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Former Governor ordered to pay for felled forest

Date Posted: 2003-06-14

The Naha District Court ordered former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota to pay around 328 million in damages to an environmental group on Friday. The group had sued the governor while he still was in the office for illegally implementing development projects in an area of Kunigami Village inhabited by endangered birds.

Members of an environmental conservation group filed the lawsuit six years ago, seeking 370 million in damages. The two projects named in the suit were completed in 1998 at the cost of 378 million. The suit claimed that the projects caused severe harm to the wildlife in the area.

Presiding Judge Misao Shimizu said it was illegal for the Okinawa Prefectural Government to have built the 14.2-km long road without taking proper steps to first terminate the area's conservation status. Developers also increased the size of an area farm without obtaining the required prefectural government approval, and also increased the budget earmarked for the projects improperly.

The former governor, currently an Upper House member representing the Social Democratic Party, had no comment on the verdict as he is not familiar with the details. "I haven't seen the details of the verdict so I can't comment, but I will decide on a proper course of action after studying the verdict and consulting with my lawyers," Ota said.

The plaintiffs were pleased with the verdict. "We are proud of our unique nature in Okinawa, and we need to do everything to protect it. The recent plan to declare Okinawa as a World Nature Heritage Site shows that more and more people understand this," Chosei Tamaki, a representative of the plaintiff group said.

They also hope that the verdict of the lower court would stay. "Its our hope that the prefecture and the former governor would not appeal this case to the upper court, as that would only prolong our case. This verdict shows to the entire nation how important it is to preserve nature," Yuko Onishi, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs said.

The plaintiffs claimed they had to seek legal counsel outside the prefecture, as Ota was the governor at the time of the start of the case. "Lawyers in the prefecture were almost unanimously backing him politically and thus unwilling to take a case against him," the wife of late Zenji Yoshimine who was the driving force starting the case said. "My late husband ran into Onishi at an environmental meeting and finally convinced her to take the case," she said. Eventually Onishi assembled a group of eight lawyers, all from Osaka, to fight the case successfully.

Not everyone is happy with the verdict through. An official at Kunigami Village Office said that the development project started as a compensation for local farmers who had lost their land to a dam project. They wanted to get farmland as compensation that they planned to cultivate as a cooperative. However, as the years went by, there were fewer and fewer farmers left, young people left the area and moved to cities, and demands for farmland gradually died out. But the bureaucrats went on with their plan and cleared the extra farmland anyway.

The same happened with the road. The local Forestry Union claimed that the road was needed and the village office started the paperwork to get a budget from the prefecture. They claimed that the road was necessary for the maintenance of local forestry resources.

During the seven-year trial, the prefecture has constantly maintained that the development work was necessary. However, the proof that the prefecture presented to the court was not strong enough to convict the presiding judge, who then ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

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