October 19, 2010


Transforming Agriculture and Economy to Save the Japanese Crested Ibis: Sado Island

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.97 (September 2010)
"Initiatives and Achievements of Local Governments in Japan" (No. 31)

Sado Island is located in the Japan Sea just off the coast of the northwest part of Niigata Prefecture. The island, Japan's sixth largest, is administered by Sado City (though only part of the island is urbanized), and it is famous as the home of the Japanese crested ibis, or "Toki" (in Japanese). The main industries on the island -- which has a population of approximately 65,000 -- are agriculture, forestry and fisheries, construction, and tourism.

The Toki Brand Rice Certification System has been spreading on the island. Under this system, Sado-grown Koshihikari-brand rice produced by eco-farmers certified by the Niigata prefectural government is sold as "Toki Brand Rice," and a portion of the proceeds from sales is donated to the Toki Conservation Fund.

How was this system created? How do the citizens of Sado regard it, and how will it be expanded in the future? For answers, we interviewed Ryugo Watanabe, general manager of Sado City's Biodiversity Promotion Section, in the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Division. He said, "The Toki has the power to change people."

Conservation History of the Crested Ibis in Sado

Wild Japanese crested ibises were once found almost everywhere in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868). The birds, however, lost the generous protection of the Tokugawa shogunate (Japan's feudal government) after 1868, when the government was overthrown. As a result, Japanese crested ibises suffered from excessive hunting for food and their beautiful feathers, and decreased significantly in number during the Meiji period (1868-1912).

After that, during the two World Wars, large areas were deforested to secure fuel and then left unattended. Wild Japanese crested ibises inevitably lost their nesting places, and by 1952, when the birds were designated a special natural monument, the number of the birds in Sado had dropped to only 24 (according to a survey by the Forestry Administration Division of Niigata Prefecture in February 1952).

Another major cause of the decrease of the number of birds was that they could hardly find any rice paddies, or their traditional feeding grounds. This was because the cultivation of many rice paddies in valleys and mountainous areas was abandoned due to rice production controls and modernization, and many wet rice paddies in low-lying areas were converted to dryland fields due to large-scale projects for improving farm fields.

In 1981, the last five surviving wild Japanese crested ibises in Sado were captured to be raised in captivity. Ongoing attempts to breed them continued to fail, but in 1999, the Chinese government presented a pair of the same species to Japan for the first time. Artificial breeding finally succeeded, and ten ibises were released back to the wild on a trial basis in 2008, followed by 20 more in 2009.

Battered Rice Farmers

While the restoration of wild crested ibises gradually progressed, thanks to the efforts of Sado citizens, agriculture in Sado fell onto hard times. Traditionally, Koshihikari rice from Sado was regarded as a delicious brand, and in fact, 80% of farmers there are engaged in rice farming.

However, due to a decrease in rice consumption and a drop in rice quality as a result of typhoons and other natural disasters, 5,000 tons of rice, or 21% of annual sales, remained unsold every year from 2005 through 2007. In addition, the price of rice decreased by 40% in 2007 compared to 1994. Farmers thus lost their enthusiasm for rice production due to the drop in their income, which, combined with the aging of farmers, led to abandonment of rice cultivation and the declining health of "satoyama" (managed community forests near villages).

When considering whether it was possible to restore crested ibises in Sado, Watanabe said, "Their release back into the wild had high stakes." If the restoration program succeeded, Sado could shake off its painful memory as the last habitat of wild ibises, but if it failed, people might get the impression that Sado Island had a poor environment.

Eco-friendly agriculture was gaining popularity throughout Japan, however, and in Sado as well, farmers who promoted this style of agriculture strongly supported the Crested Ibis Restoration Program. Meanwhile, the potential for subsidies and voluntary funding to create feeding places for ibises was approaching its limits, so more sustainable methods were required. With the desire to restore habitat for creatures such as insects, frogs, and loaches (fresh water fish) in rice paddies, where crested ibises like to feed, Sado declared the objective of reconstructing the food chains by restoring the diversity of life in rice paddies as excellent feeding places for crested ibises.

Toki Brand Rice Certification System

Against this background, the Toki Brand Rice Certification System was launched in 2008, along with the Crested Ibis Restoration Program. To meet the requirements of the certification system, the rice must be produced (1) in Sado, (2) by eco-farmers certified by Niigata Prefecture, (3) using 50% or less chemical pesticides and fertilizers compared with the amount commonly used in the Sado area during the rice cultivation period, and (4) using one of the four identified ecological farming methods that nurture living beings.

The four ecological farming methods are: (1) creating puddles with a depth of over 20 centimeters around rice paddies and waterways from spring to autumn; (2) creating water channels to enable fish to freely swim around paddy fields and waterways; (3) adopting the irrigation of rice fields in winter; and (4) using fields filled with water to control rice production, as biotope. Through these methods, the Toki Brand Rice Certification System aims to create paddy fields where crested ibises can catch bait such as frogs and loaches throughout the year.

Key to Promoting Toki Brand Rice: Farmer Participation

At the same time, Sado began to sell Toki Brand Rice and seek ways to add value, in an effort to interest more farmers. Sado also conducted a promotional campaign to get farmers to realize that cost reduction and larger production scale would no longer help rice farming survive in Sado, and convince them that the time had come to begin creating Sado's own unique Toki Brand Rice. In fiscal 2008, Sado's efforts successfully led to stocks of Toki Brand Rice being completely sold out, despite the price per five-kilogram pack being 500 yen (about U.S.$5.90) higher than Niigata Koshihikari-brand rice, and also made Toki Brand Rice available at new stores, including the major Japanese supermarket chain Ito-Yokado.

As a result, in the same year, Sado City was able to donate about 1.3 million yen ($15,294) to the Toki Conservation Fund. The city's donation received media attention, convincing farmers that efforts to protect the Japanese crested ibis would boost sales of Toki Brand Rice. They initially felt uncertain about eco-friendly farming methods, but their uncertainty is transforming into hope.

In 2008, 255 farmers employed ecological farming methods, such as winter irrigation and creation of puddles, on 427 hectares (ha) of farmland, and in 2009 these figures doubled to 509 farmers and 866 ha, respectively. In the same year, the use of both pesticides and chemical fertilizers was reduced by at least 50% in a rice-harvest area of 1,600 ha (about 25% of the total rice-harvest area on Sado), and this was projected to grow to 2,600 ha (42.3%) in fiscal 2009.

Starting from 2010, under the Toki Brand Rice Certification System, certain days in June and August are designated as the days when certified farmers are required to conduct an assay of the living things on their land and submit their findings to Sado City.

The rice paddies that Japanese crested ibises like to frequent are host to a variety of creatures, such as dragonfly nymphs and diving beetles, as well as loaches and frogs. Sado City now hopes to encourage children and people living in urban areas to participate in surveys on living creatures, and would like to offer hands-on, eco-friendly farm experiences on the island, so as to increase the number of people who come to appreciate Sado and Sado Brand Rice.

In fiscal 2010, Sado City also plans to announce its strategy for achieving a balance between the environment and the economy in its jurisdiction. This strategy is aimed at expanding Sado's current initiatives by implementing island-wide research on the presence of wildlife, considering how to expand the certification system beyond rice to include other crops, and formulating policies to stabilize the island's human population and promote person-to-person interactions based on environmental activities.

"We think Sado will be a good model for the rest of Japan to follow to help restore the environment," says Watanabe. Certainly, the island's initiatives to guide activities on the island, symbolized by the Japanese crested ibis and the rich biodiversity, provide many hints on how to create a virtuous cycle of environmental preservation and economic revitalization -- a cycle in which efforts to preserve the environment lead to revitalization of the economy, and the revitalized economy results in the restoration of a sustainable environment. The Japanese crested ibis is regarded as a symbol of Japan, as suggested by its scientific name, Nipponia nippon ("nippon" means Japan). We hope to see a movement to protect rich biodiversity expanding out across Japan from Sado Island, where the people are striving to live in greater harmony with this special bird.

Written by Kazuko Futakuchi

Related JFS article: 14 Japanese Crested Ibis Chicks Successfully Fledge in Natural Breeding Program