November 30, 2017


Sustainable Community Building in Shimokawa: Recycling-Oriented Forest Management Enabling Permanent Use of Forest Resources

Keywords: Civil Society / Local Issues Newsletter Renewable Energy 

JFS Newsletter No.183 (November 2017)


Japan has entered an era of population decline. While young people seeking education and work are still flowing into the Tokyo metropolitan area from rural areas, the population of many rural municipalities is decreasing rapidly due to the double blow of attrition (number of deaths surpassing that of births) and social factors (number of migrants into these areas exceeding that of migrants out).

In the midst of this, there is an ongoing debate as to whether it is possible, necessary or even desirable to maintain economic growth as in the past in this era of depopulation. There are suggestions that we should consider how to shrink the economy wisely. Municipalities in rural areas, in particular, have little time remaining to build sustainable communities. Yet some advanced approaches for sustainable community building have become widely known.

Believing that the future lies in rural areas, I myself as chief executive of Japan for Sustainability (JFS), a non-profit group engaged in global activities of providing information from Japan to the rest of the world, have also been helping a number of municipalities with efforts toward sustainable community building for several years.

This and the next issue of the JFS newsletter introduce the efforts by the town of Shimokawa in Hokkaido as an advanced approach by a municipality.

Shimokawa in the Past

Shimokawa, located in the northern part of central Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, is a town with a population of approximately 3,400. It covers an area of 644.2 square kilometers, nearly the same as all of Tokyo's 23 wards, and about 90 percent of the area is forested. The town is located in a snowy area where the temperature drops to around minus 30 degrees Celsius in winter. It has produced many ski jumpers.

Shimokawa is attracting a great deal of attention nationwide. The town was selected as an Eco-Model City by the Japanese government in 2011. It also placed top in a ranking by "Inaka-kurashi no Hon (Rural Life Book)" (a periodical published by TAKARAJIMASHA) of regions in Japan where people 50 years old or above would like to live (2016; category of towns with populations of 20,000 or lower). In recent years, many people have moved to the town from urban areas, helping stem the decline in population. Progress was not necessarily smooth from the beginning, however.

Hokkaido is a region with a harsh natural environment. In the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912), people from Honshu island settled in Hokkaido and cultivated its primeval forests to lay the foundations for development of Hokkaido. The settlement of Shimokawa started in 1901. After 1917, when a mine was opened in the town, many workers moved there. In 1919, the Nayoro Main Line of Japanese National Railways (currently Hokkaido Railway Company) was opened. After that, Shimokawa developed on the basis of agriculture and forestry along with mining, and in 1949 the status of Shimokawa as a municipality was elevated from village to town. In 1960, when the Japanese economy was in a high-growth period, the population exceeded 15,000 and the town enjoyed great prosperity.

Later, however, in 1983 and 1986, two mines were closed one after the other. This was followed by a population outflow from the town. After the mine closings, the railway service was abolished in 1989, further accelerating the town's depopulation.

In the midst of this crisis, the people of Shimokawa decided to "do what they could do." One activity they started was building a "Great Wall of China," aiming to become "Japan's No. One Handmade Tourism" provider. Using traditional rope baskets called "mokko" to carry rocks and stones, the town's people began to construct their version of the Great Wall in the town by themselves without depending on any construction businesses. This project has continued since then. In 2000, the town held a ceremony to commemorate the achievement of the 2,000-meter milestone, making the Great Wall one of the sightseeing spots in the area. Another activity the people in the town began was to make "ice candles" (lights with shades made of ice), and decorate the town with them during festivals. This project, which started in 1986, was developed by taking advantage of the severe winter coldness, since the town is among Japan's top coldest places, recording lowest temperatures every year. Decoration with ice candles is still a seasonal feature of Shimokawa in winter.

Toward Self-sufficiency in Energy

Since 2000, the town government has conducted studies on new ways to utilize the town's forest resources, and using them as a biomass source of energy was proposed as one of the measures. Later, in 2004, Shimokawa introduced a boiler system utilizing wood biomass energy for its public hot spring facility. It was the first such attempt in Hokkaido.

Also, in collaboration with university researchers, the town government calculated its trade balance with external entities in 2012. The results revealed that while surplus sectors included agriculture (with a surplus of about 1.8 billion yen or US$16.2 million) and timber and wooden products (about 2.3 billion yen or US$20.7 million), large deficits were found for items such as oil and coal products, including kerosene used for heating appliances, (with a deficit of about 750 million yen or US$6.8 million) and electric power (about 520 million yen or US$4.7 million).

Based on these results, the town set a policy of aiming to achieve energy self-sufficiency by utilizing its biomass resources, since the town was blessed with forests and an active forestry industry. Various initiatives have already been implemented under this policy.

The town's first targeted items were oil and coal products, including kerosene used for heating. An example of a specific initiative is as follows. Wood chips are produced from raw materials such as logging residues generated by forestry works and forest management activities, small-diameter timber from forest thinning, pruned branches and wood wastes generated during wood processing. Those wood chips are used as fuel for biomass boiler systems in the town and the heat generated by these systems is supplied to facilities within Shimokawa.

Currently 13 biomass boiler systems in total are operating in the town and the self-sufficiency in heat for the whole town has reached 45 percent. This means that nearly half of the heat demand in Shimokawa is already supplied by the heat generated within the town. The municipal government further aims to achieve 100-percent self-sufficiency in heat by increasing the number of underground heat supply pipes so as to promote the spread of the heat supply system to households. It also plans to boost its electricity self-sufficiency rate by promoting the introduction of cogeneration systems.

As seen in these initiatives, Shimokawa is one of Japan's model local governments, as it aims by utilizing wood chips produced locally to achieve self-sufficiency in energy without relying on imported fossil fuels and is steadily nearing this goal.

Efforts to Make Forest Resources Sustainable to Support Self-Sufficiency in Energy

To continue producing biomass resources within the town, sustainable forest management is needed. In this respect, Shimokawa has been making wonderful long-term efforts.

Timber and wood products, which are profit sources for the town's local economy, generate an annual profit of approximately 2.3 billion yen (about US$20.72 million); meanwhile, about 50 hectares of forests are cleared every year to produce these. The trees cut down in the forests are processed and sold as lumber inside and outside the region. Also, the wood offcuts and leftovers generated in this process are used to produce wood chips for fuel.

Every year in the town, about 50 hectares of forests are cleared, and seedlings are planted in the same areas. It takes 60 years for trees to grow from seedlings to adult trees, and after that, they are cut down. Fifty hectares multiplied by 60 equals 3,000 hectares. That means about 3,000 hectares of artificial forests out of a total of approximately 4,500 hectares of the town-owned forests are utilized for this kind of recycling-based forest management. In this way, Shimokawa has established a long-term system, which will enable the town to continue to use forest resources indefinitely. So when did the town launch this initiative to realize truly sustainable forest management?

To establish permanent property and secure employment, Shimokawa spent 88 million yen (about US$792,793) to obtain 1,221 hectares of national forests in 1953, when the town's finances were about 100 million yen (about US$900,901). In 1960, the town formulated a management plan calling for "clearing a total of 40 to 50 hectares of forests while planting tree seedlings in the same areas every year," and has continued it ever since. To fulfill this plan, the town acquired an additional 1,902 hectares of national forests during the period from 1994 to 2003. Then, starting in 2014, the trees planted by former generations have been cut down and tree seedlings have been planted in the same places. In this way, the town has become able to implement recycling-based forest management, realizing sustainable forest management.

Shimokawa has promoted various industries based on forest resources. Also, other industries, such as shiitake mushroom cultivation, have been newly launched in the town, using heat generated by biomass boilers. Attracted by these new trends, the number of people who had moved out but are returning to the town and the number of new people newly moving into the town are increasing. Recently, there have been some years when the total number of returnees and newcomers have exceeded the number of people leaving the town to receive a higher education or to work in other places.

For Shimokawa, forests are important resources for creating profits and producing energy for industries and the local region, attracting people to move there. To protect these important forest resources, the town is also focusing on educating people about forests. The town provides a 15-year-long comprehensive forest environmental education to children from infants through high school ages. This initiative will be introduced in the next issue. Please stay tuned!

Written by Junko Edahiro