Four decades ago the oriental white stork became extinct in Japan, the victim of rapid industrialisation and modern farm practices and heavy pesticide use that destroyed its habitat. Today, the graceful migratory bird soars again over restored wetlands around the small town of Toyooka in western Japan, now a showcase for an ambitious conservation effort called the Satoyama Initiative.
As Japan hosts a UN conference on biodiversity this week, the high-tech nation is pushing the initiative to promote some of its ancient village wisdom as a way to heal battered environments worldwide.
The initiative draws lessons from before Japan became studded with megacities and crisscrossed by bullet train lines, when most people lived in villages near rice paddies, bamboo groves and forests.
In the pre-industrial age, woodlands gave villagers plants, nuts, mushrooms and wildlife as well as natural medicines, textiles, fuel and timber for building, all usually harvested sustainably over the centuries.
These managed ecosystems – neither pristine wilderness nor cultivated agricultural landscapes – are known as “satoyama”, a composite of the words for villages (sato) and mountains, woods and grasslands (yama).
Today ecologists, somewhat less poetically, call them “socio-ecological production landscapes”.
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