The Ramsar Convention and Japan's rice-paddy ecosystems

| 6th July 2020

Fireflies at Kawaura River, Gifu Prefecture, Japan, June 2011. Photographer, T. Kiya.

 

Wikipedia
Urgent action is needed nationwide as Japan becomes a hotspot for insect loss.

Is the return of the Japanese crested ibis and oriental white stork to be limited to small protected areas while the rest of Japan’s rice fields are abandoned to intensive pesticide use? 

The Ramsar Convention for Wetland Conservation describes rice paddies as human-made wetlands important for biodiversity, yet drastic action beyond Japan’s few Ramsar-designated sites is likely to be needed to recover disappearing birds and insects.

The most well-known and culturally important species characteristic of Japan’s “satoyama”, or traditional rice-farming landscape, are precarious. Two bird species, the oriental white stork and Japanese crested ibis, are the subject of limited reintroduction programs following their extinction in Japan.

Read: Broad-spectrum insecticides in Japan

Many insect species, including the charismatic autumn darter dragonfly and Heike firefly, have also undergone dramatic decline across Japan in recent years. 

Symbolism 

The implications for the biodiversity of the country’s rice-field ecosystems are grave. To counter this, ambitious goals are likely to be needed for the return of conspicious indicator species across their entire former range, rather than a few designated sites.

Like the tiger or panda, these species can act as potent symbols to focus public opinion to conserve the ecosystems they represent.

One of the Ramsar Convention areas, Hachigoro Toshima Wetlands in Toyooka City in Hyogo Prefecture, is the site of a program to recover the oriental white stork, which is classed as endangered on the IUCN red list. The designated area is located where the last stork was seen before its extinction in Japan in 1971. 

An article on the website of Japan’s Ministry of the Environment (JME) explains: “Sitting at the top of the food chain, the oriental white stork is a carnivorous indicator species that reflects the healthiness of an entire ecosystem”. The storks became extinct as “a consequence of introducing modern rice farming methods for increased yield”.

Agricultural chemicals killed the fish and small aquatic organisms that the storks fed on and also accumulated in their bodies.

Recovery 

A “stork-friendly” farming program asks farmers to reduce pesticide use by 75 percent. The rice yield using minimal chemicals is 25 percent smaller than intensive farming, but it commanded a price up to 29 percent higher in 2007, cancelling out the difference for the farmers who also did not have to pay for expensive agrochemicals.

The reintroduction program is being extended to other areas, with the first oriental white storks reported as breeding in a Ramsar area in Tochigi Prefecture in eastern Japan in 2020. However, it is likely that biodiversity-friendly rice farming will have to become the norm outside of such areas for the population to establish itself and grow further.

Another recovery project for a rice-paddy bird that became extinct in Japan is the crested ibis project on Sado Island, a small island in the Japan Sea in Niigata Prefecture. 

Environmental journalist Hiroyuki Ishi describes how the crested ibis is a deeply significant bird in Japanese culture that relies for food on “amphibian creatures, crustacea, fish, and insects to be found in nearby rice paddies and wetlands.” Crested ibises were overhunted from the late ninteenth century as its feathers were prized for down futon quilts, for decorations in tea rooms, and as exports to Europe for use in ladies’ hats. 

After it came close to extinction, a population of crested ibises remained on Sado Island. However, Ishi writes: “After the war, around 1950, pesticides came into common use on Sado Island, decimating the loaches, frogs and other water creatures on which the crested ibis fed. In the mid-1960s, traces of pesticide were found in the carcasses of two dead ibises.” 

Recolonize 

After the last crested ibis in Japan died on Sado Island in 2003, a recovery program was begun using birds bred in China, where it had previously also been believed extinct. By 2019, over 500 ibises were reported living on Sado Island in the wild and at the breeding center.

According to the JME website, the program has a certification system for “Creating Villages Coexisting with Crested Ibis” that asks farmers to reduce “reduce the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to at least 50 percent of conventional farming methods”. 

As of April 2020, sightings of crested ibis that had crossed from Sado Island were being reported in adjacent areas on the main island of Honshu.

If the reduced-pesticide farming measures pioneered on Sado Island can be widened, this eye-catching bird may start to recolonize its former range.

Pesticides 

Once a numerous harbinger of autumn in Japan’s rice-farming areas, the brilliant red autumn darter dragonfly’s place in Japanese culture is captured in a well-known children’s song:

Little red dragonfly 

Resting, waiting 

On the end of a bamboo pole

Numerous as recently as the 1990s, in recent years its numbers have decreased to the point that in 2015 it was placed on the JME’s Red List of endangered species across Japan. As with other rice-field insects, the reason has been shown to be broad-spectrum pesticides including fipronil and different types of neonicotinoids although pesticide companies dispute this.

Without a nationwide recovery program to minimize pesticide use, it is likely that the charismatic autumn darter will only be known to future generations through the words of the song and from old photographs.

Fireflies

Although June is traditionally a time of firefly festivals in Japan, in most cases the fireflies are bred for the event. In the wild however, Heike fireflies that use rice paddies for habitat and Genji fireflies that are found near creeks, have both been declining.

Writing in the Journal of Insect Conservation in 2012, a team led by Shinsaku Koji of Kanazawa University explained how the Heike firefly, one of the most representative insects of the traditional satoyama landscape, has undergone sharp declines in recent years due to intensive agriculture.  

Noting that interest in firefly conservation has increased in Japan, they wrote that “conservation of fireflies would result in extensive conservation of biodiversity in the satoyama landscape.” They regard the Genji and Heike fireflies as “appropriate flagship species to facilitate citizen participation in conservation of the satoyama landscape.” 

However, a monitoring report for 2017 by the Biodiversity Center of Japan stated that the population of Heike fireflies had continued to decrease nationwide. These lights of summer no longer shine in rural Japan as they did before the age of broad-spectrum pesticides.

Crossroads

Japan stands at a crossroads, with competing pressures in the government and society. The Japanese government established the International Partnership for the Satoyama Initiative (IPSI) in 2010 to encourage conservation initiatives for Japan’s satoyama landscape and share them internationally.

However, intense lobbying by pesticide companies trying to keep regulations to a minimum in most areas and conservation restricted to protected areas is working against these efforts. 

Perhaps reflecting this, a study published in 2012 in the journal Global Environmental Research says there were only a few satoyama conservation projects, mostly near large cities. The study points to local opposition, saying “rural residents have often shown a passive or even negative attitude regarding conservation activities.” 

In future, the authors envisage restored satoyama “model landscapes” in national parks created with “the cooperation of cities and companies”. This seems certain to perpetuate a situation where pesticide companies trumpet their support of a few theme park-like traditional rice farming projects inside national parks to distract from the devastation their products cause elsewhere. 

As of 2020, the IPSI website features only a few conservation projects in Japan, including the oriental white stork program in Hyogo Prefecture, while having many reports on projects in other countries. 

Collapse

Is the return of the Japanese crested ibis and oriental white stork to be limited to small protected areas while the rest of Japan’s rice fields are abandoned to intensive pesticide use?

The widespread collapse of red dragonfly and Heike firefly populations is recent, dramatic and worrying, and shows that this may be the case.

The Ramsar Convention calls upon signatory countries to encourage agricultural practices that protect biodiversity in rice paddies to the extent possible. In ignoring its obligations under the convention for most of the country, Japan is also becoming a hotspot for insect loss.

This Author 

Phil Carter is a freelance environmental journalist based in Japan.

Image: 

Fireflies at Kawaura River, Gifu Prefecture, Japan, June 2011. Photographer, T. Kiya. Wikimedia Commons License.

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