FROM THE ARCHIVES: Helping nature restore Japan’s tsunami-battered coast

This story first appeared in The Straits Times on March 10, 2012

BRINGING A FOREST BACK TO LIFE: The Pacific coast at Rikuzentakata used to be famous for its 70,000 pine trees. All but one were washed away by the tsunami. Mrs Takako Niinuma  aims to regrow the trees with pine cones (pictured)  that she c
BRINGING A FOREST BACK TO LIFE: The Pacific coast at Rikuzentakata used to be famous for its 70,000 pine trees. All but one were washed away by the tsunami. Mrs Takako Niinuma  aims to regrow the trees with pine cones (pictured)  that she collected from the debris. -- ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
BRINGING A FOREST BACK TO LIFE: The Pacific coast at Rikuzentakata used to be famous for its 70,000 pine trees. All but one were washed away by the tsunami. Mrs Takako Niinuma  aims to regrow the trees with pine cones  that she collected from the debris. -- ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

RIKUZENTAKATA (Iwate prefecture) - Mrs Takako Niinuma used to play among the thousands of pine trees that were the proudest feature of Rikuzentakata. One year after the March 11 earthquake, just one tree remains, the rest cut off at head height by the mighty tsunami that battered this coast.

But the remaining tree is also ultimately doomed as sea water has rotted its roots.

"I have black-and-white photos of me as a child when the trees were quite small, but it looks completely different without them," says Mrs Niinuma.

Undeterred, the 75-year-old has vowed to return the Takata Matsubara forest, designated in 1927 as one of the 100 best landscapes of Japan, to its former glory for the sake of future generations.

After the March 11 disaster, she started collecting pine cones buried in the debris, dried them in the sun and donated the seeds to the Society for the Preservation of the Takata Pine Tree Woods.

The seeds were passed on to a nursery at a forestry research centre in Takizawa, which Mrs Niinuma visited last year.

"It was wonderful," she says. "They had already grown more than 500 saplings from my seeds and they were about 10cm tall when I saw them."

She is not alone in wanting to help nature along in Japan's restoration efforts. Former civil servant Yoichiro Otsuka, who heads a non-profit organisation that promotes cooperation between the farm and business sectors, has started a project to plant tomatoes on farmland damaged by sea water.

He got help from Mr Kazuma Nishitsuji, who suggested planting a strain that had been successfully cultivated for almost a decade in salt-tainted reclaimed land in Kumamoto prefecture in southern Japan.

Mr Nishitsuji's venture company has developed a material that uses bacteria to break down the salt in tainted soil.

In early June, volunteers young and old led by Mr Otsuka arrived in Iwanuma city, Miyagi prefecture, to plant the tomatoes on some of the damaged farmland.

Two months later, they returned to harvest them.

Not a plant had withered. The hardy tomatoes were quickly dubbed "Restoration Tomatoes" and declared a symbol of the rebirth of the crippled Tohoku region.

Says Mr Nishitsuji: "I believe the success of the project has given a ray of hope to Tohoku farmers. I understand many were encouraged to revive their own farms after that."

Impressed by the results, two corporations have agreed to donate 10 million yen (S$155,500) to Mr Otsuka, who intends to run his tomato project for another year, enlisting the help of more farmers this time.

He also hopes to get them to plant salt-resistant cabbage, which was also successfully tried out last year.

The March 11 disaster has given the government an opportunity to try out new farming techniques aimed at cutting production costs and doubling output.

The Agriculture Ministry intends to create a large farm in the devastated coastal areas of Miyagi, utilising the latest in farm technology.

For instance, the farm will feature unmanned tractors, sensors to accurately measure the amounts of water and fertiliser needed for efficient plant growth, and robots for packing the produce into boxes for transportation to the market.

The proposed farm, which will span some 250ha, will involve private-sector companies and research institutions.

The government also has a three-year plan that provides 90 per cent of the funds needed for reviving all damaged farmland.

Meanwhile, Mrs Niinuma has big plans for the pine saplings.

"I want them to form the basis of a new park," she says, pointing out an area close to the solitary remaining tree where she believes they could be planted.

"I hope that one day they will be able to grow and give pleasure to future generations."

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