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.
``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.
Professional fishermen and conservationists say the dam will drastically alter the ecology of one of the last major free-flowing rivers in Japan, killing off shellfish and preventing a relatively rare trout species and the ayu from swimming upstream to spawn. They say industrial needs have changed significantly since the dam was first conceived, and that flood control can be achieved through dredging and levees built since the mid-70s.
The fishermen's cooperatives first fought the dam about 15 years ago, filing suits on the basis of their rights as users of the river area. But the co-ops dropped their protests when the government paid them off with one-time compensation packages worth about $100,000 each. Construction work began last year.
But last autumn a group of conservationists, led by outdoor writers and sport fishermen, took up the cause anew. Hideki Ito, an interior designer from nearby Nagoya, was an anti-war activist in the 1960s who says he fled social problems by going off to pursue his hobby of fly fishing. But as he discovered his fishing spots all over Japan disappearing, he found himself with a cause again.
Traveling up river by car, Mr. Ito points out the wild groves of trees by the banks which are to be concreted and formed into flat ``parks'' for 18 miles up from the dam. Miles of such areas are already in place, devoid of apparent use. ``This river is alive right now, but after the construction of this dam, it will die,'' Ito laments.
``It's just emotional sentimentalism,'' retorts Mr. Mizuno. ``They just want the river to be as it is.'' In response to the anti-dam movement, the corporation has produced glossy pamphlets and other propaganda containing arguments for flood control, pointing to 28 other rivers where the trout can be found, and to plans to build fish ladders.
But even the corporation officials admit that the dam will cause some environmental damage of an undetermined extent. The Construction Ministry carried out an assessment in 1976 but in practice this was a gathering of academics and others who reviewed a ministry report, not a scientific study of alternative approaches and their environmental impacts. In fact, under existing laws the Construction Ministry is not required to carry out assessments for any river or estuary projects.
There is no national law requiring environmental impact assessments, explains Mr. Usuki, a senior official of the Environment Agency's conservation bureau, including for public projects of all kinds. Even the law protecting endangered species does not allow for halting a project which threatens such a species.
The Cabinet decided in 1984 to call for such assessments to be carried out. But to the extent they even occur, says Usuki, ``the development planners make the assessment,'' and the Environment Agency can only make a ``comment,'' usually only in the final stages. Also, says the Nature Conservation Society's Yoshida, no alternatives are studied and there is no chance for public contribution or participation.
The Environment Agency, which was formed in 1972, drafted national laws requiring environmental impact assessments ``many times in the last 10 years,'' says Usuki. Each time it was blocked ``because businessmen such as construction firms and the landowners group do not agree,'' he explains. Those groups act through the Construction Ministry, the National Land Agency, the Ministry of Agriculture, and Forestries and the Trade and Industry Ministry.
The Construction Ministry and its allies ``have such power to carry out selfish acts,'' activist Ito says angrily. ``They're like the Army in pre-war times.''