Long-haul fight: Japan farmers battle Narita airport

Narita (Japan) (AFP) –


You can't choose your neighbours, as Japanese organic farmer Takao Shito knows all too well after a decades-long battle against Narita -- the country's second busiest airport.

His farm is virtually surrounded by Narita airport, and jets from around the world roar down right next door to his rows of peas and radishes, whose green leaves wave in the spring breeze.

"You get used to the noise," the soft-spoken 68-year-old told AFP on his farm, most of which is only accessible via tunnels underneath the airport.

"These are pieces of land farmed by three generations for nearly a century, by my grandfather, my father and myself. I want to continue living here and farm," he said.

His fight, along with a handful of other families, has proved a major headache for Narita, which marks its 40th anniversary this year.

The airport is Tokyo's main international gateway and handles 40 million passengers and 250,000 flights a year.

Narita has been controversial in the region since it was first proposed by the government in 1966 as a three-runway facility, sparking protests by activists and farmers including Shito's father.

The demonstrations turned violent, ending with the deaths of several police officers and protesters.

The airport opened in 1978, with authorities only apologising years later for their heavy-handed response to protests.

But continued local opposition meant it operated with just a single runway until 2002, when a second opened.

The airport purchased farm lots adjacent to the planned second runway's route from the legal landowners, including some who had rented to Shito's family for decades.

But Shito refused to move, arguing his livelihood depended on the land and pointing to Japan's Agricultural Land Act, which gives farmers broad legal protection.

So the airport altered the route leading to the runway, which now curves around Shito's farm, encircling one of his lots.

- 'Not about money' -

With increasing tourist numbers and Tokyo hosting next year's Rugby World Cup and then the Summer Olympics in 2020, the airport now wants to build a third runway.

It won't run near Shito's farm, but the airport faces negotiations with other nearby farmers.

Seen from above, the plots that Shito and his neighbours farm are fenced-in brown soil islands, trapped inside a web of taxiways used by planes.

With planes thundering in and out of the airport throughout the day and into the night, it is hardly an idyllic farming existence.

But Shito is undeterred. He is currently involved in five separate lawsuits with the airport and has steadfastly refused compensation in return for relocating.

"This is not at all about money," he told AFP, in a blue, buttoned shirt and cargo trousers, his hair well groomed.

"I do organic farming with no pesticides. You cannot just move the top soil and hope it will be the same in different lots."

While the area around the airport may not seem the ideal location for organic farming, air and water quality monitors in and around Narita show no sustained and elevated levels of contaminants.

The airport has already won a major case against Shito and convinced some other farmers to take compensation to move.

But they are tight-lipped about whether they might evict him.

"We will determine our future actions by consulting with attorneys and others concerned while also reviewing the situation," the airport said in a response to written questions from AFP.

Shito's tense relations with the airport lead to occasional run-ins with security.

On a recent morning, a black SUV cruised by and followed a group of visitors to one of his lots outside the airport, monitoring from afar.

"Police or airport security," Shito said. "There are times I get stopped. They ask for my ID, even though they know who I am."

- 'This is my life' -

But he says he is happy on the land, and has some 400 clients in and around Tokyo who buy his organic produce.

"I have fun growing vegetables here. This is my life: growing vegetables on this soil. They taste different," he said.

And he has plenty of supporters.

At a recent hearing at Chiba District Court, roughly 60 activists filled a courtroom and loudly heckled the judge in a noisy show of solidarity.

Some even want the entire airport to be dismantled and the region returned to its pastoral past.

Nobuharu Ito, 71, who began protesting more than four decades ago as a university student, said he was moved by Shito's commitment to his land.

"Mr. Shito's way of living, how it's not about money, I think it resonates with people now more than ever," he said.

Despite his decades-long feud with the airport, Shito said he would happily continue coexisting with Narita given the opportunity.

"When the government does and says something, I think most people accept it or give up without questioning," he said.

"I feel the government should also be considerate of individuals who live here."

And for now he has no plans to stop fighting.

"I want the people of the world to know there is a farmer here in this place. I want people to know."