Day 2 – field trip to Tomatoh Commons

Today was a field-based day. The idea when we put the workshop proposal together was to do something that would give us a sense of the kind of case studies our Japanese counterparts work on – so at 9.00am sharp we loaded into three cars, pulled out of the green Hokkaido University campus, and headed down the coast to Tomakomai.

Now Tomakomai is somewhere that has been very familiar to me for the last week, but today we were going to the east of the city, away from most of the energy/industrial infrastructure and into something approximating nature.

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Our guide for the day – Takeshi Kusakari – explained the layout of the hundred hectare site. Originally designated as an area for industrial expansion, the development company behind the Tomatoh area (short for ‘East Tomakomai’, combining the first Japanese character in ‘Tomakomai’ with that in ‘east’) went bust late in the Showa Era and the plans fell through. So whilst there are plenty of industrial sites around – the port and oil refinery, a coal-fired power station, an Isuzu engine factory among others – there is lots of empty space.

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This is where the Tomatoh Commons comes in. Much of the land is now managed as a common resource, working for a move towards sustainability through a shift to low-carbon energy, sustainable forestry and biodiversity conservation. Under the bright Hokkaido sun we made our way round the vast Tomatoh area, which coincidentally is where the officers from Tomakomai City Hall took me in 2014. Not all of the land in the area is managed by the Tomatoh Environmental Commons NPO, but from what I gather they manage or look after parts of land within the area. What we’re looking at in the photo above, for instance, is a pile of logs capable of lasting a Hokkaido household through a winter, sourced from the surrounding forest and delivered to a house in Sapporo City for 70,000 Yen all-in.

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One of the great strengths of having a range of disciplines within our group is that there’s always someone who can add extra knowledge or explain something in more depth. Orange-jacketed Shinji Yamamoto, who will talk tomorrow morning, is a forester by profession. This added a whole new level of depth to our tour of the 200 hectare common-access forest site that forms the heart of Tomatoh Commons’ activities, as we learned about appeasing forest gods, growing berries, and how to attract people into the forest (make it appear more open by cutting down some narrower trees to create the impression of space). Prof Yamamoto’s specialist English vocabulary of tree-related words also came in handy…

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…because Taisuke Miyauchi (on the right here), Naoyuki Mikami and were interpreting for Kusakari-san during the tour. I found this tough as there were a lot of words to do with types of trees and practices associated with forest management, but we got there. I thought I had got the interpretation completely wrong when I started to tell the UK contingent that we were standing in a bear corridor, a passageway of habitat where bears from west Hokkaido meet and pass those from the east. But no, it turns out I was completely right – and also that bears stealing honey in the east Tomakomai area had been a big problem about 10 years ago.

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But an equally big problem of managing a commons is how to deal with access to the resource. The construction of a nearby road has opened up a sanctuary for Hasukappu (lonicera caerulea) berries to a wider population, so now there are problems with over-picking. The Tomatoh Commons NPO are still trying to figure out how to solve this problem collaboratively with the community – current ideas include visualising the problem with GPS and/or drones. The group are also increasing their knowledge of how Hasukappu grow and function, and it’s interesting to note the sanctuary is located in an area of land zoned for flood relief given its proximity to the coast.

Tomorrow we are back on Hokudai campus, for the last of the talks in the morning before moving on to a more dialogic format in the afternoon. Live-streaming may not work as the signal is weaker in tomorrow’s room, but we will give it a go…

An English-language overview of Tomatoh Environmental Commons activities is online here.

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