NPO Donguri no Kai

“To make the Earth a more habitable place for our future children” is the vision with which NPO Donguri no Kai started its operations in 1981 (editor’s note: donguri means acorn in Japanese). Supported by FIT For Charity in 2016, they are engaged in forest farming and preservation in the Kanto and Chubu regions. FIT For Charity visited the Tokyo branch representative Ms. Akiko Fukui to hear her story.

(From the left) Mr. David Schaefer (Co-Chair of FIT 2017), Ms. Akiko Fukui (Tokyo Regional Representative of NPO Donguri no Kai), and Ms. Ryoka Kim (Member of Communications Team of FIT2017)

FIT: Please tell us why you started Donguri no Kai.
Fukui: First of all, I would like to point out that Donguri no Kai is an environmental protection organisation, but “forest” is the main keyword. The foundation of our activity is to encourage people to engage more with nature, rather than to improve the natural environment. I believe that many problems are caused by humans being detached from nature.

What motivated me to start Donguri no Kai was the shock of learning about the infamous coin locker baby incident (editor’s note: reference is made to a series of cases many years ago when unwanted babies were abandoned by their mothers inside coin lockers, only to be found dead later). At the time, my alarm bells went off that mankind had somehow begun to lose touch with what makes us human. Ultimately, I arrived at a conclusion that human beings must not be detached from nature. Some argue that man and nature are separate, but in Japan it is generally accepted that humans are part of nature. Rather than just being connected with nature, I believe that it is important to be part of nature in our daily lives; that is what led me to get involved with nature.

FIT: Please tell us what Donguri no Kai does.
Fukui: We mainly focus on forest farming and preservation. Allow me to explain a little about the Japan’s forests. There are generally two kinds of forests, man-made artificial forests and natural forests. Neither of them can be described as healthy. Artificial forests grow trees that can be used as materials and the objective is to maximise profits. Cedar and cypress trees make up the bulk of this group. After the Second World War, the government gave financial support to growing coniferous trees that could be used as building material which led to a sudden surge in coniferous forests. The policy went too far and today there is an excess of coniferous forests in our ecosystem. Furthermore, by the time the local trees had fully grown and reached the time for harvesting, cheap timber started to be imported from overseas. Today, approximately 80% of wood used in Japan is imported. With an exception of very few healthy forestry enterprises, Japanese woods have become overly expensive to be harvested and sold. That is the problem that our artificial forests face.

On the other hand, in our neglected, natural forests, broadleaf trees are the most common. While it takes conifers (needle-leaved trees) between 30 to 40 years to grow into a mature size, broadleaf trees take between 70 to 80 years. To put it into perspective, coniferous trees can be harvested by our children, while broadleaf trees would not be ready for harvesting until our grandchildren’s generation. A lack of care for these broadleaf trees results in rundown forests and we see a scarcity of people who have the know-how of cultivating broadleaf trees . As no one is cultivating broadleaf forests, we plant them ourselves with the help of volunteers. Planting new trees is important, but through maintaining and nurturing existing forests, we are trying to be more engaged with nature on a daily basis.
There is a variety of things to do. Some of us focus on picking up new seeds, breeding and nurturing seedlings in the field, others plant the seedlings on mountains. Yet other members focus on growing the new trees by cutting grass near the newly-planted seedlings. It takes about ten years for a forest to reach a stage in which it can grow on its own, and we engage volunteers of all ages in the process, from children to the elderly, in accordance with their age and physical fitness.

FIT: You mentioned that you started Donguri no Kai in 1981. How do you actually look after the forest you raised?
Fukui: The first step of making a new forest is to mow the grass around the planted seedlings so that they can get plenty of sunlight. Since grass grows faster than seedlings, we often cut grass, and try to take countermeasures against damage from deer in particular.
Once the seedlings grow bigger than the surrounding grass, they will grow independently with no need for further assistance. Once the forest has reached its stage of independence, we move on to planting the next site. Although even after reaching independent stage, we go back every two to three years to remove vines from the tree trunk which would prevent sunlight from reach the new leaves. It is less work compared to the first ten years of planting the tree, but we continue to get help from volunteers to protect our forests through such work.

FIT: You are active in not only Kanto region, but also in Chubu region as well. Please tell us about the scale and scope of activity of your organisation.
Fukui: We are mainly active in Kanto and Chubu regions. In Kanto area we have farmed one to two forests in each prefecture, providing some form of support for ten different forests in total. In addition, there are several other grown-up forests we are watching over. In terms of size, they add up to around 50 to 60 hectares.

We have just shy of 500 members, of which approximately 30 are the active core group. In addition, about 100 people participate a few times a year. The rest of our members contribute to our group in the form of membership fees. Over the past ten years, the number of companies participating in forest making as part of their firm’s Corporate Social Responsibility initiative has increased. In the past, most of this has taken the form of donations. Recently however, more and more firms have started to use this as an opportunity for their employees to socialise amongst themselves, and also enjoy spending time with family by bringing their children. There are about 10 companies in the Kanto region that support our organisation.

We employ 5 full-time professional staff and directors in Kanto, 10 in total if including the Chubu region. Others are part-time staffs who work for 2-3 days a week, and other part-timers who help us temporarily on-site. Since each forest site is quite far away, we often recruit people who live in the area. There are some who wish to live surrounded by the nature, but the reality is that livelihood can be quite tough. Since we do not sell our forests for profit, it is difficult to hire people on a regular basis. For example, in agriculture there is peak-season and off-season. We try to recruit others who can afford to lend us a hand during their off-season. I also think that the number of urbanites who want to be more engaged with nature is on the rise. One of our volunteers is a director of a radio program during weekdays, but comes to help us out on weekends. We also find that among the younger generations who prefer a life in rural areas, many are interested in experiencing forest farming, so we also hire them on a part-time basis. I hope to expand our labour force by combining various participation methods.

Furthermore, growing a forest takes a long time, so I think it is best for volunteers to find and do what they like, and keep in touch by doing so. For those who are physically challenged to climb up and down mountain slopes, we get them involved in raising seedlings in the field, for example.

FIT: Please tell us about the challenges your organisation faces, what your future plans are.
Fukui: The current challenge is how to mobilise our volunteers and how to increase the number of professional staff involved with our work.
There are dangerous parts of the work such as wielding a chainsaw to trim branches, so specialised staffs are required. One of the challenges we face is how to recruit people with such skills. Our forests are not grown for producing lumber but for conservation. However, because we need to pay our staffs so they can make a living, we are thinking of ways to create a sustainable system. For instance, we could create products with broadleaf lumber, make everyday living supplies, and sell the hand-made things for profit. By doing so, the income generated will create more jobs. It may be necessary to think about implementing a system like that.

In order for the public to understand our situation, we must first spread awareness of our forests. Ultimately, our goal is for people to be engaged with nature, so creating a system that facilitates this is the big challenge.

Actually, the number of volunteer applicants is increasing year by year. When parents and children participate together in felling trees, children and especially fathers have a great time. Being engaged with nature is the original foundation of us human beings, and it is fun at the same time. I think that this kind of relationship is beneficial for both people and nature, and fundamental to all human desire. In the past, people went into the forest to make a living. In our times, I believe that we can establish a system to be connected with nature as a way to fulfil our fundamental needs as human beings.

If we can manage that system well, then more volunteers will join the labour force, and our staff may receive the income they need for their living. The relationship between man and nature will be different from the past. My view is that people should be able to be engaged with nature at some point in their lives. It could be after retirement or only during child raising; as part of school education, or as part of the employer’s CSR volunteering activity. Increasing the number of people involved is the most important thing.

FIT: Could you please tell us how you utilised the FIT donations you received last year?
Fukui: We spent most of the funds for creating a new forest farming site. We are preparing to plant 6,000 new seeds on 6 hectares of state-owned land in Kiryu City, Gunma Prefecture. Currently we are growing the seedlings in a field. The new site has posed many challenges such as damage from deer, and the harsh weather environment such as high altitude and strong winds. However, we are learning as we go and overcoming challenges by trial and error. As mentioned earlier, it will take approximately 10 years to grow a forest, so it will take a while, but we will make good use of these valuable funds.

FIT: Do you have a message to FIT For Charity?
Fukui: There are many hurdles in forest farming, but we can still make an impact with smaller funds than many imagine. I hope that the financial industry will consider some way to be engaged with nature. For example, employers could donate to forest preservation if their employees do some kind of volunteering. In my opinion, it is important to realise that for an economy to properly function, there are areas that don’t follow the rules of profitability. Once that is understood, I hope that we will start thinking about what we should do as individuals and as corporations.

FIT: What does Donguri no Kai mean to you, Fukui-san?
Fukui: Rather than thinking of it as an organisation, I think of it as having a connection with the nature. As living organisms, we must not live in isolation from nature. For example, we may just plant trees in order to breathe air, however this is not something that is forced upon us, but rather something that is intrinsic to us all. I want to pursue and everyday life that is deeply connected with nature.

FIT: Thank you for sharing your precious time and story with us.