Nagoya

Paris japonica has the world’s longest genome

Especially relevant now that the world is focusing on biodiversity with the COP 10 conference in Nagoya, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens has identified Paris japonica as having the world’s longest genome sequence, fifty times greater than the human genome.

Scientific American reports that plants with more DNA take longer to grow and to reproduce, making them especially endangered. This sub-alpine canopy plant has only seven known habitats in the world. More details in the September 2010 issue of the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.

I wonder if my United States readers know that our country is the only one of 193 countries that did not sign the 1993 Rio de Janeiro Convention on Biodiversity, and has only observer rather than voting status at this month’s Nagoya COP 10 conference.

(Thank you, Christophe, for sending me this news story. With the mutual French-Japanese attraction, this plant has a charmed name as well as a 100 meter genome strand).

COP 10 Biodiversity Conference

On Saturday I went to a symposium at Tokyo University on Biodiversity and Sustainability: Rebuilding Society in Harmony with Nature, an educational forum that precedes this year’s COP 10 biodiversity conference in Nagoya. Many knowledgeable speakers spoke, including scientists, academics, government and corporate leaders. I especially liked Todai’s IR3S director Takeuchi Kazuhiko’s succinct formulation of the satoyama human-nature balance relying on traditional knowledge, modern science, and a “new commons” or vision of shared space that transcends government, private property, and national borders.

There were, of course, many discouraging facts. I was startled to learn that a single bottle of beer consumes 300 bottles of water in production. One speaker showed a graphic of how fishmeal from all over the world is transported to Thailand’s shrimp farms, making both the production and distribution of seafood a globalized product. I also learned that the 2002 United Nations goals on preserving biodiversity had not been met by a single country as of 2010. And lastly, I heard that the 20% level of knowledge and concern about biodiversity in Japan was one of the world’s highest levels of national awareness.

Given the challenges to preserving biodiversity, I was extremely disappointed by the top-down views and assumptions of the speakers. With no audience interaction, questions, or comments, the event seemed to invite trust in the capacity of elite academics, government leaders and United Nations bureaucrats working together. When Professor Takeuchi asked at the very end what can be done to avert a catastrophic tipping point, the Coalition on Biodiversity’s Executive Secretary talked about UNESCO’s role in cultural production. A top academic then spoke about the need to involve “the media” and celebrities to raise awareness.

I was surprised that such intelligent leaders believe in the viability of a top-down approach for reshaping the global economy and land use. In this formal auditorium at Japan’s most prestigious school, it was a missed opportunity not to provide action ideas for the hundreds of attendees. And to think of the “media” as the broadcast media is to overlook the tremendous power and potential of social media and popular participation.

One speaker briefly mentioned a lake biodiversity monitoring project that included local residents, government workers, and scientists. I would like to have heard more about how urban residents can connect with nature and become advocates for protecting and expanding habitat. Tokyo Green Space has documented the passion and energy of ordinary city residents, and I believe there is much more that can be done by engaging with bird-watchers, school children, seniors, and gardeners.

Urbio 2010 conference in Nagoya

Nagoya will be hosting a conference next May called URBIO 2010, on urban biodiversity and design. The conference precedes October’s 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 10) which will also be held in Nagoya.

I am excited about the conference’s focus on urban biodiversity. With the world rapidly becoming urban, and Japan leading the way in rural to city migration, cities are becoming key sites for human life and the promotion of biodiversity.

The deadline for suggesting a presentation is December 31, so please sign up now if you want to attend. My understanding is that all presentations will be accepted as the organizers are trying to create an inclusive experience.

Over the past months I have realized that Nagoya is promoting many new urbanism events, including a recent Creative Design City Nagoya conference, which had a keynote by Professor John Wood of Goldsmiths, University of London.

Satoyama and biodiversity

Satoyama and biodiversity

Satoyama (里山), a term I first heard from 5bai Midori, describes a Japanese eco-system that supports biodiversity and is paradoxically the result of human transformation of forests over 2,000 years of rice farming. A fascinating Japan Times article explains what satoyama is, and how it is threatened on the one hand by large-scale agribusiness and pesticides that are sterilizing the land, and on the other hand by the encroachment of forests on villages that farmers are abandoning in rural Japan.

Satoyama are heavily managed forests and fields that replaced Japan’s densely shaded wilderness with a system of concentric rings of sato (village), satoyama (managed woodland), and okuyama (wild forest). In proximity to dwellings, cutting wood for fire provided openings in the forests that encouraged sun-tolerant trees and created habitat for wildflowers, butterflies, birds and other species that do not exist in wild forest. Cultivating rice paddies, and building the irrigation systems of reservoirs and canals that supply them, created aquatic and semi-aquatic habitat for amphibians, insects, water plants, crustaceans and fish. The system depends on the close proximity of all three rings, spread out over a large portion of Japan’s mountainous island habitat.

According to Japan’s Environment Ministry, more than half of Japan’s threatened plant and animal species live in satoyama areas. The Environment Ministry has created at least three editions of a national biodiversity strategy and launched a Satoyama Initiative that has included knowledge sharing with Asian regional conferences. And Japan will next year host the 10th Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP10) in Nagoya.

Resources in English include Takeuchi Kazuhiko et al’s book Satoyama: The Traditional Rural Landscape of Japan (Springer, 2002). And there’s a Japanese Environment Ministry video on satoyama on YouTube (no embedding unforuntately).