Hilly and mountainous areas attracted attention from the GATT Uruguay Round

“Hilly and mountainous areas” is a relatively new term which started to spread in the agricultural field from the latter half of the 1980s. This term spread because of the GATT Uruguay Round which started in 1986.

As you know, GATT stands for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. After World War II, member states aimed for promoting free trade among each other, and established various rules, etc.

In the GATT Uruguay Round, as the final compilation of the promotion of a free trade regime, it was decided that tariffication should be introduced for all agricultural products and such tariffs would be reduced towards the future. Therefore, it was considered that in Japan the import of agricultural products would expand and domestic agriculture would be largely impacted.

Among them, the less favored areas, where production costs were high, were thought to be the first ones to decline. Those areas indeed overlap with the hilly and mountainous areas that I mentioned previously.

In fact, the hilly and mountainous areas account for about 70% of Japan’s land, which includes many mountains and forests. Thus, these areas are not at all special. However, such agricultural lands are small or sloping and disadvantageous for agriculture.

Under such circumstances, there was increasing momentum to support hilly and mountainous areas, and active discussions were held. As a result, the 1999 Basic Act on Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas advocated such support.

A major difference between this act and the old Agricultural Basic Act was that this aimed to exert the role of agriculture and rural areas besides food production, as well as securing stable food supply, or the so-called multilateral functions of agriculture.

The background for this was that again, the GATT Uruguay Round required a decrease in the protection of agriculture. In short, it meant that countries needed to stop subsidizing their agricultural products in order to protect them from international competition.

Then, it was decided to value the roles that the agriculture or rural areas played besides food production, and support them. In Japan, as a concrete policy for that, the Direct Payment System for Hilly and Mountainous Areas started in 2000.

Policy to sustain agriculture in hilly and mountainous areas

The Direct Payment System for Hilly and Mountainous Areas is a system to supply money to people who cultivate and manage farmland under adverse conditions within the applicable areas, regardless of the type of farm products they produce.

In other words, “direct” included in the system name means that the money is not supplied (indirectly) by the farm products, but by the size of farmland, regardless of whatever and how much farm products are produced.

If I put it like this, many might not be convinced. This is because people associate support for agriculture with subsidizing according to the agricultural products that are produced. The idea is that someone who made efforts and produced more could get more money, so that it will incentivize production.

However, in Europe and the U.S., they are concerned that there might be excessive production of agricultural products if the subsidy becomes the incentive for production.

If that happened, they would sometimes need to dispose of the excessive products. If they make efforts and produce too much, it could be burdensome for the environment, including soil and water. Actually, such considerations were one of the reasons why the GATT Uruguay Round was initiated.

Hence, Japan created a system to support the sustainability of farmland, instead of farm products.

In fact, there is a recognition that agriculture and rural areas have many roles other than producing food, or multilateral functions, and thus it has social significance to sustain farmland.

This Direct Payment System for Hilly and Mountainous Areas is highly appreciated by farmers on site and has continued for more than 20 years without changes to the basic mechanism.

The major reason for being highly appreciated is that the use of the supplied money is highly flexible. The money is not restricted to use for things related to agriculture, such as buying agricultural equipment.

However, they are in principle obliged to conclude a community agreement. This is because in reality, agriculture is not something that can be done alone, but it requires cooperative activities among people in the communities.

For example, in Japan, rice cultivation is often carried out with paddy fields. Therefore, it is necessary to organize and manage water passages and reservoirs. That is something which cannot be done alone. In fact, agriculture is sustainable only when the function of community is sustained.

Hence, the community agreement is mandatory, in a sense that it will steer people to use supplied money for activities that need cooperation by everyone in the community.

Is downplaying hilly and mountainous areas a good thing for Japanese society?

Thus, we understand that the measures which were taken, by the rise in the sense of crisis that agriculture in the hilly and mountainous areas would decline owing to the GATT Uruguay Round, aimed not only to protect farm production in such areas, but also to sustain the farmland, valuing the multilateral functions of agriculture, and therefore encouraged invigoration of communities.

However, in 2022, a situation occurred which ran counter to such movement. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) proposed to abandon the Survey on Rural Communities included in the Census of Agriculture and Forestry, which is conducted every five years.

Census means a complete survey, and the Survey on Rural Communities means that all the rural communities will be surveyed.

The purpose is – as the MAFF itself states – to clarify the actual status and the change in the basic structure of agriculture and forestry and rural areas, such as the production structure and employment structure of agriculture and forestry, and land resources in rural areas in our country, and create and provide statistics to serve as a basic material for planning, devising, and promoting agriculture and forestry measures.

In short, it is an important survey, which will serve as the starting point of Japan’s agricultural policy and rural area policy.

What is important about this survey is that the Survey on Agriculture and Forestry Management Entities, which covers all the farming families and agricultural corporation that operate agriculture, and the Survey on Rural Communities, which surveys everything about rural communities, are combined as a set. By doing this, the picture of agriculture in Japan can be shown clearly.

Thus, if one of the two is missing, we cannot understand the whole picture of agriculture and rural areas. Naturally, some opposed the proposal by the MAFF, and a major discussion developed.

Why did the MAFF propose to discontinue it? The main reason was that there were many cases of municipalities refusing to provide the name list of chairpersons of neighborhood associations, on the ground of protection of personal information, and obtaining information of the survey subjects was becoming impossible.

In such areas, staff of Regional Agricultural Administration Offices, who were in charge of the areas, actually visited the areas and conducted the survey, and hence it was too burdensome amid the situation in which the number of staff is decreasing in the first place.

Certainly, protection of personal information, etc. are delicate issues. However, it can be considered that if the purpose of this survey is explained properly, it is not impossible to convince them.

The purpose of this survey is to devise agriculture policies and rural area policies. If these are set forward, it should be advantageous to rural areas as well as municipalities.

Moreover, the issue of the burden on staff is a problem related to the survey method, and it should be possible for this issue to be addressed in various ways. After all, the MAFF decided to conduct the survey by increasing the private consignment factor.

What is more worrisome is that while in the 1980s the MAFF had a strong sense of crisis about declining agriculture in hilly and mountainous areas, nowadays, it seems to become focused on large-scale agriculture operations in the areas with efficient production and let the areas under adverse conditions with high production costs withdraw.

Certainly, in agriculture and rural area policy, industry policy and area policy are said to work closely together, and productivity is also an important factor for the policy. However, because they work closely together, it seems important to keep their balance.

I hope that the MAFF recalls the argument about the importance of agriculture in hilly and mountainous areas that was discussed in the 1980s. Because there are fields, flooding and landslides are prevented, and because there are communities, damage caused by animals are minimized.

Why do rivers overflow, and why do wild animals appear in urban areas in recent years?

Also, why do people in urban areas look for tranquility and visit satoyama (a rural area where nature and humans co-exist)?

Some say that if communities in the mountains disappear, they will just return to nature. However, they might become harsh nature that turns away people. If that is the case, it will become difficult to utilize forest resources, vastly expanding in the surrounding areas.

I hope that you who live in the city will experience agriculture in the countryside, if possible. When you experience agriculture, your awareness about food will change. More importantly, you will see that living in the countryside is unexpectedly pleasant.

Then, I think you will start to feel that downplaying rural areas is in fact an issue related to people living in cities.

* The information contained herein is current as of September 2023.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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