TOKYO -- The international body in charge of recommending natural World Heritage site designation views a plan to build an airport on the nature-rich Ogasawara Islands as a "potential threat," the Mainichi has learned.
The islands were placed on the World Heritage List as a natural heritage in 2011, becoming a site requiring special conservation measures. However the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the village government of Ogasawara have a plan to build an airport outside the designated site on Chichijima island in the archipelago, citing local demand for better transportation to and from the remote islands some 1,000 kilometers south of central Tokyo.
The metropolitan government has even chosen a candidate site -- a former Imperial Japanese Navy airstrip located on the western side of the island. A plan calls for the construction of a 1,200-meter new strip on top of landfill placed on the old one and the introduction of flights that would connect the capital and the island in two and a half hours.
Peter Shadie, senior adviser at the World Heritage Programme of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), stated that the group is "very conscious of the fragile nature of the values in the Ogasawara archipelago and the high biosecurity risks which could be further heightened if an airport is constructed." Shadie made the comment in reply to an email inquiry from the Mainichi.
Experts point out that an airport could negatively affect World Heritage designation if the IUCN and the World Heritage Committee judge that the environment of areas surrounding the World Heritage site is not maintained as required.
The IUCN grades the conservation status of World Heritage sites in four stages, from "Good" to "Critical," updating its assessment every three years. Ogasawara's status is currently "Good with some concerns," the second highest mark.
Shadie said that the airport plan is "currently on hold" and the IUCN sees the potential risk from the project as "low for the time being," but added that "if significant new information becomes available on a particular site, its assessment may be reviewed at any time."
The candidate site for the airport project, the Susaki district of Chichijima Island is outside the World Heritage area or the national park designated by the Japanese government. However, the construction of an airport there would require changes to areas protected under Japan's Natural Parks Act.
Regarding this prospect, Shadie explained that "the IUCN's position is that infrastructure and development proposals, located within or outside the boundaries of a natural World Heritage site, should be considered in terms of whether they are compatible with the long-term objective of preserving the outstanding universal value of the site for future generations." He went on to say that "proposals that are not compatible with this objective should not be permitted."
Shadie also said that an environmental impact assessment on a development plan is necessary "before a decision on its funding or implementation is taken." He added that such an assessment can be used to "determine alternatives in order to recommend the least environmentally damaging and most sustainable option to decision makers, including consideration of the option to not proceed with the project."
In Japan, however, environmental impact assessments are generally carried out after a decision is made to proceed with a development project such as airport construction, and the very entity that is in charge of such a project carries out the assessment.
Professor Masato Yoshida of the University of Tsukuba, who specializes in World Heritage studies, said that the IUCN strongly requires, at the time of heritage registration, the maintenance of the outstanding universal value of a heritage site and implementation of environmental impact assessments before developmental decisions are made nearby. Conservation is necessary even outside a World Heritage site, he said, urging the Tokyo metropolitan and Ogasawara village governments to provide precise information to the public and organize open discussions on the construction of an airport.
(Japanese original by Suzuko Araki, Science and Environmental News Department)