The Forestkeeper: Dr. Akira Miyawaki

PHOTOGRAPH BY YOSHITOMO TANAKA

 

Next in our Stewards of the Wild portfolio featuring individuals on the frontlines of conservation comes one of Japan’s senior and foremost experts in botany and forest ecology: Dr. Akira Miyawaki.

INTERVIEW BY WILLIAM DEFEBAUGH

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As one of Japan’s senior and foremost experts in botany and forest ecology, Dr. Akira Miyawaki has dedicated his life to the revegetation of natural forests. In that time, he has developed a signature method for growing naturally biodiverse forests that can outgrow and outlast monoculture forests (which are less sustainable in the long term). Despite over 1,000 successful and sometimes miraculous instances of reforestation, the Western world has been slow to catch on to the “Miyawaki Method” until recently. Thanks to organizations like SUGi Project, which allows people to sponsor the rewilding of natural forests using this method in urban environments, Miyawaki’s technique is starting to spread across the world—and not a moment too soon.

 

Due to health condition of Dr. Miyawaki, as well as General Manager at Morino Project, the below questions were answered on behalf of Dr. Miyawaki by Fumitaka Nishino, Dr. Akira Miyawaki’s last disciple, Technical Advisor at Morino Project, Vegetation Engineer at Green Elm, Inc., and PhD Researcher at Tokyo Univ. of Agriculture. He has over 15 years of experience in Miyawaki forest making, planted more than 1,000,000 trees in numerous places, and conducted vegetation survey in more than 1,000 locations. He lives and works in Japan.

William Defebaugh

Can you describe your reforestation method?

Fumitaka Nishino

The method involves determining the PNV, Potential Natural Vegetation, by conducting analysis from a series of vegetation surveys to carefully select species. Through dense and mixed planting techniques using only indigenous species, it can create multi-layered, and biodiversity-rich native forests. For forest vegetation, things can be totally different in terms of latitude and longitude, valleys and ridges, and various aspects of slope. The species in each layer are selected based on PNV, and the ratio of each species is based on the site conditions, among other factors.

 

For instance, it can also be decided based on the shape of the mound of the planting area or the composition of the soil. This reforestation method is easy to write on paper, but it requires wide knowledge, a lot of experience, and listening to nature and people in order to make that a reality.

William

How do you define what is a natural forest?

Fumitaka

Forests are largely categorized into “primeval forests,” “natural forests,” and “artificial forests.” Primeval forests are forests that have not been affected by humans, natural forests are forests that have come into existence through the forces of nature, while artificial forests are forests that have been constructed through human intervention. I have been giving a textbook explanation so far, but what could a forest created by humans be? Forest-making falls under artificial forests because they come into existence primarily through human forces, not the traditional forces of nature.

 

However, while human forces take center stage in the beginning, a new forest is formed through natural forces with the passage of time. In that period of time, an artificial forest achieves a transformation toward becoming a natural forest. To put it simply, I think it refers to forests whose plants have formed by themselves. For example, even if we planted oaks and let them grow into tall trees, they would merely be planted trees. Consequently, the forest itself continues to change through those planted trees withering, their density naturally thinning out, transitioning from an artificial forest to a natural forest through the forces of nature.

William

How do you know if a plant is native?

Fumitaka

It is preferable to think of the ecosystem and the species that have existed and prospered together since time immemorial in that region as indigenous species. However, human intervention has been around for thousands of years, so it has become more difficult to make that distinction. In addition, making that decision has become difficult because the distribution of indigenous species has changed even within countries due to climate change. So, past literature and data compiled by researchers serve as important information that lets us know the origin of plants.

William

Why is biodiversity so important to a forest?

Fumitaka

Plants are equivalent to producers in the natural world, so there is a huge effect on the insects, animals, and birds, among others, that inhabit that region when there is an absence in the variety of plants. So, it is believed that a diversity of plants leads to a diversity of the organisms in that region. In addition, tree species primarily for wood production do not greatly contribute to biodiversity in artificial forests that solely consist of those species, because they are not suitable for a co-prosperous relationship with other organisms.

Akira Miyawaki

William

Does planting non-diverse forests do more harm than good?

Fumitaka

Even if we were to make forests with no diversity, I believe it would be better to have more forests than to cut down forests, but what would be even better is if we could make real forests (ecosystem forests). A real harm is that if we were to be satisfied with the current situation, our technology for building forests would stagnate. Sometimes, things that were called good in the past have now become harmful. There is no such thing as eternity or absolute, and even forest creation changes as the times change.

William

Do you feel a connection with forests?

Fumitaka

Of course, I do. That’s not because I am a forest expert. We would be facing an extinction crisis if humans no longer felt a connection with forests. The reason for that is because we are also a species of animal that lives on Earth.

William

What do most people not understand about forests?

Fumitaka

I don’t think many people know that there are a wide variety of forest types, including such a thing as an “ecosystem forest.” Two forests might look alike, but there are forests with a non-functioning ecosystem, when you take a look inside. Even I have no idea what would happen if there were too many forests with non-functioning ecosystems on Earth. I fear many organisms, including humans too, would face a grave crisis. Therefore, I strongly feel that there is a need for classes in primary schools around the world where children can study about ecosystem forests and how we ourselves can create them.

William

Would you say that forests are intelligent?

Fumitaka

I think there is intelligence in not only the aggregation that we call a forest but also in plants themselves. Humans express through words and feelings, but I think animals simply have a different way of expression. In modern science, it is also said that plants talk to each other in the ground via their roots. In my own opinion as an individual, I think that all living things have some way of expression. That is, I think it changes depending on the time and case. For example, if you injured your arm and could not hug the person you love anymore, what would you do? I dare say without a doubt that you would express your love in a different way. Incidentally, does the planet called Earth love us? Could it be that the Earth’s increase in temperature and natural disasters are communicating something to all living things, which includes the human race?

William

What is your favorite species of tree and why?

Fumitaka

My favorite species of tree right now are ferns. Ferns created the first forests on Earth and are the origin of coal today. I believe ferns are the next important key to making forests. While my favorite plant may change as the times change, what will not change is the fact that I love plants.

William

In studying nature, what gives you hope?

Fumitaka

There are so many things about nature that give me hope. The moments that I feel hopeful in Japan depend on the season. That is, my heart dances whenever I see the different sceneries of sprouting in spring, sunlight filtering through trees in summer, red leaves in fall, and flowering trees in winter. Overseas, I saw art made by nature, whether it was the giant sequoia I saw in California, the beech forests of Germany, or the natural grasslands of Russia, and I felt the emotion and hope of wanting to play a part in it myself. People are stupid living things that have so far destroyed natural forests so many times, to an extent that we cannot count anymore, but they are the only organisms on Earth that are able to concentrate the sum of human knowledge that they have here right now and create natural forests around the world at a speed that would be unimaginable for Mother Earth. Humans are the last and the greatest hope on Earth.

Special thanks to Fumitaka Nishino and Elise Van Middelem.

This article appears in Volume 03: Flourish/Collapse of Atmos.

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