Coexisting with Nature: An Interview with IGES President Takeuchi Kazuhiko

Environment Science World History Society

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, was a key starting point in addressing many environmental issues. But in the years since, complex issues like global warming have continued to mount. Takeuchi Kazuhiko, a leading environmental studies figure, talks about the search for solutions.

Takeuchi Kazuhiko

President of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. Specialist in environmental studies and sustainability science. Born in 1951. Obtained his master’s degree and PhD in agriculture at the University of Tokyo. Has been a professor at the University of Tokyo and senior vice-rector at the United Nations University. Among other roles, has also served as chair of the Central Environment Council and vice-president of the Science Council of Japan. He has been in his current position since 2017. His works include Sekai nōgyō isan (Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems) and Chikyū jizoku-gaku no susume (Advancement of Global Sustainability Science).

Unacknowledged Interaction Between Nature and Humans

Many readers may be unfamiliar with “sustainability science,” a new field of studies that strives to integrate global environmental issues with the sustainability of human society. Conventional academic systems that fragmented research into specialized fields have been unable to gain an overview of the complex interrelationships of environmental problems, hampering potential initiatives. Overcoming the current challenges requires a holistic perspective of the various phenomena. To date, Takeuchi Kazuhiko, president of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, has proposed a range of environmental strategies, from the stance of sustainability science.

“Until now, only interdisciplinary studies managed to transcend the barriers between branches of learning. But sustainability science goes further—as a form of transdisciplinary studies, where the results of specialists’ research are tied to collaborative action with governments, business, citizens’ groups, and others. Unless a range of stakeholders cooperate to resolve issues, we will struggle to maintain global sustainability.”

At university, Takeuchi majored in geography, seeking a field that linked natural science with the humanities and social sciences. But at the time, studies centered on analysis of the past, with little connection to society. Consequently, he switched to landscape studies, which delivered research results to society in the form of environmental greening and nature protection. He continued his research at graduate school. Then, in 1976, while a guest researcher at an institute in Bonn, West Germany, he encountered the concept of “landscape ecology” proposed by the German geographer Carl Troll (1899–1975).

“In Japan, landscape refers to scenery, related to visual perception, but Troll considered this concept to include the activities of nature and humans underlying this.” Troll’s concept interprets geographical and geological features, water systems and vegetation, for example, endeavoring to gain an integrated view of the landscape, from the natural environment that comprises a regional ecosystem. “Landscape also acknowledges human activities connected with nature, such as agriculture and forestry, as well as urban life. I tried to consider the whole natural environment from this perspective, beyond only geography and landscape studies, incorporating fields such as climatology, hydrology, and soil science. From there. I sought a form of environmental studies that transcended the existing academic framework, and looked for a way to develop that into sustainability science.”

Biodiversity Maintained by Farmers

A concrete example developed from Takeuchi’s concept of landscape ecology is Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, launched in 2002 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It was the brainchild of Dr. Parviz Koohafkan, originally from Iran, who held a senior position at the FAO, and who is now president of the World Agricultural Heritage Foundation. Unlike world heritage listings of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, which record ruins and other remnants from the past, GIAHS recognizes traditional agricultural techniques that should be retained for future generations, with the associated farm and village scenery representative of these cultures. FAO has designated 72 systems in 23 countries as agricultural heritage systems, including 13 in Japan (as of November 2022).

Takeuchi, who was then vice-rector at the United Nations University, had numerous discussions with Koohafkan and was able to advance an initiative to broaden the system of recognition, which had only applied to developing countries, to include rural farming areas and fishing villages in Japan. Now, systems have also been registered in countries such as Italy, Spain, and Korea.

“It seems an unusual initiative for the FAO, whose aim is to resolve global food issues through mass crop production. Industrialization of agriculture has caused land degradation and desertification, and did not necessarily benefit people living in farming villages. Yet 70 percent of agricultural products worldwide are produced in small-scale operations by farming families. The farming land that these people have maintained still supports natural ecosystems and contributes to biodiversity conservation.”

(© Kawamoto Seiya)
(© Kawamoto Seiya)

Examples include Andean agriculture in Peru, where potatoes are cultivated as high as 4,000 meters above sea level, and a rice-fish agricultural system in China, where fish are raised in wet rice fields, not only providing food, but also eating pest larvae and weeds. Such agricultural systems maintain traditional relationships between people and nature. The landscapes created through these activities are not merely beautiful to look at—they also help to preserve ecosystems. Two farming systems in Japan gained GIAHS registration in 2011, the first for any developed country. One is on the island of Sado, Niigata Prefecture, where rice farmers have reduced reliance on agricultural pesticides and fertilizers thanks to crested ibises, themselves a nationally designated natural treasure. The other is in Noto, Ishikawa Prefecture, known for its traditional senmaida terraced rice paddies, and ama, women divers who collect shells and seaweed, both examples of human cooperation with nature. Noto’s listing noted the significance of its satoyama (seminatural intermediate zones between protected wilderness and populated areas) and satoumi (marine environments containing both natural and human elements).

Contention with the Satoyama Initiative

At the same time, Takeuchi was a key figure driving Japan’s Satoyama Initiative. At COP10, the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Nagoya in 2010, he spoke of the global significance of Japan’s satoyama in collaboration with the United Nations University and Japan’s Ministry of the Environment.

Satoyama are low-lying regions where forests, rice paddies, reservoirs, orchards, and grasslands intermingle, with a moderate amount of human intervention. Tadpoles and paddy fish provide food for waterfowl, and pastures cultivated to feed livestock are also a habitat for insects. The various life forms exist in harmony, conserving biodiversity. Nearly 70 percent of Japan is forested, but most of that has seen human management, and the local people coexist with nature. But when Japan entered its postwar period of rapid economic growth, it led to a drop in the farming population, and we substituted petroleum for charcoal, leading to neglect of many satoyama areas. Just as this was reaching a crisis point, I suggested that we should focus attention on the importance of satoyama.”

Takeuchi explains that the Satoyama Initiative received the support of many countries. But it also aroused fierce opposition from Western countries. Takeuchi believes the reason lay in a different view of nature. In the West, the traditional approach to conservation was to protect areas by excluding human intervention.

“In the past, Japanese farmers believed they were receiving the blessings of nature, rather than merely harvesting what they could from it. Consequently, it was crucial to not damage the resources. They took maximum advantage of nature’s ability to rejuvenate. They had the wisdom to live in coexistence with nature, rather than trying to dominate it.” As Takeuchi notes, this concept was supported by participants from Asia and Africa, and after many hurdles, it culminated in the launch of the International Partnership for the Satoyama Initiative. In addition, the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed on a long-term goal for 2050: to realize a world in harmony with nature.

“A key factor is how we consider the relationship between humans and nature. Countries adopt different approaches in their environmental policies depending up on how they view nature. The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami came the year after COP10, and drastically altered my perspective on nature. I realized that, while we should work to protect nature, we should also view it with awe.”

Negative Aspects of Globalization

Currently, as an extension of his efforts to date, Takeuchi is advancing the concept of the Regional Circulating and Ecological Sphere as an environmental strategy. It combines his previous proposals of regional spheres of cyclical sustainability and natural coexistence, promoting sustainable regional development through integrated enhancement of the environment, society, and economy. The concept drives local production and consumption of sustainable energy in rural communities, is a global-warming countermeasure, and can provide employment opportunities. Encouraging ecotourism while protecting the natural environment of satoyama can also benefit people in nearby cities.

He cites Shimokawa, in Hokkaidō, as a specific example. The town has the same area as the combined 23 wards of inner Tokyo, but a population of just 3,200. Efforts are afoot to develop community self-reliance through, for example, an integrated forestry industry using woodlands, which cover 90% of the municipal land, energy self-sufficiency using woody biomass, and rejuvenation of settlements to cope with the hyper-aging local population.

“Combining promotion of the forest industry and use of woody biomass delivers co-benefits, and is tied to revitalization of the region. Also, in readiness for the hyper-aging society, the town established collective housing for elderly people. It uses power derived from woody biomass, thus resolving the two challenges of societal graying and decarbonization.”

Since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals by the UN in 2015, many initiatives have been developed in Japan and elsewhere for their achievement, but we could consider the Circulating and Ecological Sphere concept as “local SDGs.”

“Recently, questions have emerged with the SDGs, whose seventeen goals include no poverty, high-quality education for all, and conservation of marine resources. If just one of these were achieved, many people would feel that this was sufficient. There are concerns that the SDGs are seen as a reprieve, and lack an integrated perspective. As we consider the post-SDG world, we have to adopt a multifaceted outlook that aims for community rejuvenation concurrently with environmental conservation.”

According to Takeuchi, we should not perceive the COVID-19 pandemic as a calamity, but as an opportunity to rethink our relationship with nature as we strive to decarbonize.

“The proximity of human society to the natural realm increases the risk of transmission of diseases between animals and humans. In a sense, the pandemic resulted due to environmental destruction. Globalization also helped the rapid worldwide spread of COVID-19. We seek to develop self-reliant socio-economic zones while protecting and utilizing our natural environment, but I believe we should aim for a dispersed social model where we are connected with the world through information networks and human interaction.”

(© Kawamoto Seiya)
(© Kawamoto Seiya)

(Originally published in Japanese. Interview and text by Kondō Hisashi of All photos © Kawamoto Seiya. Banner photo taken in Hibiya Park, Tokyo.)

environment ecology agriculture sustainability