TOKYO -- Numerous challenges have surfaced over a bill to amend the Act Concerning Utilization of National Forest Land to allow private businesses to cut down trees in large areas of state-owned forests, which cleared a House of Representatives committee on May 16.
Fears have been raised that the revisions would force small- and medium-sized regional forestry businesses to withdraw from the industry. Moreover, the bill fails to clearly show a road map toward reforestation after cutting down trees.
As the domestic forestry industry is slumping, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has emphasized that the government will carry out drastic reforms of the industry, such as integrating businesses into large-scale organizations and streamlining their operations.
Since there are no signs that the ruling and opposition camps will clash head-on over the bill, an unprecedented change in national forest management policy is quietly progressing in the Diet.
How far reforestation will be guaranteed if private companies are given the right to cut down trees in national forests emerged as a key point of contention during a lower house Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Committee session deliberating the bill.
"It's extremely risky. Some have pointed out that bare mountains will be left in the end," said Kaori Ishikawa of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP).
Under current regulations, as the government separately puts out to tender the cutting down of trees and reforestation, in most cases different companies undertake such work, guaranteeing the restoration of national forests after trees are cut down.
Under the proposed amendment, however, the same business would be encouraged to perform work to cut down trees and reforestation because such a practice "is expected to reduce costs."
During deliberations, Takahiro Sasaki, another CDP legislator, raised questions about the measure. "How should businesses be punished if they refuse to reforest areas after cutting down trees?" he said.
He then insisted that a bill to revise the law should stipulate that companies that cut down trees in national forests must carry out reforestation.
In response, the government argued that if firms were obligated to implement reforestation, the forests concerned could no longer be treated as national forests because trees planted by the companies would belong to the businesses.
Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Takamori Yoshikawa emphasized that the government will urge businesses that participate in tenders for work to cut down trees in national forests to also carry out reforestation if they win contracts. The minister then repeatedly said "reforestation will certainly be carried out."
Some opposition legislators criticized the minister for being too optimistic. "It's just a pipe dream," said Takaaki Tamura of the Japanese Communist Party.
At a session on May 15, Yoshikawa stated that the ministry will include reforestation in contracts with forestry companies and pointed to the possibility that the government will file damages suits against businesses and revoke their right to cut down trees in national forests if they fail to implement reforestation work.
However, since the period of cutting down trees in national forests could last for half a century, critics have pointed out that "who will take responsibility for managing such forests remains obscure," and that "reforestation involves not only planting trees but removing weeds and thinning the forests."
The revisions are aimed at allowing private companies to undertake large-scale, long-term work to cut down trees in national forests, thereby leading to an increase in the productivity of enthusiastic and capable forestry businesses, the development of forestry business operators and the creation of jobs in economically battered mountainous areas.
After the revisions are enacted, the ministry intends to designate about 10 national forests, each measuring several hundred hectares, as zones where private businesses can cut down trees, and subsequently expand the areas.
The bill states that private businesses will be given the right to cut down trees in national forests for up to 50 years -- as part of the cycle from planting trees to cutting them down.
However, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry stated in a Diet session that the period will be 10 years in principle, but pointed to the possibility that it could be extended if need be.
Nevertheless, an individual who provided unsworn testimony on the issue at the Diet said, "There are no other examples overseas of systems under which private companies would be commissioned to manage such large areas for such a long period."
Moreover, it has been pointed out that major lumber businesses and similar organizations will have an advantage in tenders over small- and medium-sized local firms because certain companies would monopolize the right to cut down trees in large areas and sell lumber over such a long period. In response to such concerns, the forestry minister said the ministry "will select contractors while taking into account their contributions to local communities and other factors in a comprehensive manner."
Koji Makimoto, chief of the Forestry Agency, also stressed that the system is designed to develop small- and medium-sized companies."
While desperately trying to dispel the impression that major domestic and foreign companies will be at an advantageous position in winning contracts, Makimoto did not rule out the possibility that big businesses will win contracts. "Major companies won't be barred (from tenders)," he said.
(Japanese original by Takeshi Terada, Special Reports Group)