27 November 2003
Published November 25, 2003
TOKYO, Nov. 23 – Cranes, eagles and puffins have no trouble crossing a 20-mile-wide finger of the Sea of Okhotsk that separates two national parks, one Russian and one Japanese. But the channel has long been a scary barrier for humans.
Now, in an exercise of green diplomacy, environmentalists from both sides are proposing something untested in Asia, a cross-border park.
It would span an archipelago of existing parks from the two countries, linking the Shiretoko National Park on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, with a series of land and marine reserves on four disputed southern islands in the Kuriles, occupied by the Soviet Union in 1945.
A cross-border park would unite two radically different environments. The Japanese side has been disfigured by a pave-and-dam ethic. The Russian side has been largely left alone, benefiting from benign neglect.
"The undeveloped Kurile Islands are a dream come true, from a conservationist's standpoint, because they are essentially the way northern Japan was before it was transformed into farms, dams and shopping malls," reads the Web site of Kurile Island Network, a Tokyo-based conservation group that sponsored three days of workshops to promote the idea.
"The younger generation are very much accepting," Noritaka Ichida, a Japanese conservationist, said recently during a break at the workshops. "But the older people still have severe memories of Russia in World War II."
Sergei M. Smirenski, the director of Muraviovka Park for Sustainable Land Use, which helps protect nesting cranes in far eastern Russia, is less enthusiastic. "This stagnation situation helps the wildlife," he said. "If the Japanese come in we will lose this flora and fauna.
"This is the northern border for many species coming from tropical areas," he went on. "But if you look down south you don't find them because of development. The islands are a very tiny part of the former big range, but the only part."
The islands have become reservoirs for several bird species on the verge of extinction in Hokkaido, including Blakiston's fish owl, Steller's sea eagle, the tufted puffin and the red-crowned crane.
Referring to the main island of the four-island group, Mr. Ichida said: "Kunashiri is like Hokkaido 50 years ago. There are old forests, where there has been no cutting. There are no roads, so you have to go along the rivers."
For the last two decades, the Kurilski Nature Reserve has protected about 60 percent of three of the contested islands. Through cross-border cooperation, the Japanese say they could contribute to reducing poaching and building up stocks of species for reintroduction into Hokkaido.
"If you ask the Russian people if they are for or against joint conservation management and research, 102 percent would be for," said Valentin Ilyashenko, a Russian Environment Ministry official who has worked on Kunashiri. "If you ask the Russian people if they would like to see sister parks, across borders, 102 percent would be for."
Ever since Americans and Canadians set up the world's first border park in 1932, joining a stretch of the Rocky Mountains in Montana and Alberta, about 150 cross-border parks have been established, largely in Africa, Europe and the Americas.
In Asia, where peace treaties and formal free-trade pacts are rare, environmentalists are also proposing a "peace park" for the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
Similar to the Bering Strait, the Russia-Japan border area is an economic backwater, stagnating at the far ends of two very long national lines.
Along the Russia-Alaska border, the Beringia Heritage International Park has led to frequent international exchanges among native communities, joint monitoring of polar bears and walruses, and flickers of economic life.
"On the Russian side, they are giving guided tours, running little bed and breakfasts, and small boat operations that take people up and down the coast," Peter A. Richter, Beringia program manager for the National Park Service, said at the seminar here.
Now, Russia's bureaucracy, suspicion of outsiders and corruption, limits Kurile tourism to a small trickle. David Wolman, a Fulbright scholar from California, says he gave up last summer when the demand for a bribe stood between him and the 90-minute propeller flight from Sakhalin to Yuzhno-Kurilsk, the regional capital.
"Getting to the islands is a logistical labyrinth wrapped in record quantities of red tape," he wrote in an e-mail message. "If you don't have lots of money for permits, bribes, plane tickets, drivers and a mandatory Russian escort, not to mention lots of time for weather delays, it's probably not even worth trying."
Here Russian corruption and bureaucracy play into the hands of Japanese officials who fear validation of Russian rule in every visit by a non-Russian to the southern Kuriles, known here as the Northern Territories.
"It is difficult for the Japanese government to simply say yes to this kind of cross-border environmental park project," said Toyohisa Kozuki, a Russia expert at Japan's Foreign Ministry. "The project needs deep study to make sure it will not compromise our position on the islands."
But others, noting that wildlife know no national boundaries, say cooperation on conservation can ease human tensions.
"The islands are basically untouched, in pristine condition, and would make an ideal peace park, a friendship park," William Van Riet, an executive of Peace Parks Foundation, a private group, said on a visit here from his office in Cape Town. Noting that there are 22 cross-border parks in southern Africa, he said, "These areas become little laboratories of international cooperation, regional peace and stability."
New York TimesJames Brooke