Shuichi Muto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
Shigeatsu Hatakeyama, 68, an oyster farmer in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, was chosen by the United Nations as one of the inaugural recipients of the organization’s Forest Heroes Awards.
The Forest Heroes Awards were established by the U.N. Forum on Forests to commemorate 2011 as the International Year of Forests.
Living by the motto, “Mori wa Umi no Koibito” (Forests Are Lovers of the Sea), Hatakeyama has planted trees for over 20 years to protect the local marine environment. In 2009, Hatakeyama established a nonprofit organization named after this motto. The NPO’s English name is the Society to Protect Forests for Oysters.
He lost his mother in the Great East Japan Earthquake, as well as his cultivation facilities. However, Hatakeyama said: “I don’t hold a grudge against the sea. I’ll continue planting trees.”
Hatakeyama’s motto refers to his activities to preserve the environment’s cyclical nature, in which nutrients from leaf mulch in forests first flow into rivers and then to the sea. These nutrients then nourish plankton eaten by fish and shellfish.
For the inaugural award, 90 people were nominated from across the globe. Five candidates, including Hatakeyama, were eventually chosen.
Hatakeyama and his fellow fishermen began planting trees in 1989 along the Okawa river, which flows into Kesennuma Bay.
At the time, wastewater and pesticides polluted rivers and oceans, sometimes causing “red tides.”
At the time, Hatakeyama thought the deteriorating condition of the sea might be traced back to forests. Since then, he has planted more than 50,000 trees.
The condition of the seawater eventually improved, and Hatakeyama began to think he would leave his oyster farming business to his son. However, not too long after, the March 11 disaster struck.
In his local community, 44 of 52 households lost their homes to the tsunami. Hatakeyama’s mother, Koyuki, then 93, who lived in a retirement home near the river mouth, was later found dead.
She had supported Hatakeyama when he first started his tree-planting activities, which were initially unpopular among local residents.
After the disaster, the marine area which Hatakeyama had tried to protect was covered in debris. He also lost five boats and about 70 rafts in the tsunami. Fish began disappearing from the local area and for a while, Hatakeyama found it hard to motivate himself to do anything.
However, three months after the disaster, the fish returned. Hatakeyama said, “I thought it was because nutrients from the forests had revitalized plankton eaten by fish.”
He said he felt as if the effort he and his colleagues had put in continued to be effective even after the disaster.
In June, he considered canceling an annual tree-planting ceremony, but was convinced by people around him to continue the tradition.
Last year’s ceremony was attended by about 1,200 people, the highest number ever. They planted more than 1,000 trees.
During the ceremony, Hatakeyama chose to plant a Japanese cherry birch because the tree is flexible and hardy. Many volunteers from all over the country came to help rebuild ports and oyster farming facilities.
In 2005, Hatakeyama published a children’s book, “Kaki Jiisan to Shige-bo” (Grandpa Oyster and Shige), which includes memories from his childhood.
With assistance from French luxury brand Louis Vuitton, an English version of the book was completed this month.
The Forestry Agency nominated Hatakeyama for the award in recognition of his longtime efforts to improve the marine environment, even after the disaster.
The awarding ceremony was to be held at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday.
Hatakeyama said he would hold the English-language version of the book during the ceremony, and express his gratitude to attendees for aid provided to the disaster-hit areas by saying, “My dream is to plant forests in the minds of people all over the world.”