Forestry in Aso
In postwar Japan, with the opening of timber import trade, the demand for low-priced foreign wood increased, leading to the decline in the domestic forestry industry. Coupled with the urban migration of the young work force, the successors to forestry companies has been decreasing. The declining industry resulted in forests no longer being properly managed and thinned. Densely planted mountains have become rugged, with increased problems in wildfires and mudslides. Forests in Aso, as with many other regions in Japan, are neglected and over-grown.
Why is forest-thinning necessary?
When the forest becomes overgrown, sunlight is blocked from reaching the ground. With no room and nutrients to support a healthy layer of undergrowth, the forest loses its function in natural irrigation (storing precipitation, mitigating floods and stabilizing the volume and flow of water). Moreover, neglected trees in forests are not firmly rooted, resulting in mudslides during typhoons and rain storms.
Proper maintenance such as thinning (cutting down selected trees) allows sunlight to penetrate. The forest is then able to thrive when roots are firmly mounting the soil and retaining water. By caring for the forests, we will in the long-run be returned with clean air and water.
Aso's Forest Master
"We should maintain the mountains of Aso for our future generations. Any healthy mountain is our lifeline for water and food." Local forester Mr. Hirofumi Yamabe is very passionate in preserving the health of Aso's mountains, had been struggling with a labor shortage.
The turning point came after the East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, where urban dwellers desired to move to rural towns for a more sustainable lifestyle. The following year, Yamabe recruited part-time workers, and many inexperienced young urbanites signed up to plant trees. They sweat-up in the mountains, enjoying fresh air and lunch boxes with each other and build comradeship. Most were touched by the wisdom and passion Yamabe, who has spent his lifetime living and working in the mountains of Aso. The program has become popular.
"While we were planting trees, I looked up and saw their colorful jumpsuits of pink and yellow in the mountains, and it is dream comes true for me." says Yamabe. By the end of the tree planting work, some people wanted to continue working in the forestry industry. Nearly a decade later, some of the then apprentices now started their own forestry companies.
"I hadn't expected to see this in my lifetime. I used to think this is just a wild idea in my head." Both the mountains and Aso's community is being revitalized under Yamabe's effort.
Photo and Essay Contribution: Noriko Masuda
Hirofumi Yamabe training apprentices on forestry.