side’s political, economic, or military interests (Pacific Institute 2019). The weaponization of water was a dominant military strategy of the Islamic State (IS) to achieve its military and political objectives. The IS contaminated water supplies of its enemies and, in particular, used large dams—such as the Fallujah Dam on the Euphrates in Iraq—to either cut off supplies of cities downstream or flood the area above or below the river flow. In addition, the IS used water infrastructure, especially dams, as their military command headquarters or prisons. This hindered the capture of IS positions, because what adversary would lead an airstrike over a dam, knowing that doing so would devastate the surrounding area (Mazlum 2018; van Lossow 2020)? Thirdly, water may cause a dispute over control of water resources and, in the worst-case scenario, the disagreement could lead to an outright and violent conflict (Pacific Institute 2019).

Using dams in a conflict is one of the most common examples of water weaponization.

The third element of water wars—water as a trigger of a violent confrontation—is widely discussed in the academic literature (see Dinar and Dinar 2000; Spector 2000; Postel and Wolf 2001; Gregory 2013). Interestingly, scholars agree that, firstly, water-related issues tend to be a source of an intrastate conflict rather than an international one (e.g., Spector 2000; Postel and Wolf 2001). Secondly, outright strife is rarely triggered by a single variable; they are usually triggered by a set of issues, among which access to water supplies may be included (Postel and Wolf 2001; Farnum 2018). In other words, it is often difficult to classify a violent clash as a war over water, since many other variables alongside it may play a role in the confrontation. However, it does not mean that water is not a catalyst for a conflict at all. Examples can be found as early as 2525 BC in Mesopotamian times between two city-states, Lagash and Umma. Umma repeatedly refused to pay for renting downstream Lagash’s territory for crop cultivation in the water-rich delta of Tigris. In response, Lagash damaged the irrigation system leading to the leased area. Umma could not cultivate crops without water supplies and thus attacked Lagash, which resulted in several successive military confrontations. After the defeat of Umma, the water treaty was reestablished and the canal system reconstructed (see the water conflict map made by the Pacific Institute 2018).

A Solution to a Conflict over Water?

When water causes a violent conflict, the zero-sum approach can never resolve it in a long-term perspective. If a river represents the core of the dispute between upstream and downstream states, the conflict will not result in a situation where two countries no longer share the river basin. On the contrary, water creates interdependent geopolitical relations, and an outright and violent conflict over water supplies is therefore not a sustainable solution. It also goes without saying that, just as the concept of water wars indicates, water resources can be contaminated and water systems destroyed in a conflict that is likely to influence all interested parties. In general terms, wars always have harmful consequences for the environment, and water resources are not an exception. Another feature of water in geopolitics is that civilizations are entirely dependent on water resources, because human beings cannot survive without drinking water. Moreover, economic development is associated with water resources (e.g., agriculture and the energy sector). In other words, a violent conflict over water resources cannot lead to a zero-sum victory, and all involved actors would most likely lose to a greater or lesser extent. This is a fundamental reason why it is believed that wars over water will not occur in future decades more frequently than they did in history (Dunn 2013).

However, it is undeniable that water stress has been increasing due to overpopulation, overconsumption, and climate change—the most significant causes of water scarcity—even in initially water-rich regions. Nevertheless, as I have discussed above, cooperation rather than conflict is a sustainable solution that could lead to a win-win situation. Therefore, water diplomacy, i.e., ʻusing diplomatic instruments with the aim to solve, mitigate or prevent disagreements over shared water resources for the sake of cooperation, regional stability and peaceʼ (Schmeier 2018), seems to be a promising path to fostering multilateral governance over shared water resources and ensuring water security. In view of these goals, the concept of water diplomacy is not limited to states but underlines the necessity of nonstate actorsʼ involvement that play a crucial role as mediator in negotiations over water-related issues, such as the World Bank, or that may provide essential information via monitoring (see, for example, Honkonen and Lipponen 2018).

Water stress has been increasing due to overpopulation, overconsumption, and climate change.

Although there is a consensus in the academic literature that water will not become a frequent catalyst for a violent conflict, it is and will remain a source of tensions in international relations. High water demand from all sectors of human activities (households, agriculture, energy, and so forth) and the reduction of water resources due to overpopulation, overconsumption, and climate change are contradictory phenomena producing unsustainable environments within and among societies. Nevertheless, an outright conflict over shared water resources cannot end in a zero-sum victory. As such, diplomatic instruments are crucial tools for addressing increasing water scarcity and, therefore, tensions over water supplies. Water diplomacy, also called hydro-diplomacy, thus need to be an integral part of international relations more than ever.

 

References

Dinar, S. and A. Dinar. 2000. “Negotiating in International Watercourses: Diplomacy, Conflict and Cooperation.” International Negotiation 5 (2): 93–200. https://doi.org/10.1163/15718060020848721.

Dunn, G. 2013. “Water Wars: A Surprisingly Rare Source of Conflict.” Harvard International Review 35, no. 2 (fall 2013): 46–49. https://refnj2014.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/water-wars.pdf.

Farnum, R. 2018. “Drops of Diplomacy: Questioning the Scale of Hydro-Diplomacy through Fog-Harvesting.” Journal of Hydrology 562 (July 2018), 446–54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhydrol.2018.05.012.

Honkonen, T. and A. Lipponen. 2018. “Finland’s Cooperation in Managing Transboundary Waters and the UNECE Principles for Effective Joint Bodies: Value for Water Diplomacy?” Journal of Hydrology 567 (December 2018), 320–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhydrol.2018.09.062.

Von Lossow, T. 2020. “The Role of Water in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars.” Italian Institute for International Political Studies. February 26, 2020. https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/role-water-syrian-and-iraqi-civil-wars-25175.

Mazlum, I. 2018. “ISIS as an Actor Controlling Water Resources in Syria and Iraq.” In Violent Non-state Actors and the Syrian Civil War: The ISIS and YPG Cases, edited by Özden Zeynep Oktav, Emel Parlar Dal, and Ali Murat Kurşun, 109–25. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-67528-2_6.

Pacific Institute. 2018. “Water Conflict Chronology Map.” Accessed March 24, 2021. http://www.worldwater.org/conflict/map/.

Pacific Institute. 2019. “Water Conflict Chronology.” https://www.worldwater.org/water-conflict/.

Postel, S. and A. Wolf. 2001. “Dehydrating Conflict.” Foreign Policy 126. https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/18/dehydrating-conflict/.

Schmeier, S. 2018. “What Is Water Diplomacy and Why Should You Care?” Global Water Forum. August 31, 2018. https://globalwaterforum.org/2018/08/31/what-is-water-diplomacy-and-why-should-you-care/.

Spector, B. 2000. “Motivating Water Diplomacy: Finding the Situational Incentives to Negotiate.” International Negotiation 5 (2): 223–36. https://doi.org/10.1163/15718060020848749.

White, C. 2012. “Understanding Water Scarcity: Definitions and Measurements.” Global Water Forum. May 7, 2012. https://globalwaterforum.org/2012/05/07/understanding-water-scarcity-definitions-and-measurements/.

 

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Going Feral at Home: Reducing Academic Air Travel in a Post-COVID World

June 11, 2021
By 24438

Dr. Trisia Farrelly, a 2004 Sylff fellow, writes about a series of “nearly carbon neutral” conferences organized by Massey University’s Political Ecology Research Centre, of which she is co-director. The online format of these conferences, established prior to the pandemic, presents an opportunity to reduce academics’ significant contribution to carbon emissions from international air travel.

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A glimmer of light amidst the devastating fallout of COVID-19 may be seen in temporary global carbon emission reductions. While longer-term reductions are needed to see any impact on climate change, the Global Carbon Project reports that the mass grounding of flights during the peak of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic saw CO2 emissions from aviation drop by up to 60%. Across the board, and on average, the emissions of individual countries decreased by 26%. Academics contribute significantly to carbon emissions from international air travel. As an academic located in one of the most geographically isolated countries in the world, Aotearoa (New Zealand), the pandemic has forced me to critically reflect on my own air travel and that of my university. 

 

Online conferences could significantly reduce air travel, which is a major source of carbon emissions.

Feral is the second of three online, nearly carbon neutral (international and free) conferences organized by Massey University’s Political Ecology Research Centre (PERC). The content of these conferences remains freely accessible on the PERC website. The first of these fully online conferences was The Lives and Afterlives of Plastic in 2017, and our latest conference was “Extraction in 2019. PERC did not organize one of these online conferences in 2020, even though this was the year academics found themselves grounded and when, one by one, face-to-face academic events were being canceled or indefinitely postponed all over the world. We felt that contributing to a conference in 2020 was likely to be low down on the list of priorities for most already stressed and overwhelmed academics. 

Feral was cited in Massey University’s Climate Action Plan 2020–2030 as an opportunity to reduce academic staff contributions to long-haul carbon emissions. The relatively novel format of these conferences at the time was featured in the London School of Economics blog site under the headline, “Running a Nearly Carbon Neutral Conference: Lessons from the Feral Conference.” We had no idea at the time that we would see variations of this online format proliferate under pandemic restrictions two years later—not just for conferences but to meet a wider range of needs to connect people digitally, from collegial “check-ins” to United Nations assemblies.

Peter Kalmus, climate scientist and author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Change Revolution, created the website NoFlyClimateSci (No Fly Climate Science)—a website dedicated to reducing academics’ carbon footprint from air travel. On the website, Kalmus states in reference to air travel, “Hour for hour, there’s no better way to burn fossil fuel and heat the planet.” There is good reason for the website’s focus on academics. Prior to the pandemic, flights taken by academics left large climate footprints. Ironically, many of these academics are climate scientists and others who teach, campaign for, and research environmental and social justice.  

Academics report traveling by air for many reasons, including a need for relationship building, exposure, access to resources, and primary data collection. They also fly in response to external drivers including funding requirements and cultural expectations, capacity building, marketing, and recruitment. Conversely, some researchers claim that air travel has little impact on academics’ success

Aotearoa is the most isolated temperate landmass in the world. This means that when Massey University staff travel internationally, it is often long haul. (Travel from Aotearoa to Australia and the Pacific Islands is considered “short haul”). COVID-19 has forced all Massey University academics to think very carefully about how and why we have traveled in the past and to consider future alternatives. In 2018, transport emissions represented 41% of Massey University’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Of all the transport-related GHG emissions, 70% were the result of air travel. Seventy-five percent of these were long-haul flights, and most of these flights were taken by Massey’s academic staff.   

In March 2019, Massey University used the carbon offsetting plan FlyNeutral to offset the air travel undertaken with Air New Zealand the previous year. A total of 4,667 tons of carbon emissions were offset through this scheme. In September 2020, seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Sal Lampkin, Dr. Allanah Ryan, and Professor Robert McLachlan produced a paper titled “Re-evaluating the Purpose of International Air Travel” for Massey University’s Research Committee. The paper aims to inform university governance “so they can lead the discussion within their respective Colleges/constituencies regarding a university-wide re-evaluation of the purpose of Massey’s international air travel” and to “enable them to contribute to the development of a set of recommendations.” 

The paper presented the results of the analysis of staff travel for 2019. It reported that a total of 10,391 flights (domestic, short-haul, and long-haul) were made in 2019 alone and that 19% of this total (1,947 flights) were long-haul flights. These long-haul flights contributed 80% of total carbon emissions for all of Massey University’s air travel totaling 8,946,429 kg of carbon emissions. And many staff took multiple flights every year. In the College of Sciences alone, 318 staff traveled once or twice a year; 119 traveled two to five times per year; and 21 staff traveled five or more times per year (Lampkin, Ryan, and McLachlan 2020).  

Once the report had been released, the authors distributed surveys, conducted three focus groups, and collated individual staff responses. Academics who were asked what they felt about reducing their travel voiced concerns about losing the value of in-person interaction, including relationship building, overcoming cultural and language barriers, promotional opportunities, and access to resources, artifacts, technology, and expertise. Sixty-five percent of staff survey respondents were aware of Massey University’s Climate Action Plan 2020–2030, which commits us to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Recommendations in the Climate Action Plan for reducing carbon from air travel includes “attending sessions via Skype,” “batching travel so it happens only once in a year for long-haul travel rather than more frequently,” and “virtual conferences like [PERC’s] ‘Feral.’ ”

During the planning phase of our first “nearly carbon neutral” PERC conference, we sought to address some challenges identified. As a network of political ecologists and academics who teach, research, and campaign for social and environmental justice, we were concerned about the environmental impact of our conference, particularly considering the geographic isolation of our host institute. We also needed to ensure we did not exclude participants and presenters based on financial and resource inequities and the potential physical and temporal burdens the long-haul air travel to Aotearoa to attend a conference would mean for some. 

The formatting of the Lives and Afterlives of Plastic conference went some way to addressing these concerns: the conference required zero travel; there were zero conference fees; it was presented asynchronously over a three-week period, meaning presenters and participants could watch and respond when they were available; and time zones were a nonissue. Presenters were required to prerecord a video presentation to submit in advance of the conference. Comments and Q and A took place via an online chat function, and panel chairs kicked off and sustained online engagement in these online discussion forums. The asynchronous nature of the conference also eliminated the possibility of poor connections and lag times in live sessions where connection speeds varied.

Each new conference was designed with feedback from participants in mind. However, even the third offering of these conference formats, Extraction, did not eliminate all possible inequity issues. For example, there remained variation in the quality of the video presentations. This was likely a result of an unevenness across presenters’ access to quality equipment, high-speed Internet, and video production support. 

I have seen recent examples of such digital injustice, which may be more acute in synchronous meetings where delegates have much more to lose. One example is the United Nations Open-Ended Expert Group (OEEG) meetings, which were held in February 2021. Due to COVID-19, for the first time, Pacific Islands delegates had to attend these multi-day meetings online. The meetings ran from around 10 pm until 3 am, as our part of the world had once again received the “short end of the time-zone straw.” Pacific Islands delegates reported having to travel to offices from home late in the evening so that they could access faster Internet connections (and even then, connections were often unstable). The next morning many delegates still needed to fulfill their familial responsibilities—after very little sleep—three days in a row.

PERC encourages academics to view online innovations like Feral not only as a temporary solution to the travel limitations the pandemic presents but also as a long-term solution to our shared global carbon emissions problem. We are seeing a proliferation of similar innovative models emerge out of necessity since the pandemic outbreak. However, we need to recognize, meet, and mitigate any new challenges the online transition could present for diverse attendees. These challenges include the need for human and intellectually satisfying connection, building and maintaining trust and equitable access, and cultural and gender-based considerations. 

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A Triple Crisis in the Indian Sundarbans

January 7, 2021
By 25159

The article describes how the people of the Indian Sundarbans delta, who have adopted migration as a means of survival in an ecologically fragile deltaic region in eastern India, have been affected by the combined impact of the global pandemic and tropical cyclone Amphaan, which struck India in 2020.

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Inhabitants of Banashyamnagar in the Sundarbans queue for disaster relief while trying to maintain social distancing norms to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Picture by Amartya Ray)

The word cyclone was coined in the city I am writing from, Calcutta. A colonial officer, Henry Piddington studied tropical storms peculiar to the Bay of Bengal and named them cyclones after the Greek word ‘kuklōma', meaning the coil of a snake. When in 1853, the colonial government decided to build a port in the lush green deltaic region south of Calcutta, Piddington wrote an anxious letter to the then Governor-General of British India, Lord Dalhousie, to explain how the plan might not succeed should a cyclonic storm strike. True to his word, fourteen years later, a ferocious storm razed the newly built Port Canning to the ground. Nearly two hundred years after Henry Piddington’s lifetime, the forested deltas of present-day India and Bangladesh, called the Sundarbans, continue to reel under severe environmental stress.

People began settling in the hostile climate of the Sundarbans during the colonial period when the British Raj decided to deforest much of the largest mangrove forest in the world, and the natural shield of the eastern portion of the Indian mainland against sea storms, for agricultural revenue. Because of their low-lying, riverine and coastal setting, inhabitants of the region have never been unfamiliar with the threat of cyclones. But those living in the ‘transition’ zone between ‘stable’ inland areas contiguous with the mainland and ‘core’ seaward areas of legally protected mangrove forests, remain most vulnerable to environmental hazards. Located along major tidal rivers, only 23 percent of the roughly 1.5 million inhabitants of the transition zone had access to safe water in 2011, while less than 2 percent could access storm shelters.

The region faces a basket of environmental hazards round the year. It experiences sudden-onset extreme weather events in the form of about nine cyclonic storms a decade, a third of which are severe. In the recent past, Sidr (2007), Aila (2009), Phailin (2013), Hudhud (2014) and Bulbul (2019) have struck the Sundarbans with cycles of immense destruction. In the background of recurring cyclonic storms, are slow-onset environmental hazards that people have lived with for centuries. Some of these, such as a rising sea level, salinisation of soil and water, loss of ecosystem services and failure of the ring of embankments built to protect the region from erosion have led to decreased access to safe drinking water, lack of food security and inadequate WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) facilities. Salinity in soil has reduced land productivity in a region primarily dependent on agriculture as its chief livelihood strategy. Salinity in water sources and lack of piped water supply have resulted in poor health outcomes and high diarrhea-related mortality, especially among children. This year, however, the people of the Indian Sundarbans face a triple crisis. In the fourth week of May, the deadliest tropical cyclone to have ever impacted the Bay of Bengal, Amphan, coincided with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the background of deep-seated impacts of slow-onset hazards.

The Sundarbans is celebrated as a World Heritage Site, a recognition accorded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to the rich biodiversity of the Indian Sundarbans in 1987 and of the Sundarbans of Bangladesh in 1997. But its 7.2 million inhabitants confront as part of everyday life a web of slow-onset and sudden-onset climate stress and socio-economic vulnerability that lead them to migrate from the region in search of work to adapt to  their hostile living conditions. There are also instances of environmentally-induced displacement in the region. The islands of Lohachara, Suparibhanga and Bedford have already submerged in the sea, while Ghoramara has shrunk to a fourth of its original size, witnessing the displacement of thousands to the neighbouring island of Sagar. Climate change and human activities such as tidal-based aquaculture and overexploitation of natural resources further aggravate the impact of environmental hazards in the region. In fact, sea level rise in the Sundarbans does not result only from eustatic processes, or the thermal expansion of sea water due to global warming, but also from isostatic processes, which is a local decrease in land level due to compaction of soil and deltaic subsidence. Isostatic processes contribute to about 3 to 8 millimetres of sea level rise in the region every year.

Environmental migration has no locus standi in international treaty law at present, nor are there any national legal provisions in place that can support or compensate migration from the Sundarbans. Policies on disaster risk management in India are limited to disaster relief that address extreme-weather events alone. They do not include instances of displacement or migration due to environmental stress. Additionally, environmental change cannot always be separated from other drivers of migration, and it is therefore difficult to identify environmental migration as a discrete phenomenon. Cross-country research has shown environmental migration to be a multicausal affair, with factors of extreme poverty, socio-political insecurity and environmental dangers reinforcing each other in driving people to move. It is no different in the case of the Indian Sundarbans, where the living standards of the people are grave. According to a household survey conducted after Cyclone Aila of 2009, in a typical group of thousand residents, 510 people, most of them children, were found to suffer from some form of malnutrition. The survey revealed three broad patterns of migration from the region: long-term migration to distant big cities in search of work, seasonal migration during paddy-sowing and harvesting seasons to neighbouring districts as farm labour, and short-term migration to the nearest big city, Kolkata, for informal employment in masonry, sanitation services and public works. Although these people are not called forced environmental migrants because the term does not legally exist, environmental hazards and climate change contribute to the absence of employment opportunities for which they migrate. Extreme poverty both arises from and contributes to their vulnerability to environmental hazards.

When COVID-19 broke out in March, India witnessed the imposition of a nation-wide lockdown with only four hours’ notice. Businesses shut, streets were emptied, factories stopped and workers were laid off. Over 90 percent of India’s population work in the informal sector, and migrants form a large share of it. With abject poverty at source and little income in big cities, migrant workers in India straddle extreme uncertainty and vulnerability even without a pandemic or its economic fallout. But with the COVID-19 crisis, loss of work, and the government’s stringent lockdown rules, they were left with no choice but to return to their home states.

From very early into the lockdown, special repatriation flights were arranged to bring back Indian citizens stuck in foreign countries, but no effective measure was undertaken to facilitate the reverse exodus of migrants from cities or to provide them with alternative sources for earning a living. In a recent report by the country’s central bank, push factors such as high cost of living in urban areas, loss of employment, uncertainty of the lifting of the lockdown, and limited access to social and unemployment benefits, combined with pull factors such as the onset of winter harvesting season, employment opportunities in public assistance programmes in their native villages, and wanting to feel secure with their families, acted as major drivers of the massive reverse migration of migrant workers. With inter-state transportation halted, millions of migrants began a long journey home with babies and bundles under their arms, an unrecorded number of them collapsing on the way. By late March, about 250,000 to 300,000 migrants had returned to the Sundarbans alone. This amounted to an increased threat of disease in the islands, loss of remittances in migrant households, increased pressure on natural resources and an overwhelmed local labour market.

When Category 5 cyclone Amphan struck Bengal and Bangladesh in the afternoon of 20 May this year, inhabitants of the Sundarbans were already neck-deep in trouble. With a surge of return migration, loss of jobs and inadequate public health facilities making living conditions dismal, the cyclone caused irreparable damage to life in the Sundarbans. The 111 mile per hour winds washed away huts, cattle, trees and electric poles, broke through the protective embankments that had been built around the islands and filled paddy fields with seawater. People thronged in school buildings and storm shelters despite fear of contagion. In a month’s time, the spread of COVID-19 surged from 3,103 cases and 181 deaths on the day of the storm to nearly 5,500 cases and over 300 deaths in the region by early June. The state government estimated over 28 percent of the mangrove forests to have been damaged. The storm ripped off the 100 kilometre long nylon fencing that had hitherto prevented tigers from straying into human habitations. Subsistence agriculture, the dominant livelihood for most inhabitants, was badly hit. The agricultural department of the government estimated heavy losses incurred by 1,08,000 farmers across 17,800 hectares of crop field. The surge of brackish water in fields and ponds killed off fishes and rendered fields uncultivable for years ahead. With hundreds and thousands of extra mouths to feed, man-tiger conflicts spiked as islanders began venturing deep into the forests in search of fish, crab, honey and firewood.

When Cyclone Aila had struck in 2009, able-bodied islanders migrated out in search of work. Their families remained behind, living on a thin flow of remittances. But with the devastation of Amphan, a global pandemic showing no sign of decline and an unprecedented surge of return migration into the Sundarbans in early 2020, possibilities for exploring economic opportunities outside the region— the primary means of adapting to environmental hazards at home— remain bleak. The state government announced 827,000 dollars in aid for rebuilding life in the Sundarbans after Amphan while the central government has released 130 million dollars from the National Disaster Relief Fund for the state of West Bengal. But short-term relief cannot reverse the damage caused by Amphan unless supported by forward-looking strategies of overcoming the triple crisis of slow and sudden-onset environmental hazards, poverty and COVID-19 that the region faces today. Some climate experts and economists point to the benefits of planned and managed retreat of inhabitants living in the transition zone to more stable zones over in-situ strategies of adaptation while others point to the dangers of extracting people from their land. But with inhabitants trapped in a public health crisis amid extreme environmental and economic vulnerability, migration will have to be managed and facilitated by the state instead of scraping by with local efforts of building resilience.

Acknowledgement
The author would like to thank her friend Amartya Ray for his insightful comments. He went to the Sundarbans along with his mother Chaiti Ghoshal with relief for 500 inhabitants of the village of Banashyamnagar on 4 June 2020. Both of them are film actors in India.

 

Reprinted from the IOM's special blog, https://environmentalmigration.iom.int/blogs/triple-crisis-indian-sundarbans

 

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Multi-Dimensional Challenges, Multi-Sectoral Innovations: The Resilience of Common Forest Management in Japan

June 22, 2020
By 26719

Yance Arizona[1] is a 2011 Sylff fellow from the University of Indonesia and currently a PhD candidate at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Using an SRA award, he visited the Osaka University of Tourism in Japan and the University of New South Wales in Australia to sharpen the comparative elements of his research on customary land recognition in Indonesia. In this article, he focuses on lessons learned about the resilience of common forest management in Japan by discussing the challenges and innovations of state and nonstate actors.

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Community-based forest management has a long history in rural Japan. Since the Edo period (1603–1868), rural communities have shared their collective land and labor to maintain forest and other natural resources for self-sufficiency. This model of natural resource practice is known as common forest management. The common forest, called iriai in Japanese, became integrated into the traditional village system.[2] The membership of iriai common forest groups is embedded in that of traditional Japanese villages (mura). However, common forest management has slowly changed over time due to internal and external factors since Japan entered the industrial revolution. This article discusses several challenges concerning the current practice of common forest management in Japan. I also reveal several initiatives by the government and citizens to restore collaborative forest management and to renew interest in rural development. The analysis in this article is based on interviews, literature studies, and observations conducted in two rural areas in Japan during my Sylff Research Abroad (SRA) fellowship in November and December 2019.

 

What Is the Common Forest in Japan?

Many scholars have used the iriai forest or common forest in Japan as an illustrative example of potential community-based management as an alternative to private property ownership and an extractive model of natural resource management (Mitsumata and Murata 2007; Berge and McKean 2015). For a long time, the rural population in Japan has collectively engaged in agricultural activities in shared communal land by planting trees, especially sugi and pine, to meet their daily needs. Iriai groups have collectively cleared, planted, maintained, and harvested forest products to provide mutual benefits among the members. The membership of the common forest group was initially based on the membership of a village. Since the Japanese government installed modern development programs, primarily through the Meiji Restoration (1868), many traditional concepts, laws, and activities have slightly changed. In the following section, I will discuss five concerns about recent developments in common forest management in Japan.

Five Challenges of Common Forest Management

The common forest practice in Japan faces multidimensional challenges. Here I will briefly discuss five major challenges of the common forest in Japan, including demographic, economic, environmental, institutional, and regulatory factors.[3] Firstly, legal uncertainty leads to misrecognition and disputes among iriai rights holders (regulatory factor). During the Meiji era (1868–1912), Japan’s Civil Code began to take effect. The Civil Code is a mark that Japan began incorporating a modern legal system inspired by the German and French legal traditions (Kanamori, 1999). Regarding the property right regime, the modern Civil Code strictly divides land property into private and public properties (Suzuki, 2013: 67–86). In short, private property is in the ownership of individual citizens, whereas public property belongs to the state or other public bodies. This dichotomy leads to uncertainty regarding the legal status of iriai forests because the iriai model cannot be categorized as either private or public property. As a result, Article 263 of the Civil Code considers the common forest to be in the co-ownership of a group of citizens. By contrast, Article 294 stipulates iriai as the right of the local population to use state land or forest. Neither of these articles represents the original model of iriai forest rights, which combine communal and individual land ownership.

Misrecognition of the legal status of the common forest in the Civil Code generates ambiguity in land registration practices. Iriai rights holders have to register their common land and forest under “nominal names” on behalf of other legal entities. Gakuto Takumura (2019) demonstrates six models of how iriai rights holders register their communal land rights. These six models of adaptation to the modern land administration system appear in the registration of a common forest on behalf of other legal entities, such as (a) a leader of a village, (b) several leaders of a village, (c) all household heads in a village, (d) a shrine or temple of a village, (e) a new municipality, or (f) a district, a cooperative, or an authorized community association. Registering the iriai right under nominal names has occasionally caused legal disputes among the iriai rights holders. One case that received much attention in Japan was the Kotsunagi case, which took decades for the courts to settle (Inoue and Shivakoti 2015).

 

The author gives a guest lecture on customary forests and tourism in Japan and Indonesia at the Osaka University of Tourism. Detailed information can be found at https://www.tourism.ac.jp/news/cat3/5810.html.

The second concern is government imposition of the modernization of iriai forest management (institutional factor). Besides the legal status, another institutional challenge to the iriai forest is the modernization of the rural administrative system. In the early period of the Meiji era, the Japanese government announced a policy to modernize village governments. The modernization of village government affects iriai forest management because iriai group membership was traditionally based on membership in a traditional Japanese village. This challenge parallels the general trend in rural Japan to merge villages rather than splitting them into several smaller villages. When two or more villages are merged, a question arises regarding the ownership and membership of iriai rights, whether it still belongs to the initial village that has merged or it becomes the co-ownership of the new village union.

Another striking policy by the Japanese government to modernize iriai forest management is the Modernization of the Common Forest Act of 1966 (Takahashi and Matsushita 2015). This act intended to transform traditional common forest practices into modern forest management. However, the implementation of this act did not result in a uniform model of forest management; instead, the act has been adopted in different models of forest management depending on the social conditions of iriai rights holders. Research by Daisaku Shimada (2014) revealed how rural communities in the Yamaguni district in Kyoto adapted to the Modernization of Common Forest Act and other external influences, such as population change and the timber liberalization policy in securing common forest management. Rural communities modify their common forest institution to allow migrants to be members of new forest management boards.

The third challenge is depopulation and urbanization (demographic factor). In contemporary Japan, depopulation and urbanization are central issues in the debate on rural development. Japanese society is experiencing depopulation because of a low birthrate and an aging population. At the same time, the urbanization level is dramatically high. Many young people move away to live in urban areas, leaving the rural areas mainly inhabited by older generations. Depopulation and urbanization affect the membership and decision-making process in common forest management. The membership of iriai forest groups shrinks as some of the members move to the city or elsewhere, causing a reduction of the workforce in the management of the common forest. In the past, iriai rights holders lived permanently in a village. When someone moved to other villages, his or her rights to the iriai forest vanished. Today, some people consider their rights to remain valid even when they have moved to other villages. Another problem in terms of people’s mobility concerns the decision-making process in common forest management. Traditionally, iriai rights holders decide on common forest management through a consensual agreement among the group members (Goto 2007). If a member of the iriai group is not involved or disagrees with the majority opinion, it means that the group has not reached a consensual decision. Currently, some iriai groups apply flexible categorization to their common forest membership by including newcomers to the board and involving them in the decision-making process. The lack of a clear decision-making process and a shrinking workforce have led to the underuse of iriai forests in several places in rural Japan.

The fourth problem is the timber liberalization policy (economic factor). In the 1960s, the Japanese government introduced a timber trade liberalization policy to support industrial development. This policy increased timber import from other countries, mainly from the United States, Russia, and Southeast Asian countries. As a result, this strategy decreased the competitiveness of domestic timber production and the economic value of wood, which has been the core commodity of common forests. Before the timber liberalization policy, the common forest supplied wood for building houses, offices, castles, and temples, as well as for making furniture, and provided firewood for cooking and heating. From the 1960s onward, as the country entered a period of rapid economic growth, Japan replaced the use of wood with other resources. The use of concrete and steel is more dominant for residential buildings and offices, and the use of fossil fuels in place of firewood is increasingly widespread. In addition, to meet domestic wood demand, the Japanese government no longer relies on domestic supplies and relies instead on imported wood. This timber import policy devastated Japan’s domestic timber production and market. Consequently, the core business of iriai forests, that of meeting domestic wood demand, has gradually declined. Lack of productive activities in rural areas also became one of the drivers for rural people to move to big cities.

 

Together with a group of postgraduate students from Kyoto University, the author visits a private forest in Kawakami Mura, Nara Prefecture. This forest site is the oldest planted forest in Japan.

The final concern relates to land degradation (environmental factor). Iriai rights holders maintain the common forest by growing supporting plants around the main trees. These plants support soil fertility and provide economic benefits to farmers. However, due to the shortage of labor to maintain the common forest, conifer plantations are left unmaintained. At first glance, this condition looks good for conservation, because forests are left green and trees grow for long periods. But apparently, this is not suitable for the healthy growth of the main trees because they are in competition with the shrubbery. Moreover, unmanaged conifer plantations cause frequent landslides in rural areas. These disasters are compounded by the typhoon and earthquake catastrophes that often occur in Japan. This environmental vulnerability is not only the cause but also the result of underutilization of the common forests.

Revitalization Movements

The revitalization of common forest management in Japan corresponds with an attempt to improve rural livelihoods. The Japanese government and nongovernmental organizations engage in rural development, including the revival of common forest management. The Japanese government, through the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, implements a program to increase the interest of urban residents, either Japanese citizens or immigrants, in living in rural areas. These people from different locations assist rural community members in meeting their basic needs, especially related to health and livelihood. Moreover, the Japanese government promotes a “forest volunteer program” to attract people’s interest in getting involved in forest restoration activities. Forest volunteers are individuals other than forest owners or those with a direct interest, who participate in on-site work necessary for forest management in response to the critical state of the forests. Shinji Yamamoto (2003) found that the forest volunteer program has been generating a positive impact on drawing urban people’s interest in forestry activities. This program began in the 1970s and has since spread across the country. According to Japan’s Forestry Agency, the number of citizens’ organisations that have participated in forest volunteer activities was 2,677 as of 2010 (Yamamoto 2003). 

Nonprofit organizations and universities also run several programs to enhance the interest of young generations regarding rural livelihood and environmental management. A crucial example is the kikigaki program. Literally, kikigaki consists of the words kiki (“listening”) and gaki (“writing”). The kikigaki program encourages young people to take an interest in the stories of local people. Kikigaki is a learning method for understanding someone’s life story through direct dialogue. Since 2002, high schools in Japan have adopted the kikigaki method to raise students’ awareness of societal problems faced by rural communities (Effendi 2019). Due to the increase in global attention toward environmental issues, the kikigaki program also covers environmental education for children. Environmental issues allow students to get involved in the revitalization of common forest management. The kikigaki program initially developed in Japan and spread out to other countries, such as Indonesia. I interviewed Motoko Shimagami, who is developing kikigaki programs in both Japan and Indonesia. According to Shimagami, youth involvement is an essential factor in improving rural livelihood and sustainable environmental management. Several years ago, Shimagami conducted a comparative study of common forest management between Indonesia and Japan (Shimagami 2009) and found that similar methods of revitalization of the common forest through the education of high school students are pivotal in both countries.

 

Matsutake Crusaders, a voluntary group dominated by elders who gather every week to maintain a hill landscape, creating a suitable condition for matsutake mushrooms to grow.

Another initiative that I have seen in Japan is the ecovillage network. An ecovillage is an intentional, traditional, or urban community that is consciously designed through locally owned participatory processes encompassing social, cultural, ecological, and economic dimensions to regenerate social and natural environments.[4] In 2013, I visited the Konohana Family ecovillage in Shizuoka Prefecture. This ecovillage is part of a worldwide ecovillage network. The Konohana Family, though it calls itself a family, consists of 100 members who are not of the same blood. They live in rural areas and cultivate collective agricultural land. With the spirit of “togetherness” as a family, they fulfill basic needs through collective land management. During my visit to Japan with the support of the SRA fellowship program, I visited the Matsutake Crusaders in the northern part of Kyoto. This group consists of more than 30 retirees who gather once a week to engage in collaborative natural resource management. They nurture matsutake, a wild mushroom typical of Japan that has high economic and cultural values (Tsing 2015). They voluntarily cut some pine wood as a precondition to creating a suitable environment for matsutake to grow. Professor Fumihiko Yoshimura, the leader of this group, said that although this initiative is different from the iriai rights model, they called it a satoyama movement. The satoyama concept in landscape management combines forest and agricultural activities, mainly in hill areas. Currently, many rural communities in Japan are involved in satoyama movements (Satsuka 2014). In another location, a study by Haruo Saito and Gaku Mitsumata (2008) shows the integration of matsutake production with traditional iriai land use in Oka Village, Kyoto Prefecture.

This article has illustrated five major challenges of common forest management in Japan. These challenges are responded to with a variety of innovations by the government and nongovernment organizations to help the common forest practices survive in supporting rural livelihood. These innovations to revitalize community-based natural resource management have been developed with various narratives such as environmental movements, rural livelihood supports, family and community orientation projects, and voluntary civic education. Although rural communities have encountered serious challenges since Japan entered industrial development, villagers continue to maintain the common forest with some modifications. Villagers demonstrate the resilience of common forest management by taking an inclusive approach that includes migrants in the board membership of common forest management and by involving themselves in broader networks of community-based natural resource movements. Community resilience is the crucial factor in common forest management in Japan.

 

References

Berge, Erling, and Margaret Mckean. 2015. “On the Commons of Developed Industrialized Countries.” International Journal of the Commons 9, no. 2 (September 2015): 469–85.

Effendi, Tonny Dian. 2019. “Local Wisdom-based Environmental Education through Kikigaki Method: Japan Experience and Lesson for Indonesia.” IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science 239: 012038. https://doi.org/10.1088/1755-1315/239/1/012038.

Goto, Kokki. 2007. “‘Iriai Forests Have Sustained the Livelihood and Autonomy of Villagers’: Experience of Commons in Ishimushiro Hamlet in Northeastern Japan.” Working Paper Series No. 30. Afrasian Centre for Peace and Development Studies, Ryukoku University.

Inoue, Makoto, and Ganesha P. Shivakoti. 2015. Multi-level Forest Governance in Asia: Concepts, Challenges and the Way Forward. India: Sage Publication.

Kanamori, Shigenari. 1999. “German Influences on Japanese Pre-War Constitution and Civil Code.” European Journal of Law and Economics 7, no. 93–95. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1008688209052.

Mitsumata, Gaku, and Takeshi Murata. 2007. “Overview and Current Status of the Iriai (Commons) System in the Three Regions of Japan: From the Edo Era through the Beginning of the 21st Century.” Discussion Paper No. 07-04. Kyoto: Multilevel Environmental Governance for Sustainable Development Project.

Miyanaga, Kentaro, and Daisaku Shimada. 2018. “‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ by Underuse: Toward a Conceptual Framework Based on Ecosystem Services and Satoyama Perspective.” International Journal of the Commons 12, no. 1: 332–51.

Saito, Haruo, and Gaku Mitsumata. 2008. “Bidding Customs and Habitat Improvement for Matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake) in Japan.” Economic Botany 62, no. 3: 257–68.

Satsuka, Shiho. 2014. “The Satoyama Movement: Envisioning Multispecies Commons in Postindustrial Japan.” In Asian Environments: Connections across Borders, Landscapes, and Times, RCC Perspectives, no. 3: 87–94.

Shimagami, Motoko. 2009. “An Iriai Interchange Linking Japan and Indonesia: An Experiment in Interactive Learning and Action Leading toward Community-Based Forest Management.” Working Paper Series No. 46. Afrasian Centre for Peace and Development Studies, Ryukoku University.

Suzuki, Tatsuya. 2013 “The Custom and Legal Theory of Iriai in Japan: A History of the Discourse on the Position of the Rights of Common in the Modern Legal System.” In Local Commons and Democratic Environmental Governance, edited by Takeshi Murota and Ken Takeshita. Tokyo-New York-Paris: United Nations University Press.

Takahashi, Takuya, and Koji Matsushita. 2015. “How Did Policy Intervention Work Out for Commons Forests in Japan? An Analysis of Time-Series Prefectural Data.” Paper in the IASC Conference 2015 Edmonton W23 (2015-5-27).

Takamura, Gakuto. 2019. “The Bundle of Rights Model to Explain the Underuse of Japanese Common Forest from History.” Presentation in Asian Law and Society Association (ALSA) Conference, Osaka Univesity, December 12–15, 2019.

Tsing, Anna L. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruin. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Yamamoto, Shinji. 2003. “Forest Volunteer Activity in Japan.” In Local Commons and Democratic Environmental Governance, edited by Takeshi Murota and Ken Takeshita. Tokyo–New York–Paris: United Nations University Press. 287–302.

 

 

 

[1] I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Sozaburo Mitamayama (Osaka University of Tourism) for his hospitality and assistance during my research visit in Japan. I am also thankful for a series of insightful discussions that I have had with Motoko Shimagami (Ehime University), Gaku Mitsumata (Hyogo University), Gakuto Takamura (Ritsumeikan University), and Mamoru Kanzaki and Daisuke Naito (Kyoto University), and for the fruitful comments by Hoko Horri (Leiden University) for this article.

[2] In this article, the terms “common forest” and “iriai forest” are used interchangeably.

[3] See also Kentaro Miyanaga and Daisaku Shimada (2018), who identify three main driving factors that lead to the underuse of common forests in Japan: demographic drivers, socioeconomic drivers, and institutional drivers.

[4] See. https://ecovillage.org/projects/what-is-an-ecovillage/

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Altered Disturbance Regimes and Novel Ecosystems: Understanding and Managing Ecosystem State Change in the Forest-Peatland Ecotone of Southwest Patagonia

January 24, 2020
By 25980

Using an SRA award, Kyla Zaret, a 2018 Sylff fellow from Portland State University, visited Southwest Patagonia in Chile to conduct fieldwork from March to May 2019. She has been continuously visiting this area since 2003, when she was enchanted by the natural beauty of the region. After learning approaches to conservation and development during her master’s program, she began building networks with local people and stakeholders. Her Sylff SRA fieldwork was based on her long-term commitment and experiences.

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Patagonia looms large in the imaginations of individuals across the world, though many people are surprised to learn that the region encompasses more than one million square kilometers and extends from Chile’s fjords in the west to Argentina’s cliff-lined coast to the east, thus traversing both the Andes Mountains and national borders. While the global mythos of Patagonia as a pristine landscape of rivers flowing freely from glaciated peaks through primeval rainforest or across windblown steppe is not entirely false, it does belie the region’s historic and current patterns of land use and landscape change, which are becoming increasingly influenced by climate change and globalization. My academic research and goals as a Sylff fellow are responses to my first-hand experiences of how the above factors affect Patagonia’s ecosystems and people and my desire to lead conservation efforts that transcend socio-political boundaries to engage a diversity of stakeholders in fostering the resilience of this critical, yet vulnerable, region of the world.

Mosaic of burned wetlands and forests along the Vargas River, which parallels the “Southern Highway” and flows into the Baker River (also shown) in the Aysén Region, Chilean Patagonia. Photo by Adam Spencer, 2017.

I first arrived in Patagonia in 2003 as a backpacker, eager to explore the region’s remote and rugged beauty; however, my perspective of people and place has since deepened, as has my commitment to generating positive social change. I began conducting scientific fieldwork in southwest Patagonia in January 2010 while completing an independent research project as part of the International Conservation and Development option of the master’s program in which I was enrolled at the University of Montana (UM). I chose to undertake my practicum in Patagonia because observations that I had made during my initial travels (e.g., the conversion of native forest to nonnative tree plantations, evidence of landscape-scale fires, and a controversial hydroelectric project that would displace families from their homesteads) inspired numerous questions about natural resource management and environmental justice—questions that catalyzed my pursuit of graduate study.

Through the interdisciplinary program at UM, I learned approaches to conservation and development that prioritize local peoples’ knowledges, needs, and perceptions while striving to promote the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem function. Within the doctoral program at Portland State University (PSU), I have been applying those teachings and building upon my master’s research to investigate how patterns of social interaction influence whose information and knowledge about altered ecosystems becomes integrated into decision-making processes, thus determining the next trajectories of ecological and social change. This research is needed because land use practices such as burning, logging, and, more recently, peat moss harvest, continue to dramatically alter the mosaic of temperate rainforests and wetlands (i.e., the “forest-peatland ecotone”) that characterize the landscape of southwest Patagonia, calling into question the continued resilience of sensitive ecosystems and the human communities who depend upon them.

A burned forest site that was once dominated by the cedar tree Pilgerodendron uviferum (Ciprés de las Guaitecas) but is now being harvested for the peat moss Sphagnum magellanicum (pon pon or pompoñ).


Historically, poorly drained sites along river valley bottoms in southwest Patagonia were dominated by a slow-growing, rot-resistant cedar tree (Pilgerodendron uviferum), whose harvest and sale formed the cornerstone of local people’s livelihoods and cultural identities, as I learned through my master’s research (Zaret 2011). Currently, however, almost all of these sites are characterized by fire-charred snags and stumps that rise from a saturated carpet of red-orange peat moss (Sphagnum magellanicum), and the cedar tree is listed as a globally threatened species (IUCN 2010). The change in dominance from cedar tree to peat moss is reflected in a transition in the resource use of these sites: in some parts of southwest Patagonia, people have shifted from harvesting cedar to harvesting peat moss. Thus, trade-offs must be made in the socio-political-economic realm regarding which potential ecosystem services of these now nonforested sites should be encouraged through management decisions. For example, should the keystone species and culturally iconic cedar tree be restored to burned sites, or is there greater perceived value in maintaining such sites in their current state of enhanced peat moss growth (e.g., so as to allow for continued harvest and sale of the moss to the horticulture market)? Conflicts are starting to arise between managers and landowners and other resource users given the passage of a new national law (Decreto 25, August 2019) that regulates the harvest of peat moss on public and private lands. Deciding how best to manage these cedar–peat moss (or “forest-peatland”) sites is further complicated by a dearth of information: none of Chile’s state agencies have been dedicated to wetland management, and very little knowledge is held by agency personnel regarding these altered ecosystems (Fernán Silva, Agricultural Service, pers. comm.).

In response to this situation, my dissertation has two overarching goals, which pertain more to the ecological or social domain of forest-peatland resource use and management of southwest Patagonia. My first goal incorporates ideas of ecosystem resilience (e.g., Holling 1973) and ecological tipping points (e.g., Scheffer and Carpenter 2003) to investigate patterns and mechanisms of ecosystem change across waterlogged sites in southwest Patagonia due to altered climate and fire regimes. I am working on this goal using forest reconstructions, paleoecological data, and vegetation surveys at control and burned sites to compare historical and contemporary relationships between climate, fire, and vegetation. My second goal is to evaluate whether the network of stakeholders engaged in natural resource use and management is structured so as to foster “social learning” (e.g., Muro and Jeffrey 2008), which may be a prerequisite for managing the complex (and novel) multiscalar dynamics of ecosystems comprising this ecotone (Folke et al. 2005). This goal has been made possible by the Sylff Graduate Fellowship and Sylff Research Abroad (SRA) award, which have allowed me to complete the qualitative and quantitative data collection needed to apply the technique of social network analysis (e.g., Bodin and Crona 2009).

Old-growth cedar trees (Pilgerodendron uviferum) rise in the distance beyond tall bulrushes in an unburned area of the Exploradores Valley of the Aysén Region, Chilean Patagonia.

The social dimension of my dissertation research is driven by my interest in whether actors who differ in their capacities (or power) to make decisions that strongly affect their occupations or livelihoods (e.g., governmental land managers vs. resource-dependent landowners or resource harvesters) communicate their knowledge and observations of the natural world with one another. This exchange is needed not only in order to best understand rapidly changing ecological dynamics but also to assure that the perspectives and needs of all stakeholders are taken into account in the management process. Thus, my SRA project was designed to help me answer the research question: Can patterns of information and knowledge exchange within the egocentric networks of distinct socio-political actors be explained by (a) the distribution of relational ties that are constrained, voluntary, or imposed by a third party (i.e., “terms of connection”; Rocheleau and Roth 2007: 434), and/or (b) scale-related differences in perspectives regarding the value(s) of forest-peatland sites?

To begin answering the above question, I conducted fieldwork in the Aysén Region of southern Chile from March to May 2019. (Aysén is where I completed my master’s research and where I have been building my own social network since 2010.) There, I traveled from the capital city of Coyhaique to rural towns and homesteads, engaging in participant observation, meeting with key informants, identifying stakeholders and potential research participants, and conducting semistructured interviews. To find and recruit interview participants, I used purposive snowball sampling to locate individuals representing opposite ends of the socio-political scale ranging from high-interest, low-power individuals to high-interest, high-power individuals. Ultimately, I conducted participant observation with 26 individuals from the land management, commercial, natural resource harvest, and nonprofit science, education, and conservation sectors, and I conducted 12 semistructured interviews (8 with individuals on the high-interest, high-power side of the socio-political scale and 4 with individuals of high interest but low power). This small sample size, especially of low-power individuals, reflects (1) the limited numbers of individuals who are currently regularly engaged in forest-peatland resource use in Aysén[1] and (2) the degree of distrust characterizing landowners’ and resource users’ relations with land managers. That is, a recent campaign by land managers to inform stakeholders of the new rules to be instituted under Decreto 25 resulted in feelings of frustration, and even persecution, on the part of landowners and resource users. Thus, when I arrived at people’s homesteads to discuss the subject of peat moss harvest, many individuals and families were still aggravated over their interactions with land managers. While some people were still open to talking with me—perhaps given my perceived neutral role as a foreign researcher—I felt it inappropriate to request a formal, recorded interview unless I had some prior history and establishment of trust with the research participant.

A view from within a stand of old-growth cedar (Pilgerodendron uviferum) in the Exploradores Valley of the Aysén Region, Chilean Patagonia.


My SRA fieldwork was most productive in terms of connecting me with land managers from the Agricultural Service who will be responsible for implementing the new regulations under Decreto 25. They are actively engaged in building their capacity to understand and monitor the dynamics of forest-peatland sites and to conduct effective education and outreach campaigns. Given my prior work with Round River Conservation Studies (RRCS), a conservation organization that leads study abroad programs for undergraduates and that has been partnering with land management agencies in Aysén since 2012, I was able to participate in several meetings with the Agricultural Service in which I advocated for the recognition of landowners’ and resource harvesters’ knowledge and perspectives. During one of those meetings, a commitment was formed between RRCS and land managers to jointly host a series of workshops for landowners and resource harvesters in which a primary objective would be creating an opportunity to share their experiences and knowledge of forest-peatland sites and to offer feedback on land managers’ activities and regulatory tools.

Back in the United States, I am currently in the process of coding interview data in preparation for conducting the social network analysis (SNA). Following the methods of Knoke and Yang (2008) and Prell (2012), I will map, analyze, and compare the egocentric networks of my research participants in terms of the proportion and quality of information- and knowledge-exchange ties that occur between individuals of the same versus different socio-political scales. These egocentric network maps will display social actors as nodes of different shapes (depending on their socio-political scale) that are connected by arrows, whose direction will indicate whether the exchanges are unidirectional or mutual and whose thickness will represent the quality of the exchange (e.g., whether voluntary or imposed; Rocheleau and Roth 2007). I will use content analysis of the interviews to qualitatively interpret patterns of information and knowledge exchange in the maps in light of people’s own perceptions of their socio-political scales and the value/importance they attribute to forest-peatland sites and their own observations of the natural world.

My preliminary findings, from participant observation and informal conversations, suggest that despite land managers’ new imperatives to identify and communicate with stakeholders, the flow of knowledge and information within and across socio-political scales is currently impaired due to the following: (1) landowners’ frustrations with past interactions with land managers; (2) landowners’ and resource harvesters’ lack of awareness of or appreciation for their own knowledge of the natural history of forest-peatland sites; (3) land managers’ lack of recognition of landowners and resource users as legitimate knowledge holders; and (4) structural aspects of regional institutions that limit communication between land managers, even within a single agency. Ultimately, I hope that the network maps—the visual products emerging from this research—can be used to pinpoint and convey where efforts to enhance communication and collaboration between stakeholders have the best chance to ensure that all perspectives and insights are brought into play to guide the wise use and continuing availability of natural resources in southwest Patagonia. I also intend to use the outcomes of my research to draw attention to other understudied nonboreal forest-peatland ecotones of the world. These areas have received scant attention from the global scientific community despite their vulnerability to climate change and their potential to contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions if burned (Davies et al. 2013), thus threatening the resilience of local and nonlocal ecosystems and actors.

The Sylff fellow, so excited to have finally located an old-growth stand of cedar trees (Pilgerodendron uviferum) in the Exploradores Valley of the Aysén Region, Chilean Patagonia.

As a Sylff fellow and SRA awardee, I am thankful to have been able to expand my dissertation to include a social line of inquiry that (1) will generate new conceptual and methodological links between governance, scale, and social network theory that pertain to knowledge and information exchange regarding the use and management of altered ecosystems and (2) has an applied goal of active “network weaving” (Vance-Borland and Holley 2011). In this way, I feel that I am becoming a conservation scientist and practitioner who works to transform environmental governance into a process that is equitable and inclusive for all natural resource stakeholders.

References

Bodin, Ö., and B.I. Crona. 2009. The role of social networks in natural resource governance: What relational patterns make a difference? Global Environmental Change 19 (3): 366–74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2009.05.002.

Davies, G.M., A. Gray, G. Rein, and C.J. Legg. 2013. Peat consumption and carbon loss due to smouldering wildfire in a temperate peatland. Forest Ecology and Management 308 (November): 169–77.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2013.07.051.

Folke, C., T. Hahn, P. Olsson, and J. Norberg. 2005. Adaptive governance of social-ecological systems. Annual Review of Environmental Resources, 30: 441–73. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.energy.30.050504.144511

Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4: 1–23.

Knoke, D., and S. Yang. 2008. Social Network Analysis. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc. http://methods.sagepub.com/book/social-network-analysis.

Muro, M., and P. Jeffrey. 2008. A critical review of the theory and application of social learning in participatory natural resource management processes. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 51 (3): 325–44. https://doi.org/10.1080/09640560801977190.

Prell, C. 2012. Social Network Analysis: History, Theory and Methodology. Los Angeles: SAGE Publishing.

Rocheleau, D., and R. Roth. 2007. Rooted networks, relational webs and powers of connection: Rethinking human and political ecologies. Geoforum 38 (3): 433–37. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.10.003.

Scheffer, M. and S.R. Carpenter. 2003. Catastrophic regime shifts in ecosystems: Linking theory to observation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 18 (12): 648–656.

Vance-Borland, K. and J. Holley. 2011. Conservation stakeholder network mapping, analysis, and weaving: Conservation stakeholder networks. Conservation Letters 4 (4): 278–88. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00176.x.

Zaret., K. 2011. Distribution, use and cultural meanings of ciprés de las Guaitecas in the vicinity of Caleta Tortel, Chile. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Montana.

 

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REDD+ and the Forest Commons in Nepal

November 22, 2019
By 21457

Sylff fellow Shangrila Joshi, a researcher on environmental studies and climate justice, held workshops and a forum on REDD+, one of the climate mitigation initiatives, for forest community users in Nepal, with funding from Sylff Leadership Initiatives (SLI). Although REDD+ is widely promoted as a global effort to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, Joshi argues that the implementation of associated projects often lacks informed consent by all stakeholders, and it is often the case that community forest users are left out from the discussion. Joshi conducted the SLI project to raise proper understanding of REDD+ among forest users with the ultimate goal in mind of realizing climate justice.

* * *

As climate change moves from being an impending crisis to an ongoing planetary emergency, it is important to critically evaluate the many so-called climate solutions that have arisen in response. REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is one of the mitigation options that have emerged out of the United Nations deliberation process. It is a market-based mechanism to address climate mitigation by promoting the sequestration of carbon dioxide in forests while facilitating a global trade in certified emission reductions of sequestered carbon. This arrangement allows high emitters to meet their emission reduction targets by financing emission reduction programs in forest-rich developing countries.

Internationally, REDD+ has been heavily criticized and opposed by affected communities, scholars, and activists due to concerns about land grabs and human rights abuses and for not addressing the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions, namely fossil-fuel-based industries. Nepal has been an attractive prospect for those seeking to pursue these mitigation attempts while minimizing their worst side effects, because REDD+ has been proposed for community forests with a proven record of governance that empowers local communities while enhancing forest cover.

Shangrila Joshi with members of Chaturmukhi Community Forest in Gaduwa, Chitwan.

SLI Project Highlights

The perceptions of REDD+ among Nepal’s community forest users have been the focus of my research investigations for the past few years. Specifically, I interviewed forest users and conducted participant observation in the three sites in Nepal where the REDD+ pilot project was implemented—Gorkha, Dolakha, and Chitwan—during the monsoon of 2017. I conducted follow-up meetings and site visits in Chitwan in 2018. During August 2019, with SLI support, I facilitated a series of workshops in Chitwan and a three-day forum in Pokhara bringing together 24 members of the Community Forest User Group (CFUG) and Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN) from 12 districts of the Terai, where Nepal’s first World Bank program for REDD+ is slated for implementation.

 

Participants hearing a presentation by Dr. Joshi at the three-day forum in Pokhara.

Conversations in the workshops and forum revealed that while the desire of forest users to benefit from REDD+ is strong, their knowledge of how REDD+ specifically and carbon trading more generally operates in the local, national, and international contexts is weak. There is high demand for such knowledge to be widely disseminated in areas where REDD+ programs are to be ushered in. Participants were highly enthusiastic about welcoming REDD+ to their communities in ways that maximize economic and ecological benefits while avoiding harm to local communities. There was strong consensus among all participants that knowledge regarding REDD+ is highly inadequate in the local communities to be affected by REDD+, that access to such knowledge is desirable and necessary, and that any policies and benefit sharing should be equitable and just and involve meaningful participation of all stakeholders from the start. Community forest users at the forum and workshops overall expressed a strong desire to be active participants, not passive recipients in Nepal’s REDD+ programming.

Without a proper understanding among those who would be most affected by REDD+ of how REDD+ operates, how it strives to mitigate climate change, and how local forests and forest users are implicated, I argue that its proponents risk ignoring the principle of free, prior, and informed consent. The deliberations of the forum and workshops have been summarized in a white paper that has been shared with concerned officials in the Ministry of Forests and Environment, the World Bank, and FECOFUN, as well as media outlets in Nepal, so that the voices of community forest users may reach concerned authorities. In the white paper, I argued that meaningful participation and fully informed consent were not facilitated in all community forests in the Terai before the agreement on REDD+ was made between Nepal and the World Bank. If REDD+ is to move forward in Nepal, it is urgent that these gaps and oversight be rectified with a coordinated drive to involve local forest stakeholders in all REDD+ districts, through educational programs and discussion about the complex connections between climate change and forests, how REDD+ operates, what the rights of local forest users are, and how they can best advocate for their rights, if REDD+ is to move forward in Nepal.

 

 

Neoliberal Climate Solutions and the Commons

Although Nepal does not present blatant cases of disenfranchisement such as land grabs in areas where REDD+ projects are being introduced, concern is warranted for possible erosion of progressive structures. REDD+ is often characterized as a neoliberal solution, meaning it is predicated on the problematic assumption that free trade is the best way to maximize well-being and that the market is the best place through which to resolve social and environmental problems by virtue of the enlightened behavior of consumers buying and selling commodities. This is a decidedly different approach to resolving problems from that of members of a community deciding to impose rules and regulations to change behavior and address identified problems. Those interested in learning further about these two distinct ways to conceptualize and resolve problems may wish to look into the work of Elinor Ostrom, who tirelessly sought to correct the misconceptions introduced into the realm of environmental problem solving by Garrett Hardin through his highly influential yet problematic article “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

Is the tragedy of the atmospheric commons best solved through collective action—such as through a concerted global effort to scale back the burning of fossil fuels, addressing the problem at the source—or by commodifying the atmosphere, buying and selling carbon credits in the global marketplace? Carbon trading commodifies the atmospheric commons by assigning a price for a unit of reduced emissions: a carbon credit that can be bought and sold in the global carbon market. As a commodity, the price of carbon is determined not by its actual worth but rather by the vagaries of the market, and hence it is greatly underpriced. Ironically, the buyers of carbon credit—the ones creating emissions—determine the price of emissions reduction, while those who are already relatively blameless have little to no say. The latter are also more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, hence the importance of a climate justice lens to evaluate these neoliberal climate solutions.

Not only do those members of the global community who are making a carbon trade possible due to their labor and everyday choices have little power to influence the price of the carbon commodity they are selling; they are in many cases enabling this trade without their fully informed consent. Intermediaries such as the World Bank and government agencies often mediate the transactions between the buyers and sellers of carbon credits in ways that diminish the agency of the seller. Even if blatant instances of disenfranchisement may not occur in Nepal, these subtle ways of what geographer David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession” are concerning. In addition to these issues that are generic in the world, the stakes are high for Nepal also because of credible threats to common pool resource governance structures such as community forestry.

Community forestry users and leaders are generally highly welcoming and desirous of REDD+ projects due to the resources they promise, even if and perhaps precisely because the complex connections between forests, community forestry institutions, and global climate change are not well understood. The integration of local forests into a regime of global carbon trade requires quantification and measurement of carbon sequestered in forests in such a manner that privileges reductionist ways of managing forests. A related concern then is whether a move to embrace REDD+ might disenfranchise forest users from their ability to use their local and/or traditional ecological knowledge for forest management in ways that disproportionately privilege outsiders with technological skills and training in “scientific forestry.”

Power dynamics in the local context are important to understand as well. Specifically, programs such as REDD+ operate within an established culture of patriarchal domination, caste privilege, and disproportionate power of the urban educated elite. Attempts at gender sensitization and gender mainstreaming are laudable if insufficient, but there are indications that efforts to encourage equity for Dalit and Janjati groups are occurring in problematic ways that appear to further exacerbate animosity between social groups. If these instruments of carbon trading are to continue and do so in socially just ways, the question of what constitutes a “fair trade” in carbon as commodity at multiple scales begs serious attention.

The climate crisis can be seen as creating opportunities to reevaluate power dynamics at multiple scales, as well as to re-envision how the earth’s resources are used. Even as climate change offers new frontiers for the decades-long project of commodifying nature, thus enhancing the power of corporations, it has strengthened the resolve of activists who are striving to keep remaining fossil fuels in the ground and to hold companies and countries accountable for the climate crisis. In Nepal, there are opportunities to strengthen existing institutional arrangements designed to empower ordinary people to engage in ecologically sustainable behavior. The challenge is to do so equitably and in meaningful, not tokenizing, ways. The current moment in Nepal—and the world—serves as a reminder that the stakes for a battle between these competing forces have never been higher.

Shangrila Joshi, author of the article, visiting Baghdevi Community Forest in Parsa, Chitwan.

(All photos by Addison Joshi Felizola)

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Designing Food for the Future

October 31, 2019
By 24920

Global warming has accelerated sharply in the past five years. Mitigating the catastrophic effects of climate change will require path-breaking changes in every facet of our lives—particularly in the way we travel and the way we eat. Kabira Namit, a 2014 Sylff fellow at Princeton University, highlights a radical approach to revolutionize food production over the next few decades that he and other fellows discussed at the Sylff Leaders Workshop in April 2019. This post was written in collaboration with Salvia Zeeshan, a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, with additional assistance from Prabhmeet Kaur.

*     *     *

What’s Wrong with the Way We Eat?

To put it simply, we eat a lot of meat. Raising livestock produces a fifth of human-related greenhouse gas emissions. Also, livestock farming utilizes 70% of the earth’s arable land, 30% of the earth’s fresh water, and around 46% of all crop-production for feed.[1]

Beyond the pressures on our environment, there is also an ethical argument to be made toward changing our current behavior. We slaughter more than 50 billion chickens per year—animals with abilities that may be comparable to human toddlers. Also, nearly 1.5 billion pigs and 500 million sheep[2] find their way to the abattoir each year. The conditions in which we keep these animals before they are killed are best left unimagined.   

Also, meat consumption is linked to an array of health problems like the transfer of animal diseases, high cholesterol, and the increased risk of cancer.

Is Vegetarianism the Solution?

Ideally, yes. Turning to vegetarian diets would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce our expenditure on healthcare, and provide more food security to the world’s population. There is definite evidence to suggest that people are becoming more conscientious and reducing their meat consumption. For example, in the US, consumers identifying themselves as vegans rose from 1% to 6% between 2014 and 2017;[3] in the UK the number has grown fourfold from 150,000 to 600,000 between 2014 and 2018.[4]

However, this is not enough, as only 375 million out of the 7.7 billion individuals[5] on this planet follow vegetarian/vegan diets. Also, let’s be honest—given that humans have been eating meat since the dawn of our species, attempts to switch the entire human race to vegetarianism seem utopian. We get protein from meat consumption and tend to relish dishes like steaks, sashimi, and sushi. Eating meat on certain days is also considered a tradition and a symbol of prosperity.

Can We Continue Eating Meat while Combating Climate Change?

Lab-grown meat—cultured meat or clean meat, as it is also known—has been around for nearly a decade now and may be the solution to this intractable problem. Lab-grown meat is identical to conventional meat at the cellular level and is grown from animal muscle cells in a laboratory. The bioreactor that is used in producing this meat is similar to those used for the fermentation of yogurt or beer. No genetic modification is required for this process, and, since the process is sterile, there is no need for antibiotics.

©Just

It is also much better for the environment. Cultured meat requires 99% less land and 96% less water[6] than livestock. Removing the consumption of conventional meat and dairy products from one’s diet would reduce an individual’s carbon footprint of consumed food by up to 73%. Moreover, we could reduce global farmland use by 75%,[7] an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia, and the European Union combined. Also, no animal needs to be slaughtered for your next steak!

With a soaring global population and a surge in demand for meat from people emerging from poverty, the burden on the earth’s limited ecological resources is only going to worsen. The meat industry estimates an expected increase of 73% in global demand for meat products by 2050.[8] Cultured meat may be just the pivotal revolution we need in food technology. It has enormous implications for meat eaters, the meat industry, and the environment.

So, What’s the Problem?

Currently, costs. Producing meat in a lab remains an expensive affair. The first lab-designed burger that Mark Post produced had a price tag of $330,000,[9] compared to the $2 that people tend to pay for burgers in the United States today. However, costs have been plummeting—Memphis Meats from San Francisco produced a lab-grown meatball for $18,000 in 2016. Just a year later, it produced a synthetic duck à l’orange and chicken nuggets at $6,000.[10]

Industry experts believe that upscaling and positive externalities will result in the same patty being produced for $10[11] in the future. However, research and development remain a costly affair. Also, weaving together muscle and fat tissue is a major hurdle obstructing the production of complex structured cuts, such as steaks, pork chops, and ribs.

Understandably, the industry is also wary of people’s attitudes and preferences. How many people will be open to consuming a lab-grown turkey next Thanksgiving? Or a cultured fish for Chinese New Year?

What Should We Do?

Invest in research! Cost-effective synthetic meat could prove to be a game-changer—not just for our fight against climate change and ethical food production but also in eliminating contamination due to bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella (as lab meat is cultivated under sterile conditions).[12] Composition of the meat can also be altered to make it healthier by replacing the harmful fats in it to healthier fats, such as omega 3. 

According to researchers at Oxford Martin School, we could save approximately 8 million human lives by 2050[13] if we decrease our reliance on traditional meat production. We could also diminish greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds, and save $1.5 trillion in healthcare costs and climate-related damage.

We need to urge our governments and policymakers to invest more in such vital research and help feed populations in the future in ethical, eco-friendly, and efficient ways.

[1] Ewing-Chow, D. (2019, June 20). “Is Cultured Meat the Answer to the World’s Meat Problem?” Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/daphneewingchow/2019/06/20/is-cultured-meat-the-answer-to-the-worlds-meat-problem/.

[2] Thornton, A. (2019, February 8). “This Is How Many Animals We Eat Each Year.” Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/02/chart-of-the-day-this-is-how-many-animals-we-eat-each-year/.

[3] Forgrieve, J. (2018, November 2). “The Growing Acceptance of Veganism.” Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetforgrieve/2018/11/02/picturing-a-kindler-gentler-world-vegan-month/#2a6387252f2b.

[4] Smithers, R. (2018, November 1). “Third of Britons Have Stopped or Reduced Eating Meat: Report.” Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/nov/01/third-of-britons-have-stopped-or-reduced-meat-eating-vegan-vegetarian-report.

[5] Figus, C., Cavaleri, A., & Mottadelli, R. (2014, October 27). “375 Million Vegetarians Worldwide. All the Reasons for a Green Lifestyle.” Retrieved from http://www.expo2015.org/magazine/en/lifestyle/375-million-vegetarians-worldwide.html.

[6] Ewing-Chow, D. (2019, June 20). “Is Cultured Meat the Answer to the World’s Meat Problem?” Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/daphneewingchow/2019/06/20/is-cultured-meat-the-answer-to-the-worlds-meat-problem/.

[7] Petter, O. (2018, August 29). “Going Vegan Is ‘Single Biggest Way’ to Reduce Our Impact on the Planet, Study Finds.” Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/veganism-environmental-impact-planet-reduced-plant-based-diet-humans-study-a8378631.html.

[8] Salvage, B. (2011, December 14). “Global Meat Consumption to Rise 73 Percent by 2050: FAO.” Retrieved from https://www.meatpoultry.com/articles/4395-global-meat-consumption-to-rise-73-percent-by-2050-fao.

[9] Burningham, G. (2016, May 25). “Lab-Grown Beef Will Save the Planet—And Be a Billion-Dollar Business.” Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/lab-grown-beef-will-save-planet-and-be-billion-dollar-business-430980.

[10] Cassiday, L. (2018, February). “Clean Meat.” Retrieved from https://www.aocs.org/stay-informed/inform-magazine/featured-articles/clean-meat-february-2018.

[11] Ireland, T. (2019, May 30). “The Artificial Meat Factory—The Science of Your Synthetic Supper.” Retrieved from https://www.sciencefocus.com/future-technology/the-artificial-meat-factory-the-science-of-your-synthetic-supper/.

[12] Nishitani, A. (2011, March 30). “Food of the Future: In Vitro Meat?” Retrieved from http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2011/issue90/.

[13] Springmann, M.C.J., Godfray, H.C.J., Rayner, M.C.J., & Scarborough, P.C.J. (2016). “Analysis and Valuation of the Health and Climate Change Cobenefits of Dietary Change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(15), 4146–4151. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1523119113.kabi.

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Thoughts Regarding Local Foods

October 11, 2019
By 24933

Nomingerel Davaadorj, a 2009 Sylff fellow at the National Academy of Governance and one of 20 participants in the first Sylff Leaders Workshop, gives her insights into local foods in Mongolia, her home country, and Japan, where she spent two years in completing her LLM at Kyushu University.

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I had the privilege of participating in the first Sylff Leaders Workshop, where Sylff fellows from diverse backgrounds discussed the topic of “The Future of Food Production in 2030” in the cities of Sasayama, Hyogo Prefecture, and Beppu, Oita Prefecture, in Japan. The workshop was a generous opportunity to experience Japanese culture and cuisine and to access important landmarks and places in Japanese history. It also motivated me to share my thoughts about local foods and food experiences I enjoyed in Japan during the workshop.

Food production and food security are not directly my professional concerns. However, I became interested in these issues through my research into pastoral livestock husbandry management. Pastoral livestock husbandry is still practiced in Mongolia today, and it is considered a main producer of organic food. I remember being surprised when I discovered that there are restrictions on the intake of milk and dairy products by young children in some countries. This was because I was taught as a child that milk and dairy products are good for our teeth and bone development. Fortunately, we had organic milk and dairy products produced through traditional, free ranching practices. They were all locally produced or processed, and we did not need to worry about high levels of hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides. Since initiating my research on pastoral livestock husbandry, I have come to know the significance of locally produced foods and their benefits to our wellbeing and environmental sustainability.

Describing local foods in Mongolia at the final presentation in Beppu.

 

One solution toward ensuring food security generated from our discussions was to utilize cultural knowledge of staple foods. During my two years living in Japan, I have noticed that the eating habits of the Japanese people are very healthy and that Japanese-style dishes use very nutritious ingredients. The keynote speech in Sasayama by Professor Narumi Yoshikawa, an expert on the agricultural economy, about the teikei organic agricultural movement initiated in the 1970s was intriguing because it is based on traditional culture and embraces eco-friendly practices. It was an example of how local foods and traditional, indigenous knowledge could become part of a national trend.

Until recently, I believed that we, Mongolians, are lactose-tolerant, meaning that we can digest milk and dairy products with an enzyme called lactase in the body.[1] Dairy foods make up a significant share of our food consumption even in adulthood. But recent research revealed that only 5% of Mongolians actually have lactase persistence alleles. Additionally, findings indicated that traditional knowledge of producing dairy products played a significant role in changing the microorganisms in milk.[2] In brief, traditional food culture and its food processing technology, passed down from generation to generation, simply changed the “game” to compensate for lactose intolerance.

Local food items, naturally, form the core of local cuisine. In Japan, many localities have developed their own typical dishes that are only available locally. Examples include Kobe beef, Hokkaido’s soft serve ice cream and seafood, Okinawa’s yagi sashimi (raw goat meat), Fukuoka’s Hakata ramen, Itoshima’s oysters, Osaka’s takoyaki, Hiroshima’s okonomiyaki, and so on. They all use common foods like vegetables, fish, and meat, but the uniqueness lies in the way they are prepared or cooked, which is linked to traditional knowledge.

Discovering and eating famous local foods can be fun and delicious, almost like participating in a food marathon. During our workshop, we had opportunities to experience many traditional Japanese dishes, including black soybeans (kuromame) and boar meat in Sasayama, Edo-style cuisine on a yakatabune cruise in Tokyo Bay, Kyoto-style cuisine (kaiseki) in the Gion district of Kyoto, Buddhist cuisine (shojin ryori) in the Monju Senji Temple in Oita, and a pufferfish course (fugu) in Beppu. They were all special because they were prepared with local know-how and ingredients only available in the respective areas.    

Dinner on the first night in Sasayama.

 

Shojin ryori is a meal without meat, fish, or other animal products, being based instead on grains and vegetables. It is the cuisine of Buddhist monks at Japanese temples. The main source of protein is tofu and other soybean-based foods. Before having shojin ryori at Monju Senji Temple, I expected simple dishes since my friendly coordinators from the Sylff Association secretariats told me so, and I was looking forward to experiencing the elegant austerity of the monastic life. Indeed, shojin ryori turned out to be a beautifully arranged and tasty set meal. It was evidence of how simple and humble ingredients can be rendered into a charming and fulfilling meal. Of course, the secret was traditional cooking knowledge and locally prepared tofu made with water from a spring. As the head monk explained, both my mind and body were gratified after having shojin ryori.

 

Shojin ryori.

 

Fugu, or pufferfish, is a Japanese delicacy. Time magazine called fugu one of the Top 10 Most Dangerous Foods, saying “fugu’s intestines, ovaries and liver contain a poison called tetrodotoxin, which is 1,200 times deadlier than cyanide.”[3] Fugu has been eaten for centuries in Japan, though, and “poison-free” methods of preparation have been handed down from generation to generation. Currently, only licensed chefs who have two to three years of training are allowed to prepare fugu dishes. Another interesting fact is that fugu is the only food the Emperor of Japan is forbidden to eat by law. It was my first time to have a full set of fugu dishes, including fugu sashimi, fried fugu, fugu sushi, fugu soup, and fugu rice porridge.

Fugu dishes.

 

Shojin ryori and fugu are examples of local foods that developed as part of traditional culture using indigenous knowledge. Thanks to the support of policymakers and an effective tourism policy, local foods have taken root in every part of Japan. The traditional foods we encountered during the two sessions of the workshop were wonderful, yet quite different. Countries like Mongolia that face challenges in preserving local foods in the era of standardized food production should draw lessons from these initiatives in Japan. Locally grown foods are considered the most delicious and nutritious. Should we lose such local foods in today’s globalized world, this would be like losing one’s national identity. It would indeed be boring if everything was the same wherever you went. So, I hope that everyone will consider local foods seriously and support their survival into the future.

Finally, I want to thank the Sylff Association for giving me the opportunity to participate in a highly enjoyable experience during the Leaders Workshop. I treasure the friendship with the 19 other fellows who continue to inspire and motivate me in promoting my professional and personal growth. Thank you all!

[1] https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/digestive-diseases-lactose-intolerance#1, last visited Sep 25, 2019.

[2] Choongwon Jeong et al., “Bronze Age Population Dynamics and the Rise of Dairy Pastoralism on the Eastern Eurasian Steppe,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 115, no. 48 (November 27, 2018): at E11253, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1813608115.

[3] http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1967235_1967238_1967227,00.html, last visited Sep 25, 2019.