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[Columns]A challenge by a mountain village making even the national government take action

-From the Environment Guard to regional vitalization

A challenge taken up by Hidakagawa-cho in Wakayama Prefecture, a town with a population of approximately 10,000 people, where it is not a stretch to say that most of its communities are located in mountainous areas, has attracted the attention of experts in local government, agriculture and forestry. The “Environment Guard”—this strange sounding activity unique to Hidakagawa-cho, began changing its mountain villages.

In Japan, where the population has begun to decrease, the phenomenon of depopulation and/or aging has become evident in all regions except for the Tokyo metropolitan area. Above all, for regions with agricultural mountain villages, this phenomenon has already become a solid fact that is leading these regions down a one-way street to even worse conditions. Hidakagawa-cho, which was established through the consolidation of three municipalities, is in the same situation.

However, nature, left intact because of this state of depopulation, can revitalize the local community and develop it into an attractive community with just a bit of imagination and effort. One example of this is the Environment Guard.

With a decline in agriculture and forestry, the natural environment in Japan has become less rich for local residents of agricultural mountain villages. So called “animal damage” has spread with such animals as deer, monkeys and wild boar occupying the satoyama, undeveloped woodland near a populated area, and expanding their territories into farmlands still cultivated by people. Furthermore, these agricultural mountain villages are locked in a vicious circle where depopulation and the aging population, like rubbing salt on the wound, spurs the abandonment of their farmlands and forest land.

The purpose of establishing the Environmental Guard was to drive a wedge into this vicious circle by reproducing “satoyama barriers” that could serve as a point of contact between human and animal territories. The method for this activity is very simple. It involves periodical patrolling during the hunting moratorium around human territory by local residents who have obtained a permit to own a hunting gun (such as members of hunting clubs).
Town Mayor Toshihisa Tamaki said, “Smart animals such as deer and monkeys rarely come near a place which smells of a hunting gun (gunpowder), sensing danger by instinct. That’s why patrolling with a gun can divide the nature into human-populated areas and animal-populated areas.” Deer, monkeys and wild boar, which come down to populated areas where they can easily find food, despite the residents’ efforts, can be eradicated from human-populated areas under the animal damage control measure, an official go-ahead from the local government.

So what happens in this area during the short period from the commencement of this patrolling activity? First, more farmers resume or expand the cultivation of their farmlands. Excess agricultural produce for consumption at home is sold at such places as Michi-no-eki (roadside rest area) in the local town, which is visited by shoppers from urban areas.

Since this allows elderly farmers, who had suffered from serious animal damage, to free themselves from the problem and to earn a little spending money, they have come back to their fields for even more active agriculture. In other words, this has made elderly farmers more energetic. According to the town office, the largest ripple effect might be “a decrease in per-person medical expenses for the elderly of the town.”

The town’s industries have gained an extra advantage. Exterminated deer and wild boar, a bounty of nature, are being served in various places in the town as “cuisine du gibier,” a culinary style which is now gaining popularity, after the animals have been converted into dressed meat at “Gibier Atelier Kishu,” a wild animal abattoir run by the town. This town’s efforts, which have attracted attention from the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, has developed into a model that is visited by other agricultural mountain villages from all over Japan.
Currently, the town, with the involvement of the governor of Wakayama Prefecture, is exploring the possibility of serving the meat from killed deer and wild boar at yakiniku restaurants in the prefecture. Also, lightly-dried ayu (sweetfish) and amago (Japanese native trout) from a clear stream of the Hidaka River that flows down the center of the town have been put on the market. Being a suitable place for wind power generation, this mountainous town’s revenue from fixed property tax has increased, with large wind turbine generators having been installed in various places in recent years. Using this as a financial resource, the town’s provision of free medical care for elementary and junior high school students has already continued for three years.

In short, a sense of solidarity between local government officials and residents of the town is having an effect on the entire mountain village like a chemical reaction. These days, it seems the style of Japanese politics is being fundamentally questioned. Looking at the actual situation of this mountain village, I must say that “politics,” which is discussed from a perspective of name recognition, popularity, and experience in the Diet of Japan, is merely a “monkey” show to be eradicated. (Moritatsu Tawara)