March 31, 2004



Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.19 (March 2004)
"Report on Environmental Education" Article Series No.5

Dateline: March, the year 2100. At Lake Kasumigaura in Ibaraki Prefecture. Whooper swans and bean geese that wintered here are about to leave for Siberia. Cranes are pecking at feed in the rice field before their long migratory trip. Local fishermen on a white sailboat are catching fish in a net in the spring sun. Flocks of wild ducks and teals break the shining water to rise toward the sky while a wild Japanese crested ibis sails the sky unfurling its beautiful aurora wings. The lake, surrounded by reed beds, is a natural treasury of wild birds. This shallow lake becomes a perfect wading pool for children splashing around in the summer water. Heart-shaped water plants called floating hearts ("asaza" in Japanese) grow in a colony that extends offshore. In autumn, a carpet of pretty little yellow flowers blooms on the lake surface.

This is the image of the Lake Kasumigaura 100 years from now. Today, children in the Kasumigaura catchment basin, together with grownups, have been striving to restore and rehabilitate the natural environment and are actively involved in the process. Learning from failures and success in the process, they have been participating in the program with an aim of reviving the Japanese crested ibis, now extinct in the wild, in 100 years.

In this month, we will take a look at the environmental education around the Lake Kasumigaura catchment basin. (Please refer to the article "Reviving Nature Around Lake Kasumigaura" (by Keiko Hoshino) in the January edition of our newsletter for details on the Asaza Project.)

Currently, some 170 elementary schools (90 percent of all schools in the basin area) are involved in the Asaza Project. When it started in 1995, children were the first to respond to a call for the "adopt an asaza plant" program. A couple of school children signed up for the program and convinced their principal that the project should have school-wide involvement. Since then, nurturing and planting asaza has become a part of integrated study at schools throughout the area. The number of people involved has passed the 70,000 mark, many of them primary school children.

Before planting the asaza, staff from the Asaza Fund hold classes to explain the function and goal of the project as well as how to nurture and plant asaza. Sowing the Asaza seeds is quite easy. In the spring, a few seeds are placed in a pot, and they sprout in three weeks. Then the pot is dipped into a water bucket until the sprouts grow taller, and they are planted in the lake when the summer comes. Children in the lower grades plant them in shallow parts of the lake while older students take charge of deeper parts.

Now that the lake is surrounded with a concrete revetment, which devastated the ecosystem, how can it be revived? Unfortunately, almost no formal record exists of the lake's original biodiversity. Seeking this information, primary school children interview local elderly people about the natural environment of the lake before its banks were covered with concrete. What kind of plants were there and what their lives were like before?

On the questionnaire sheet, many students draw pictures of abundant natural resources of the lake and people swimming. Elderly people who didn't have much in common with younger generation are now happy that they have things to tell the children and help them with their assignment. This detailed research on the lake's biodiversity contains valuable community-based data and wisdom, which is often difficult to obtain through the regular research conducted by universities and other institutions.

The findings are also used to make "biotopes," or mini-ecosystems, at schools. Some 110 primary schools in the basin area have biotopes they call ""mini-Lake Kasumigaura"" and cultivate endangered plant species to preserve their genes. Water plants and water animals natural to the Lake Kasumigaura area are the only species allowed in the school biotopes.

Water plants grow fast enough to cover the surface of the biotope in a few years. The plants are thinned out and planted in the lake serving as an important source for nature restoration. Children know the purpose of their activities and are aware of the importance of their involvement in the community.

So far, school biotopes have been made throughout the catchment basin. This has given birth to another program focusing on the primary school that serves as a basic local community unit. One school's district covers 1 to 2 kilometers in radius, an easy walking distance for primary school children. The same holds for many wild species including frogs and dragonflies. Children are now monitoring various species that enter their biotopes and the school's surrounding environment from the standpoint of those species.

Each primary school is connected by the Internet, enabling the students in a wide area to share their monitoring data in real time. The network of school biotopes was established by primary school children. But the monitoring data is sent to experts and researchers for further analysis. Important basic data for making public plans for environmental conservation and rehabilitation projects are being collected on a daily basis here at the primary schools.

During the course of their activities, children's abilities to observe the natural environment has been greatly enhanced, and through this they have become keener about their local natural environment. By being involved in restoration efforts, they are witnessing changes in the lake's wildlife on a daily basis. The Asaza Project gives both the children and the grownups chances to share their vision, as well as hands-on experience. The dream of nature restoration has brought about a greater synergy between fostering children's learning effects and communal child-rearing in the region.

"Laws and restrictions to restrict activities and substances harmful to the environment do not in themselves engender positive attitude toward the future," says Mr. Hiroshi Iijima, the representative of the Asaza Project. "It is important to reduce environmentally unfriendly things, but what forms the basis of the Asaza Project is a positive attitude to create society where nature and people can coexist. We won't be able to bring ourselves to conserve nature without seeing the wonder of it. We learn the fleetingness and the importance of life by coming into contact with living things. Environmental education in the Lake Kasumigaura catchment basin began with the movement to restore the health of the lake for people and other living things. Under the Asaza Project, both adults and children are striving to find solutions to various issues arising in the area. While conventional environmental education focused on bringing up environmental issues and dialogue, the Asaza Project offers a new alternative that is more solution-oriented, on a forward-looking path.

(Staff writer Ayako Takahashi)