Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Long Shadow, part two

In the previous essay, I wrote about the long ecological shadow that Japan has cast upon the rainforests of Southeast Asia since the end of World War Two. The rainforests have been devastated, bringing wealth to major Japanese corporations, and to corrupt governments in Southeast Asia, but economic and natural devastation upon the poor people in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Not even to mention the forests themselves.

But this has not always been the case. Before American Admiral Matthew Perry forcefully opened Japan to colonization and world trade in 1854—in what we would call pre-industrial Japan—Japan was a totally isolated land. Nobody came in, and nobody left, especially since about 1600. Japan needed and desired wood products, but they had to get them entirely from their own land.

Japan consists of four major and many minor volcanic islands. And they were young islands, formed by volcanic eruptions in geologically recent times. Despite profound temperature differences between the cold forests of the northwest and the warm wet forests of the southeast, trees covered the entire archipelago; there were no natural grasslands or deserts.

The mountains are steep and consist of young rock with thin soils. Between the mountains are a few areas of rich soil eroded down from the mountains. Life was difficult in the mountains. The only way to raise food was to create terraces, which had stairsteps of flat, wet rice paddies. Most of the people lived, as they do today, crowded into the small flatlands.

As Conrad Totman has written in The Green Archipelago: Forestry in Preindustrial Japan, one might have expected Japan to be, by 1854, a devastated landscape. The major natural resource that they had for building was wood. There was no major source of limestone or clay for building. Once the people started cutting down the forests, it took a long time for the forests to grow back. The only reason that Japan was still a green archipelago in 1854 was because the government of Japan, fractured as it was, developed sophisticated techniques of forest management. After World War Two, Japan financed the widespread destruction of Asian rainforests; but before 1854, they carefully managed and renewed their domestic forests. And they did so better than just about any other country in the history of the world up to that point.

Many of the Japanese forests today are not natural forests but are plantations. I noticed this when, as an exchange student, I visited Japan in 1974. My host family drove us along the highways, which led through intensely managed landscapes; there were even rice paddies along the sides of the road. When I looked up at the dark forests, I noticed that they seemed to be flashing as we passed rows of trees. The trees did not form a uniform cover but were all lined up in military precision.


I took this photo in 1974. The forests on the mountains are plantations, and the green grass on the roadside is rice.

From about 1600 to 1854, during a time when forests were being destroyed worldwide, Japan was re-growing its forests.

There were two major periods of deforestation in Japanese history. The first was the Heian (old name for Kyōto) period, about the year 700. At this time, powerful lords built huge mansions and castles, all of them from wood. That is, from very good wood, made from the large straight knot-free trunks of hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa) and sugi (Cryptomeria japonica), both relatives of cypresses and sequoia trees. This was a period of high cultural attainment and the development of a reverence for nature. But at the same time, the people (working for the lords) were cutting down the very forests they revered. After many decades of this, much of the landscape was degraded. The trees that continued to grow were mostly deciduous trees such as oak and chestnut, which were smaller and more suitable for charcoal production than to build great structures. Peasants also used branches and litter as fertilizer for their fields (since there was very little livestock and very little animal manure). The lords continued to build castles but used the good wood for the frames and edges, where it could be seen; they used lower quality wood for the walls, which they covered with plaster. Since warfare was nearly constant, the plaster castles were more resistant to incendiary attacks. Wood shingles were replaced with ceramic tiles, which were also safer from fire. Fine wood floors gave way to cheap floors covered with tatami (woven sedge) mats. Peasants were forbidden to use sugi or hinoki wood for their houses. Fortunately, rural villages could make almost everything they needed from bamboo, which grew rapidly from persistent root stocks. But even these changes did not save the forests.

By the year 718, a crisis was developing. That year, the Yōrō Code advocated tree planting to prevent soil erosion and flooding. In 821, an order explicitly called for forest protection to keep water supplies safe. Deforestation temporarily slowed, but by 1050 rapacious deforestation began in the same area. Pine barrens (hageyama) developed on degraded soil. The Heian period declined, largely due to the loss of forests. This is not what I learned in Japanese history classes, which focused on warriors.

Starting about 1200, the center of power shifted to Edo (modern Tōkyō), which had largely intact forests. Massive deforestation began again. Nobody actually owned land, but had land use rights, which were transferable and legal. Villages had forests they could manage, and villages could determine punishment for people in the village or from outside cutting wood—even breaking off branches—without authorization. This was serious business. Some disputes were handled by trial by ordeal, in which disputants handled red hot sickles or axes, or at least faced the threat of it. Many of the finest forests (the ohayashi) were reserved for the lords—one quarter for the shōgun, three quarters for the daimyō barons. You didn’t mess with these forests either.

According to Totman, the last original forest in Japan was cut in 1692. These figures do not include Ezo (now Hokkaidō), which is still covered with spruce and fir forests, and which has never been until recently an integral part of Japan.

In response to wood shortages, restrictions were severe. The central shogunate government, in 1699, strictly enforced maximum house sizes for villagers: a village headman could have a house no larger than about 4 by 30 meters, a taxable peasant no more than about 4 by 6, and all others only 4 by 4 meters. The poorer people also had to use smaller planks. Forests continued to shrink, especially after earthquakes destroyed major urban areas by causing fires. Edo was rebuilt several times, always from wood. The biggest was the Meireki fire of 1657. At such times, villages could earn a lot of money selling their wood to the cities. The Japanese were serious about saving their forests. Wood poachers could quietly steal wood when they cut it with saws, but axes made a lot of noise. To reduce poaching, the government outlawed the use of saws.

By the 1500s, it became obvious to the leaders that replanting trees was necessary, mainly for wood from which to rebuild castles destroyed in wars. (Sometimes the forests themselves were destroyed in wars.) I am not aware that extensive tree planting happened in any other part of the world. In 1649, the Edo government urged villages to plant trees and bamboo. In 1650, the daimyō of Kuwana said that there should be a thousand trees planted for every tree cut down. Why so many? I explain it below. In 1713, the government issued a major directive for replanting trees.

Replanting was not merely a matter of throwing seeds on the ground. A soil bed was prepared, usually out in nature. Either lots of seeds or a smaller number of slips (branch cuttings) were stuck in these beds. Once the seedlings or slips were about a foot high, they could be transplanted into the forests or into plantations. Every step was carefully done to make sure that transplants would have plenty of roots in contact with moist soil. There were many silviculture manuals in circulation at that time. There were instructions for how to dig the holes, including keeping dead leaves out of the hole, which might impede the contact between transplant roots and soil. The instructions even specified that the planter had to give each transplant a little tug to make sure it was firmly set.

In some places, these superman-Johnny-Appleseeds planted over 300 thousand trees (Totman has the numbers in his book). In just one small part of Kyūshū, in 1824, twelve thousand man days were spent on planting over a million sugi seedlings. In 1820-1865, in the Kikuchi district, 9,327,000 sugi and hinoki seedlings were planted.

Why so many? Because most of them died. In subsequent years, planters would thin out the saplings. When the saplings were large enough, the ones thinned out could be used as poles or tool handles. Who did the planting? At first, it was forced labor or punishment for poaching, but later the planters got paid, or were given permission to cut some of the trees for charcoal. The government preferred labor from villagers who had a stake in the outcome. When forced labor planted the trees, they all died because of sloppy work; when villagers planted them, half survived.

Aftercare, for many years, was important. This included shaking the snow off of transplants that were bent over, and by cutting away vines. Village patrols maintained firebreaks.

Wood sources developed local reputations. For example, the best timber for making ships came from the south, even though this was not the main area in which hinoki and sugi would grow naturally. This is because, in warm moist conditions, the wood grew faster, had bigger xylem vessels, which filled with air when the wood dried—great for making ships. By the nineteenth century, plantation wood was much preferred to wild wood. Plantations grew on the best soil and were in the most accessible locations, near a river for easy transport. Wild trees on high mountain slopes were just not as profitable.

Extensive tree planting centuries ago is one reason that you cannot study forest ecology in Japan by just looking at which species of trees grow where they do today. The range of hinoki and sugi trees today may be the result of planting, not of nature.

Cut off from the world by choice, the Japanese government recognized the need for forestry. It was not an esthetic, but a practical, decision to save their forests. For whatever reason, they led the world in forest conservation. A proclamation in Akita, issued in 1615, said that they needed forests for their future. This changed in the twentieth century, when Japan began its wars of aggression and then, later, financed the destruction of Asian rainforests (see previous essay). But I was astonished to discover that Japan was centuries ahead of the rest of the world in forest conservation.

Friday, February 3, 2023

The Long Shadow, Part One


The long ecological shadow, that is.

An “ecological shadow” of a corporation or of a country is when the corporation or country creates ecological damage but exports, or dumps, that damage someplace else. An example that immediately comes to mind is Love Canal, in which the Hooker Chemical Company dumped huge amounts of toxic wastes near Niagara Falls, New York, and simply buried it. The damage affected hundreds of residents of a housing tract that was, later, built over the dump. The company got all the profits, the people got all the damage. That is an ecological shadow.

Well, countries can do this, too. And, according to Peter Dauvergne in his book Shadows in the Forest: Japan and the Politics of Timber in Southeast Asia, this is exactly what Japan has done to the countries of Southeast Asia. Japan has gotten a huge amount of profit from the destruction of tropical rainforests, especially in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Most of the profits from tropical deforestation went to Japan; some of the profits went to corrupt leaders in southeast Asian countries; while all of the consequences of deforestation, such as floods and mudslides and loss of livelihood, were borne by the poor people of those countries. These people were in the ecological shadow of Japan. Dauvergne admits other countries have contributed to the problem, but Japan was the major player.


After American Admiral Matthew Perry forcefully opened Japan to colonization and world trade in 1854, Japan could in theory get all the wood it wanted by importing it from other countries. They did not do this very much, at first, because wood is heavy and bulky, not easily imported from China, Korea, or especially from Southeast Asia, even after Japan conquered many of those  countries immediately prior to World War Two. But once Japan surrendered, they were encouraged to build up their peacetime economy, which included vast shipping lanes. By the 1950s, Japan imported vast amounts of timber, first from the Philippines, then from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Because the Allies, particularly America, built up Japan (to insure that they would be an American, not Soviet, ally), and because the Japanese worked really, really hard, Japan became really rich, slowly at first then rapidly. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries were not rich. They had very little money, but they did have a lot of tropical rainforests. The obvious solution was that Japan would buy the wood. This would, in theory, build up the economies of the other Asian countries, which was actually a part of their war reparations.

The Japanese corporations that imported wood from southeast Asia were not wood products corporations. They were the sixteen big corporations (sogo shosha) of Japan, such as Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Itochu, and Sumitomo. They were just the ones that bought the wood and got it to Japan and sold it to wood products corporations.

This economic relationship was, however, unbalanced. Japan was just about the only wood-buyer with whom the Asian countries had contact. The Japanese corporations set the price, take it or leave it. If the Asian countries wanted to sell wood, they had to accept Japan’s terms. They had to sell cheap, whole logs. These countries could have earned more money if they had processed the logs into plywood, then sold this value-added product to Japan. But the Japanese refused to buy these value-added products.

Japan made full use of its economic power over the Southeast Asian countries. They loaned lots of money to the governments of those countries but made the loans repayable in yen after 25 years, during which time the value of the yen increased faster than the loan interest rate. Thus, even as these countries repaid their loans, their debts grew. The amount of money Japan lent was far less than the ecological costs of the damage. Sometimes Japanese corporations claimed that, “Look we are increasing our environmental investments,” but these were not real expenditures. They just kept the same investments but renamed them “environmental” so they could move them over to the altruistic side of the ledger.

So, it would seem, the people of those countries accepted these terms. Only it wasn’t the people. It was the corrupt government and corporate leaders of those countries. Perhaps the most notorious was Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, dictators of the Philippines. They got stinking rich from selling whole logs and leaving behind barren landscapes that allowed flooding and mudslides that affected millions of their people. The Japanese corporations, and the Marcos family and their network of political appointees, got the money. (Time Magazine reported that Imelda had 1,060 pairs of shoes.) On paper, it made the Philippines look rich, though the wealth was in few hands. Imelda’s “loans to the poor” to alleviate rural poverty were actually rewards to political allies. Logging restrictions were almost meaningless, because there was no one to enforce or even keep track of them. Since timber concessions could be canceled at any time for any reason, Marcos-affiliated corporations had no incentive to harvest timber carefully or to replant; they had no future. They cut trees as fast as they could. After the Marcos regime fell from power, subsequent leaders may have wanted to get rid of corruption, but they could not. The only thing that slowed Philippine deforestation was the fact that they ran out of easily accessible, high-quality trees. This was no problem for Japan; they just switched to Indonesia and Malaysia for trees.

The dictators in Asian countries were not satisfied with legal logging. Since they depended on foreign aid, and lenders such as America wanted to prevent tropical deforestation, the dictators wanted to look like they were conservation minded. One of their tactics was to allow illegal logging on their concession lands. Whoops, somebody cut our trees down. We didn’t do it. But soon thereafter they would buy the timber right back from the illegal loggers. Another tactic was that the dictatorial governments would use their troops to shield illegal loggers. There was also a lot of smuggling out of these countries, facilitated by forged documents, to which the dictators such as Marcos turned a blind eye.

For a while, Indonesia was Japan’s principal source of timber. But in the 1980s Indonesia banned the export of cheap whole logs. Japan had to buy plywood from them instead. This made the economics of rainforest destruction a little better for Indonesia, but the forests still got cut down at an undiminished rate.

The Philippines still suffers a half billion dollars’ worth of damage just from soil erosion. They, and the other Southeast Asian countries, are still suffering from deforestation. Tropical forests do not grow back very easily, so the barren landscapes have remained mostly barren. Japan gives a lot of money to these countries, but it is mostly urban aid (for example, sewage treatment) rather than aid to rural people whose forests have been destroyed by Japan’s ecological shadow.

Dauvergne’s book has a lot of economic detail in it, and I found it to be heavy reading. I think you will benefit from my summary more than from the book itself, unless you are interested in Asian business.

Japan did not always have an insatiable appetite for imported wood. For a large part of its history, Japan was closed off from the rest of the world. The Japanese cut down their own forests, but they could neither conquer other forested countries nor import from them, because of their self-imposed isolation. They had to invent silviculture, in which they conserved and replanted their own forests up through the nineteenth century. How did they do this? That is the topic of the next essay.