Monitoring our planet:
An interview with Kikujiro Namba

Kikujiro Namba was the founding chair of Earthwatch Japan. From 2000-2009 he was president of Promotech, K.K. – a company promoting innovative technologies. In 2007 he authored Chikyuu Kankyou Hito Ningen: Mirai e no Messeeji [Earth, Environment, People & Humanity: A Message for the Future], a series of wide-ranging essays about ecology and human life. This interview was conducted on Dec. 17, 2008 in Japanese at the Earthwatch Japan office in Tokyo, about four months before he passed away.
TN: How did your interest in environmental issues first come about?

KN: I was in Paris in the 1970s when the Club of Rome was active. As you know, that organization is concerned about our planet's future, which hinges on our environmental well being. At a Club of Rome meeting I met Brian Rosborough, Earthwatch's founder. He filled me in on the NPO's activities and inspired me to start Earthwatch Japan.

TN: How does Earthwatch differ from other environmental organizations?

KN: For one thing, we don't pressure others into change – Earthwatch seeks to be persuasive rather than adversarial. Moreover, we have a strong focus on scientific research. Over a thousand research projects have been supported in part or whole by our NGO. Perhaps our deepest strength is in the diversity of projects we offer. Moreover, as Earthwatch volunteers work first-hand on environmental studies, they often undergo profound personal transformations. Many participants completing their fieldwork study programs are quite different from when they set out.

TN: Though Earthwatch avoids pressure tactics, without some sort of confrontation will change actually come about? Isn't some kind of pressure often necessary to elicit change?

KN: It's important to realize that governments and big companies seldom change quickly – more often than not, they undergo slow transformations as they grasp the dimensions of a problem. Rather than attempt sudden, drastic changes it's perhaps wiser to focus on long-term education. Confrontation is simply not our style.

TN: What is Earthwatch focusing on now?

KN: There are four areas: climate change, sustainable resource management, oceans, and sustainable cultures. Each year we help fund about 130 research projects, making Earthwatch one of the biggest NGOs supporting environmental research. Current projects include cultivating mangrove forests in Kenya, measuring ecosystem responses to global warming in Canada, conducting Gobi desert hydrologic studies, and investigating sustained agriculture in Costa Rica. In Japan we're doing research on butterfly populations on Mt. Fuji, indigenous turtles in Chiba, and Japanese monkeys in the Shirakami Mountains. We're also involved with many education projects and need to get our message out to a wider audience.

TN: What sorts of achievements have been made?

KN: Thanks to research supported in part by Earthwatch, in 2007 there was a change in shipping routes in the Mediterranean to avoid dolphin breeding grounds. Moreover, Earthwatch has worked with other NGOs and government agencies to help protect endangered sea turtle populations in places such as Belize, Costa Rica, Trinidad, and the Virgin Islands. Not all achievements are clearly visible. Many of the 90,000 or so volunteers have undertaken various Earthwatch scientific projects over the last 36 years have had a significant influence on our understanding of ecology that's hard to measure. This human network is helping shift our thinking in terms of how the Earth's resources should be handled and how people should live.

TN: In your opinion, what factors are limiting the success of many environmental NGOs?

KN: Well, Japanese lack a strong volunteer consciousness. The Kobe Earthquake of 1995 was perhaps the first time volunteerism came to the fore in Japan. Moreover, fundraising is difficult since people are reluctant to give money since most NGOs lack social status. All this points to the need for greater education. In addition to support from our 1,500 or so domestic members, Earthwatch Japan relies on support from corporate sponsors such as Kao Inc., NYK Line, and the Mitsubishi Corp.

TN: What do you believe "eco-friendly" lifestyles involve?

KN: With so many people on this planet, most folks are inclined to wonder, "What can one person do?" However, change begins with each individual. In my case, I acknowledge contradictions while also seeking to take small steps to reduce my impact on the world around me. For example, I commute to work by train and use a hybrid car with superb fuel economy for weekend trips. The president of Japan Airlines, Haruka Nishimatsu, has taken similar steps by commuting to work by bus. All staff in the Earthwatch Japan office calculate their CO2 footprints and we often think of the "eco-cost"of our decisions.

TN: What directions does Earthwatch need to take in the future?

KN: Obviously, we need to more members and sponsors. Also, we should share the information gained from many years of eco-research more effectively. We've accumulated an impressive database about environmental changes going on around the planet. The information about those changes shold be disseminated more.

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Copyright (c) 2009 by Kikujiro Namba and T Newfields. All rights reserved.