Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Fukushima Organic Farmers Fight Odds to Continue Livelihood Amidst Radiation’s Unknowns

Filmmakers Junko Kajino and Ed Koziarski with organic farmer Seiji Sugeno in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima

This past January, while most participants at the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World in Yokohama were angrily demanding that the government relocate endangered Fukushima citizens to safety, a small delegation of organic farmers had a different message to share. They had no intention of leaving their family land, they said, and as long as radiation levels remained within prescribed safety limits, others were urged to continue consuming Fukushima crops in support of the prefecture’s revitalization.

Fast-forward nearly five months. Consumers nationwide remained mistrustful of food grown within Fukushima prefecture, and outrage loomed large against Prime Minister Noda’s likely decision to restart the Ohi nuclear power plant, while a group of Fukushima citizens were calling for criminal charges against the officials responsible for the disaster. Within this social climate, I wondered, had the farmers’ message changed in any way?

To find out, I decided to take a day trip one recent Friday up to Nihonmatsu, located approximately 50 km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. There, I would accompany documentary filmmakers Junko Kajino and Ed Koziarski on a visit to the farm of Seiji Sugeno, one of the several farmers to be profiled in their upcoming film, “Uncanny Terrain”
I recalled that Sugeno, a leader of the Fukushima Organic Farmers Network, had been one of the more staunch bearers of the “stay on the land and continue to eat local” message.

As the three of us made our way through winding roads to Sugeno’s farm, the rolling green fields and gorgeous blooming flowers reminded me of the prefecture's stunning beauty—also prompting me to reflect that Fukushima has inherited the painful legacy of Chernobyl: its name now automatically equated with the nuclear accident itself in the minds of people around the world.

Sugeno was out when we arrived onto his land, whose name translates roughly as the “Playful Cloud Farm”. We found his daughter Mizuho inside the greenhouse, tending to the family’s 1800-some tomato plants.

“Last year after the disaster, people still had hope that things might turn out okay, and most farmers decided to stay here and plant,” she said. “But due to the new restrictions on acceptable radiation levels, nearly half of the farmers in our area have given up and figured it just isn’t worth it to grow their crops this year. It’s really too bad.”

After rolling up in his sunflower oil-powered tractor, Sugeno echoed his daughter’s sentiments. He was adamant about staying on his land this season to plant, he said, despite the extra labor necessary to measure all food for radiation levels and sprinkle zeolite in local rice fields on government order—and despite the possibility that crops from an entire region could be judged unfit for shipping onto the market if even one local field were found to exceed radiation limits.

“This year is really critical, particularly for people who didn’t plant last year,” he said. “If they let their land go for one more season, it may be ruined permanently.”

Both Sugeno and his daughter were honest about the discouragement they sometimes felt regarding what was essentially a lonely battle, but pointed out the strength and encouragement that they received from the relationships that they have created with others around the world following the 3.11 disaster. Mizuho has traveled overseas several times to meet with organic farmers in Thailand and New Zealand, and her father heads shortly to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as a delegate to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development—a forum he most certainly intends to utilize to the fullest in order to share his experience with others.

“Large corporations talk about the future of our world in terms of economics, but the truth is that it is small, sustainable farms like ours that make the most important contribution to biodiversity—with rice fields acting to prevent flooding, for example,” he emphasized. “And it was only after the nuclear accident that this truly became clear to me.”

Sugeno then rolled back out into his fields, while Mizuho took Ed, Junko and myself on a drive through more vibrantly beautiful landscapes to visit the family’s canola farm, which her father had decided to grow for another season after determining that radiation levels in the area were low enough to warrant planting.

After later parting ways with Mizuho, the three of us headed to the local michinoeki, a facility featuring local wares and produce that may be found in many small towns around the country. Sugeno is one of the directors of the Nihonmatsu branch, where radiation detection machinery has been installed in order to make sure that every food item sold falls below the maximum acceptable level of 100 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram, and where residents may also come to be measured by a whole-body counter that can detect existing radiation levels. When we arrived, a television installed at the entrance was repeatedly broadcasting a national television news program whose interviewer was emphasizing the farmers’ struggle to appeal to citizens regarding the safety of the local food.

"For a Fukushima Full of Smiles"

As we hiked later that afternoon in the gorgeous sunshine around the grounds of the Nihonmatsu Castle—which was completely deserted except for our presence—Junko, Ed and I had a chance to chat about the bizarre new post-3.11 world, which seems in a certain sense to have fragmented into various parallel realities, depending upon which news sources people read, and how they might personally be inclined to believe. This was certainly the case in Tokyo—and, I imagined, was likely numerous times more so the case for residents in Fukushima.

While government-mandated maximum safety levels for food stand at 100 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram, many activists, including filmmaker Hitomi Kamanaka, argue strongly that any possible exposure to internal radiation through measures including food consumption should be avoided entirely. As a measure of support for the Fukushima farmers, however, the filmmakers have consumed almost exclusively local food during their most recent two-month stayexplaining that many crops have tended to hover in the area of 20-30 becquerels, which is well within the government-set safety zone.

“Are these levels dangerous? You’ll find any number of opinions on the matter, because frankly, nobody knows,” Junko commented. She pointed out that Aya Marumori, the Executive Health Director of the Citizens’ Radioactivity Measuring Station (and a speaker during a recent event held in Tokyo) visited numerous doctors, who fell into one of two categories: either claiming that radiation was totally harmless, or else that it was completely deadly. “She finally came across one doctor who said: ‘We don’t know.’ And that’s who she decided to trust.”

“Radiation effects will most certainly be one of the long-term aftermaths of the disaster, although—as with Chernobyl—the causality cannot be proven,” added Ed, pointing out that this matter was taken up in-depth within the recent Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ feature issue on low-level radiation. “In addition to this, though, are the other ill health effects such as diabetes and cancers that will result from the existing stress and fear, as well as the social phenomenon of uncertainty. Honestly, no one has any idea how the situation here will continue to play out into the future.”

The Uncanny Terrain blog follows the progress of the film, including Ed's thoughtful piece titled “Would You Stay?” documenting the ways that communities in Fukushima have fragmented following the crisis. The filmmakers are also gratefully accepting donations via Google to help them complete their project, as well as assistance with volunteer translation.
A recent article from the Japan Times also sensitively describes the many complexities that continue to face farmers--and food consumers--in Fukushima following last year's disaster.
--Kimberly Hughes

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