Ishigaki Island, Japan — Brown bats as large as household pets swoop down on leathery black wings, landing in the leafy branches of banana trees. There they hang, upside down, in the shade of a late afternoon sun, gnawing at the dangling bunches of green fruit. Nearby a great white egret stands as a stately sentry over a tidal pool. Slight waves roll onto a pure white sand beach touched only by the imprints of sandpipers' feet.
On this peaceful island, almost 1,200 miles from Tokyo, Japan melts invisibly into Southeast Asia. Ishigaki is part of the Ryukyu island chain that is centered on Okinawa. In the southernmost part of Japan, Ishigaki is within eyesight of Taiwan and closer, by half, to Manila and Hong Kong than to Tokyo.
This remote semitropical corner of Japan has found itself at the center of a conflict that has attracted international attention.
The immediate issue is an apparently simple one - whether to build a new airport on the eastern shore of the island near the village of Shiraho, out into the sea itself. Proponents of the airport insist it is essential for the economic future of Ishigaki and the surrounding islands. Opponents argue equally forcefully that it is unnecessary and, in the long run, will do irreversible damage to the environment, particularly coral reefs.
``From an environmental standpoint,'' says Tom Milliken, a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) official based in Tokyo, ``it's going to devastate probably the premier coral reef site remaining in Okinawa.''
According to Mr. Milliken and other experts, some 80 percent of the coral in Okinawa has been destroyed or seriously damaged by infrastructure development like the concreting of river banks and beds. This has allowed silt to run off into the ocean and suffocate the coral.
The WWF, in collaboration with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the UN Environment Project, has designated the Ryukyu chain as the priority area in Japan for conservation protection. The area around Ishigaki, particularly the nearby Iriomote Island, contains such a variety of unique animal species that it is called ``the Gal'apagos of the East,'' referring to the island made famous by Charles Darwin for its unique species. A project was begun in 1984 to find ways to protect the area, with opposition to the Ishigaki airport a key part of the effort.
The airport is part of the plans of the Okinawa prefectural government to develop tourism. The balmy climate and natural beauty of the Ryukyu islands, which are almost entirely under the administration of that government, has attracted increasing numbers of tourists from the mainland. In 1985, more than 2 million visitors came, nearly twice Okinawa's 1.2 million population. Tourism has far outstripped the US military bases as the No. 1 source of income, after government spending, for Okinawans.
Okinawa, which was under postwar US military occupation until 1972, is one of Japan's poorest prefectures. Income levels are only 74 percent of the national average, though up from 60 percent 10 years ago. Aside from agriculture, there is no major industry, very little export business, and negligible investment from large Japanese companies from the mainland. Government spending is responsible for about 35 percent of Okinawa's economy.
The Ishigaki airport is part of a government master plan to build new resorts, along with the airports and roads to handle an expected influx of more tourists. Officials say a new, enlarged airport, which can handle flights directly from the mainland, is the only way to expand tourism. The present facility is considered too small; it is already used to capacity handling the 250,000 tourists a year coming there.
By most accounts, the large majority of the 50,000 inhabitants of Ishigaki and the surrounding islands are convinced of the need for a new airport. Farming, the islands' main occupation, is on the decline. Young people are leaving for Okinawa and the mainland in search of work. Kiko Ishigaki, one of two representatives to the prefectural assembly from the area, claims more than 90 percent of area residents back the idea. But, he acknowledges, there is one group of islanders that is clearly opposed - the majority of the residents of the fishing village of Shiraho, the site of the proposed airport.
``They feel their quiet village will be disrupted,'' Ishigaki says. But, he adds, ``someone will have to be hurt in this wherever we build it.''
The main target of his ire is the growing movement of environmentalists who have joined forces with the villagers. Mr. Ishigaki refers to such people as ``outsiders, who have nothing to do with it and don't have to make a life here.'' Such people, he accuses, ``want to preserve the traditional old ways, out of nostalgia.''
Not all airport critics fall into that category. ``We depend on the tourist business,'' says Eiichi Ono, sales manager of the Haimurabushi resort on nearby Kohama island. ``From that point of view, we support building the airport. But, if it will damage nature too much, they better look elsewhere. In fact, it will hurt those of us who try to promote this place based on its natural environment.... If you hurt the sea, you can never return it back to its natural state.''
The prefectural government has budgeted funds for construction the past two years, but the activists have blocked the project so far. They have challenged environmental impact studies prepared by the local government which claim there will be minimal damage. They hope to force the central government's Environmental Agency to step in.
In the long run, the challenge is to find a balance between Okinawa's need for development and the preservation of its precious natural beauty. The track record in the rest of Japan on similar issues has been heavily weighted in favor of development, says Milliken. The Okinawa project, he says, is a test case for designing and carrying out a strategy for ``environmentally integrated development.''