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Japan Conservationists Raise Voices

Nagara River dam project spurs on small but growing environmentalist movement. CHALLENGING ENTRENCHED INTERESTS

By Daniel SneiderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 12, 1989


FISHERMEN in hip boots stand in the cold, rushing waters of the Nagara River, casting their lines for the sweet ayu that are beginning to run. Brown hawks swoop down from green hills wreathed in clouds. Famed fly fisherman Toshio Onda talks about the river he has played in since he was a child.

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``The fish I caught in my childhood have disappeared,'' he says. Though the waters seem crystal clear, Mr. Onda says that development, household sewage, and the use of agricultural chemicals have ``turned the river into a gutter.''

Onda's beloved Nagara is a battleground for a small but growing nationwide environmentalist movement struggling to stop construction of a dam at the river's mouth. The movement is pitted against a powerful combination of interests that most observers here say has relentlessly pursued development in Japan with little consideration for the conservation of nature.

At the core of the development axis sits the Ministry of Construction, a bureaucratic power center controlling billions of dollars of annual pork-barrel projects across Japan. Thousands of construction companies feed at that public trough, handsomely rewarding in turn the ruling conservative politicians who arrange their contracts.

The developers have successfully barred basic legal protection of Japan's natural endowment. Even in the national park system, where the Forestry Agency meets its budget by leasing logging and resort development, conservationists are waging a defensive battle.

An issue such as the Nagara River dam is a test case for the environmentalists. It challenges the Japanese claim to love nature. And it throws into question the Japanese government's recent efforts to defend its record on global environmental issues. The Japanese government ``must solve domestic conservation problems before they can talk about protection of the whole earth,'' challenges Masahito Yoshida of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan.

Japanese environmental policy is largely shaped by the period of industrialization and postwar reconstruction.

``Public awareness in Japan is at the stage of a developing country,'' says Mitsuo Usuki of the Environment Agency. Control of industrial pollution in urban areas has been the one bright spot. Japanese culture has a reputation for a love of nature. But when it comes to protection of nature, Japanese are inactive.

The Japanese appreciation is of ``a very private nature,'' says Mr. Yoshida. ``We don't feel responsibility for public space, for the wilderness.''

The advent of affluence in the 1980s has spurred a growth of the environmentalist movement, however. Groups like the Nature Conservation Society and the Wild Bird Society have experienced a rapid rise in membership, though activists estimate the total at only 30,000-40,000. They have halted a controversial airport development project that would have destroyed a rare coral reef on the southern island of Ishigaki (although the government is seeking to go ahead by moving the airport site).

The Nagara dam was first conceived in the early 1960s by the Water Resources Development Public Corporation, an agency closely linked to the Construction Ministry. According to Mitsuaki Mizuno, assistant director of the corporation's dam construction department, the dam is needed to prevent flooding and to supply water for industrial use.

The project calls for building a weir, a low dam, across the lower river not far from where it empties into the sea. The dam would block the tidal flow of sea water upstream, creating a lake-like area of fresh water behind it.