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FEATURE - Sacred river doubly dammed by pork-barrel Japan

Date: 01-Jan-01
Country: JAPAN
Author: Tim Large

The former lawmaker sees Nibutani Dam, completed four years ago on sacred land expropriated by the government, as yet more proof that Hokkaido's indigenous minority, the Ainu, have been robbed of their birthright.

Now the government, rolling out more of its long tried and tested pork-barrel projects despite ballooning public debt, plans another dam just 23 km (14 miles) upstream in a move local critics say will further mar the once-pristine river.

"When I was a boy, you could stand up to your neck in the water and see your feet. Now you can't see them even if you stand up to your ankles," Kayano, 75, said, lamenting the sludge that has filled the Nibutani Dam basin in south-central Hokkaido.

The government says that unlike the 70 billion yen ($619.9 million) Nibutani Dam, which submerged Ainu burial grounds and other holy spots, the planned Biratori Dam is not controversial - despite its proximity to Japan's largest Ainu community.

"The location of the new dam is not one of ancient cultural significance to the Ainu," a Construction Ministry official said.

Opponents say that to dam the Saru River at all is to disregard Ainu heritage.

Seventy percent of Nibutani's 500 people are descended from the Ainu, who for centuries hunted bear and deer in the surrounding hills and spear-fished salmon in the Saru River. The region is central to many Ainu creation myths.

Scholars disagree on the origins of the Ainu, who are ethnically distinct from the Japanese and developed a culture based on close ties with nature. No one knows how long they have lived on Hokkaido - estimates vary widely from 700 to 10,000 years.

Under the Japanese, who first started immigrating to Hokkaido in the 15th century, a policy of assimilation required the Ainu to take up farming, often on poor-quality land parceled out by the government. Disease, poverty and discrimination took their toll.

A 1999 government survey puts the Ainu population around 24,000, or 0.02 percent of Japan's total. Fewer than 10 could be considered fluent speakers of the Ainu language, scholars say.

"The Japanese unilaterally seized this big island without so much as a word of thanks to the Ainu or even 10 yen in compensation," Kayano said. "Then they took away our livelihood, making it illegal to hunt, fish and cut trees."

LAND SEIZED ILLEGALLY

Kayano, who in 1994 became the first Ainu member of Japan's Upper House, refused to sell part of his land when the dam project was announced. In the end, the government expropriated it.

He fought back, filing a lawsuit in a Hokkaido court. After a four-year battle, a judge ruled in 1997 that the government had acted illegally by failing to safeguard Ainu culture in seizing the land.

While the ruling marked the first legal recognition of the Ainu as Japan's indigenous minority, it did not nullify the expropriation of the land on the grounds that the dam had already been built.

"The ruling really said more about the way the expropriation was done than the taking of the land itself," said Shigechika Miyajima, deputy director of the Hokkaido Development Board's river planning division.

Critics say Nibutani Dam is an environmental disaster.

They argue that fewer of the river's salmon and smelt are spawning and that the high silt content of the Saru makes it naturally unsuitable for damming.

"It's an utterly useless project that was only of benefit to the construction industry," said local farmer Koichi Kaizawa, who was Kayano's co-plaintiff in the land-seizure case.

The multipurpose dam produces a mere 3,000 kilowatts of hydroelectric power - barely enough to light up a small village. And the authorities have deemed it ineffective at controlling flood levels.

PRICE OF POVERTY

The government says the new Biratori Dam is essential to pick up the slack.

"The two dams were originally planned as a set," said Miyajima of the Hokkaido Development Board. "Together, they will control flood levels, g

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