This past week we visited both an existing and a future RIJ project in Minami Sanriku, a town in the Tohoku region of Japan that was devastated by the March 11th earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Both projects come from the Green Farmers Miyagi, which has implemented and now seeks to expand its farming and agriculture initiative in the Tohoku region. Through their very hard work and the support of donors like RIJ, the project leaders have developed the largest farm in all of Minami Sanriku. Now they hope to start an omiyage project for Minami Sanriku, which should help return to the town a sense of normalcy.
In the wake of the 3.11 disaster, RIJ put forth its existing fundraising and support infrastructure to help provide relief to those so deeply affected by this catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and were displaced by the tsunami, which along with the earthquake and Fukushima meltdown was the worst disaster on record in terms of economic damage. RIJ sought to provide relief both because we are a Japan-based NPO and member of the Japanese community and because we recognized how similar the challenges that would be faced by people in the Tohoku region were to those of refugees and other displaced by conflict.
RIJ first funded a Green Farmers Miyagi project in autumn of 2011, just months after the 3.11 disaster. On our visit last week, we witnessed the amazing progress they have achieved in just two years. The project leaders have gathered volunteers from around the community to help farm negi onions, spinach, kimchi, and other vegetables on formerly unused land in the area. We spoke with several of the volunteers, who told us that they help because they want to build something viable for Minami Sanriku. Their hope is that projects like Green Farmers Miyagi will bring jobs and prosperity back to a town that has been largely deserted because of the devastation.
Now, Green Farmers Miyagi is starting a new “Omiyagi” project. Omiyagi is a play on Miyagi prefecture (where the town lies) and omiyage, which are souvenirs or treats that many Japanese towns and destinations sell to visitors and tourists. Since the 3.11 disaster, tourism to the area has been very high, but the benefits to Tohoku communities are relatively small because of a lack of businesses or infrastructure. Green Farmers Miyagi hopes to change this and also to bring a sense of normalcy back to Minamisanriku by taking part in this very common omiyage practice.
To proceed, the project requires much equipment and support to build and develop its processing centers. The project leaders seek to create two processing centers where local volunteers will come to help bake and wrap the omiyage. The processing centers will be built into shelters resembling shipping canisters, which will be fitted with all the necessary kitchen and cleaning equipment. Project workers will also temporarily make kimchi at these processing centers, as they anticipate a growing demand for locally produced kimchi (which is normally imported form South Korea) in the coming months.
Project visits like these are necessary for two reasons: first, on a practical level, we can investigate the project, future or current, to make sure everything is being organized and maintained responsibly and efficiently; second, and often more importantly, we can speak with project leaders and beneficiaries to gain a better understanding for the challenges of displaced persons and affected communities. Speaking personally, I had very little concept for the Minamisanriku projects before our visit. After visiting, however, my preconceptions about the project and the region were gone. I realized just how devastated the Tohoku region has been, how difficult the challenges the communities must face are, and how hard people have been working to restore the area.
Special thanks to Peter Watabe, Yu Takeda, and all the Green Farmers Miyagi workers and volunteers for their amazing hospitality. We know the project will be a great success.