Aya Biosphere Reserve as the “New Satoyama”



AEON Environmental Foundation








Aya Town (Kyushu Island, Miyazaki Prefecture)


Aya Town, Biosphere Reserves, AEON Forest, forest creation, forest utilization


Yuriko Yamamoto (Executive Director, AEON Environmental Foundation)

Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.

Biosphere Reserves Overview

Biosphere Reserves (hereinafter referred to as BR) were launched as an aspect of the UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Programme in 1976 with the purpose of conserving biodiversity, and BRs are defined as model regions that possess rich ecosystems and promote sustainable economic activities utilizing local natural resources. As of end of 2021, globally, there are 727 certified regions in 131 countries. BRs possess three functions: a preservation function (conservation of biodiversity), academic research support, economic and social development. The preservation function means the regions that contain ecosystems, which represent biogeographic zones, including human interference, and that are important in conserving biodiversity. Academic research support means that the regions provide locations for surveys, research, education, and training aimed at sustainable development. Economic and social development means that initiatives are carried out, which could serve as models for sustainable development in harmony with conservation of the natural environment both domestically and abroad. These three functions are not independent. Rather, they relate in a way that strengthens BRs synergistically, and to fulfill these functions, BRs are classified into the following three zones or areas (Fig.1).

“Core areas” are strictly protected zones for long-term conservation. “Buffer zones” protect core areas and are used for implementing environmental education and training as well as eco-tourism. “Transition areas” are areas where people live and engage in sustainable development in harmony with nature, and carry out socio-economic activities.

Fig.1 Zoning of BR

In 2010, in order to increase familiarity, the Japanese National Commission for UNESCO officially decided on “UNESCO Eco Parks” as a unique name for BRs to be used exclusively within Japan. Of the ten registered areas in Japan, the Aya BR is the only case in which the whole town is registered as a BR. Looking at the history of BR registration in Japan, Tanaka and Wakamatsu (2017) said that it is possible to classify BRs, as shown in Fig.2, into BRs that were registered after being selected by the government and BRs that were registered after applying for candidacy on their own according to circumstances how they were registered.

Fig.2 Toshinori Tanaka and Nobuhiko Wakamatsu (2017)

The chief aim is to protect the natural environment in line with “the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage”, “Natural Parks Act”, “National Parks Act”, and “Ramsar Convention”, which came before, it is regarded as a reorganization, while at the same time encompassing concepts from the perspective of ecosystem conservation and, by extension, biodiversity conservation. The various past systems existed within the framework of determining how to protect nature. BRs, on the other hand, which incorporate the new principle of transition areas, are a new system based on novel concepts that do not exist in the conventional systems, and they are founded on “sustainability” in terms of ecosystem conservation and interaction with humanity. The philosophy behind BRs takes a perspective that will be indispensable in the future age of SDGs, and conducting this research within a BR, which forms the basis of these new concepts, will be deeply significant in solving future global issues.

As global environmental issues such as global warming, deforestation, desertification, and marine pollution are now considered pressing global issues, a broad range of stakeholders are engaging in environmental activities, including not only nations but also private companies and citizen groups. Environmental education programs are being constructed for the children that will play important roles in the next generation. Now that it has become imperative to develop environmental personnel on a global scale through environmental education, the goal is to construct a practical training system focused on fieldwork, instead of a classroom lecture in collaboration with industry, government and academia.

Overview of Aya town

Aya town, located in Miyazaki Prefecture of the Kyushu Island, harbors one of the largest remaining Lucidophyllous Forests (warm-temperate evergreen broadleaved forests) in Japan. The town has focused on regional development based on harmonious coexistence between human and nature, while conserving and restoring its forests in cooperation with the private sector. Moreover, it is the first community in the country that started to develop and promote a traditional organic agricultural system.

Aya town was originally designated as a village in 1889 but became a town via enforcement of the municipal system in 1932. In 2005, the town began a 100-year long forest creation project, with a focus on national and prefectural forests but also including some town-owned forests.

Fig.3 Panoramic view of Aya town

As a result, in 2012 Aya was formally recognized as a BR. Aya BR includes five municipal governments amongst which Aya is the only location that includes the transition area of the Reserve. The core area that is made up of the preserved district of the Aya Forestry Ecosystem Protected Area has never been used for human activities and is the object of scientific studies on the structure, function and dynamics of the lucidophyllous forest. Forests cover about 80% of the town’s 9,519 hectares.

Table 1 shows the population, and although a drop can be seen in 2010, the population began to increase slightly in 2015. The number of households has been on the rise since 1965, and the existence of a migration program is cited as one of the reasons for the population growth.

Table 1 Number of Population and Household

Environmental Education and BR Cooperation

Ever since 2014, as a UNESCO school, Aya Junior High School has been engaged in initiatives to cultivate children who “bound into the future and who think from a universal perspective.” The educational framework encourages students to imagine in detail the year 2040, the future 20 years from now, and it enables them to personally come to realizations about what they can and should do for their future. The town’s policy is to provide education that develops people who not only contribute socially to the local area but who also possess a broad, global perspective under the concept of “contributing to the Earth”. Comprehensive environmental education programs for each school grade are provided with Aya town in mind.

This was the first attempt in Japan to provide environmental education focused on new village forest “Satoyama” building within a transition area via a partnership agreement between a BR and a private organization. By integrating the philosophy with industry, the government and academia in line with the environmental education program, a system was constructed in which the entire town involves in environmental education for the local children. It shows Aya Junior High School, which was built using lumber from trees felled at the appropriate age for logging (Fig.4-5). The education program is structured so that junior high school students attending this school personally visit a cut-over area and plant trees, and globally conveying this education framework, which directly links the school building with environmental education, is considered deeply significant. It will be possible to expand laterally into environmental education conducted within BRs throughout the world.

Fig.4 Logging site before tree-planting

Fig.5 Aya Junior High School after reconstruction

Forest Creation and Construction of an Environmental Education System

In 2017, Japan Biosphere Reserve Network (hereinafter referred to as JBRN) and AEON Environmental Foundation entered into a partnership agreement. Under this agreement, trees were planted to start the transition toward new forest creation within the Aya BR. A system for environmental education program has been launched via trees planted by students from Aya Junior High School. Prior to providing education on ecosystem preservation, in addition to considering biodiversity conservation, tree species selection was also examined based on forest policies and landscape plans. It is important to conduct environmental activities in strict compliance with global BR standards. In Japan, there is currently no specific subject in terms of “Environment” in elementary or junior high schools (although specialized schools focusing on the environment, such as the department of environmental studies at Yakushima high school, are exceptions), so the topic is treated as an aspect of integrated study time, social studies or moral education. The board of education in Aya town sets aside environmental education time in advance for elementary and junior high school students.

Concept Integration and Consensus Building for the Benefit of Education Programs

The definition of the program according to Global Alliance for the Project Professions (GAPPS), under the assumption that there are multiple different definitions, is as follows.

“Other definitions of program tend to be conceptually similar to these three: all recognize that a program is expected to actually deliver benefits (rather than just create the potential for benefits), and all recognize the existence of multiple, discrete project within a program.”

When constructing an environmental education program, it is important to manage all of the missions and objectives of stakeholders involved in education, and to develop the program after building a consensus. In addition, before and after conducting environmental activities, the opinions of the targeted junior high school students are collected via questionnaires to identify their needs, and to be created based on the PDCA (plan-do-check-action) cycle.

In addition, when introducing the environmental activity of tree-planting into the program, there remained issues in how to utilize the community. A variety of different communities are involved in improving the educational effects, including the role of the forest as a community after trees are planted, the communities at the community centers where students are obligated to attend in addition to school, and the BR center.

  Nowadays, people are required to coexist with nature, and we are shifting from a period in which the natural environment itself. It was the primary subject of environmental conservation, such as conventional tree-planting exclusively aimed at biodiversity conservation. This is as well as tree-planting for the purpose of increasing forest area, toward a period in which environmental education should be conducted by protecting nature through inclusive concepts and dynamically transcending all the stakeholders and environmental policies enveloping the world.

Although this study engaged in the construction of the environmental education through the actual experience of tree-planting for the purpose of ecosystem preservation, it also revealed the need for ethical education in terms of coexisting with nature for the next generation. The aging of citizen volunteers is advancing as well as, more and more young people are joining in. As such, it will be necessary to further innovate environmental education. Moving forward, in order to pass the only Earth onto the next generation, we will explore and verify actual proof of new multifaceted environmental education formats.

Develop and Demonstrate Environmental Education Teaching Materials that Utilize Remote Sensing Technology

Utilize Remote Sensing Technology

According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Report 2018, the earth’s forest area has continued to shrink by about 100 million hectares (about 2.6 times the area of Japan) from 4.1 billion hectares in 2000 to 4 billion hectares in 2015. According to the 2019 report on Forest and Forestry, regarding examples of the use of remote sensing technology for forest-related information, the Forestry Agency of Japan uses such technology to promote efforts for grasping highly accurate forest information and sharing it using cloud technology, and to support the sharing and utilization of the information among various bodies in order to realize smart forestry. Outside of Japan, remote sensing technology is being used to grasp forest changes for sustainable forest management and climate change countermeasures.

Fig.4 Use of remote sensing technologies for calculating amount of biomass in Aya town AEON Forest

Utilize Project

In developing environmental education teaching materials, an educational program was constructed through the following steps as a joint project between AEON Environmental Foundation and the Remote Sensing Technology Center of Japan (hereinafter referred to as RESTEC), which is a partner of the foundation.

  • Step 1: Goal Setting, Clarify Outcomes

Biomass surveys are used to estimate the amount of CO2 absorbed by tree planting and objectively grasp the degree of contribution to climate change mitigation after tree planting.

  • Step 2: AEON Forest Health Examinations

The past and present surface information obtained from a global perspective by remote sensing technology through extraction of four tree planting sites that have been implemented by AEON Environmental Foundation thus far allow for effective investigation of forest and area conditions, and help to objectively grasp both the information necessary for selecting candidate tree planting sites and the forest conditions before and after the tree planting. Forest health examinations are conducted by examining the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which indicates degree of health, face-to-face and in chronological order to understand the situation throughout the planting sites.

From these findings, it was discovered that the NDVI values were all rising in domestic and foreign planting sites, and that the sites were growing soundly.
It shows that NDVI is rising upwards, indicating that greenery is increasing throughout the planting sites and that the health level of the entire area has gradually increased since 2004.
And it shows minimal dispersion, a transition from herbs to trees, and equal forest growth in the areas of the tree planting sites (Graphs 1 and 2).


Graph 1


Graph 2

Calculation of NDVI
・R:Reflectance ratio of satellite data (red in the visible range)
・IR:Reflectance ratio of satellite data (near infrared region)
・NDVI:-1~+1 value

  • Step 3: Preliminary Surveys, Data collection for Teaching Material Development

Satellite image data utilizing remote sensing technology makes it possible to grasp various environmental problems such as forest reduction, global warming, and air pollution. Photos were taken by drones in advance.

  • Step 4 : Tool preparation

Teaching materials were developed after copying and reflecting the above-mentioned data as tree species maps, tree height maps, and terrain maps onto iPads that would be used on the day of survey. Using remote sensing technology, it was decided to utilize information obtained from artificial satellites and drones and from field surveys to calculate the amount of biomass in 7-year-old trees.

  • Step 5 : Pre-learning

The purpose of the surveys was shared through pre-study sessions for all students. The study sessions included an overview of earth observation and climate change, lessons on how to read topography and maps, and the mechanisms of satellite navigation.

  • Step 6: Survey implementation

On December 10, 2020, 64 Aya Junior High School students conducted a biomass survey on the tree planting site where trees had been cut down to construct Aya Junior High School. Divided into 12 groups, the participants entered the AEON Forest, searched for about 174 trees to be surveyed while checking the observation images of the drones on their tablet, measured the tree species, tree heights, and trunk circumferences with measuring tools, and entered the data on the tablet. They walked along the forest road, surveyed the indicated tree positions, tree species, chest-height tree diameters, walking trajectories, and photographs of leaves and trees, and recorded the data on a smart device.

  • Step 7: Post-Surveys

Using the measurement results recorded on the tablets and the information obtained from the drone observation images, the amount of biomass in the entire forest was calculated and the degree of contribution to climate change mitigation was evaluated.

The fact that the accuracy of the biomass calculation can be improved by obtaining not only information from drones, but also the data of such field surveys, is also a benefit.

Additionally, it is expected that the participation of junior high school students in environmental conservation activities using ICT will increase their interest in environmental issues and science and technology. A questionnaire was conducted on the students, and the responses were analyzed for the development of future teaching materials. Some of the feedback from the results of the questionnaire on the junior high school students were as follows. This was the first time the students engaged in such an activity, and it turned out that even living in a biosphere reserve, they had not played in the forest after school or on holidays.

・I would like to continue watching the trees growing to reduce CO2 as much as possible.
・Measuring height was a little difficult, but I had a lot of fun. I hope this activity will be useful for various things in the future. 
・It was my first time, but it was fun and I became interested in the forest. 
・It was nice to be surrounded by nature and I discovered another charming aspect of Aya. 
・I was reminded of the importance of role division and teamwork. I want to do what I can for the environment. 
・The process seemed difficult at first, but it was actually easy. 
・I would also like to try measuring different things in the forest next time
・The recording method on the iPad was a little difficult, so I’d like it to be easier next time.

Future Issues

The first circular education program in Japan involving field work in which junior high school students themselves plant trees in the logging areas used to build the school building that the students study and spend time at every day, measure the condition of the forest after the planting, and help regenerate the forest, was created. In the future, it is hoped that this model will be rolled out horizontally to other regions and the rest of the world.

This study constructed an environmental education program based within Aya BR, in which junior high school students experienced tree-planting, but preferably, residents near the forest should also enjoy the blessings of nature and utilize it as a livelihood. The need to expand the tree-planting program beyond junior high school students to include elementary school students and preschoolers as well as the need to expand it into age-based environmental education for the entire town were shown. Also, as a developed form of the education programs, it is desirable to construct unique education programs, the citizens learn and teach each other about the environment regardless of generation.

In addition, the three functions of BRs, namely preservation functions, academic research support as well as economic and social development, should not be independent. Rather, they should relate in a way that strengthens BRs synergistically. In order to fulfill these three functions, it is desirable to create a model case, in which junior high school students and private companies jointly develop environmentally-conscious products to be sold on the market using BR funds, so that the funds are to be circulated together.

In this way, Aya Junior High School, Aya Biosphere Reserve Center, Remote Sensing Technology Center, and AEON Environmental Foundation have developed environmental education tools that transcend industry, government, and academia and are compatible with the digitized society. The fact that teaching materials involving planting and growing trees in the logging area for the raw construction materials of a school’s own buildings were used to conduct a biomass survey utilizing remote sensing technology, and then were developed and incorporated into the school’s environmental education program is regarded as something unique and unprecedented. In addition, based on data from artificial satellite data, it was demonstrated that the educational program is compatible with the digital society and is a fusion of cutting-edge science and technology. It is also a form of outdoor environmental education that can be implemented even during COVID-19.

The implementation of environmental education integrating such cutting-edge science and technology in the tree-planting site of a globally certified BR region involving the entire area is very significant as the first of its kind in the world, and it is essential to disseminate this to the United Nations and the rest of the world.

Educational effectiveness is judged to be high, as the students felt the joy of learning with ICT, experiencing the visualization of environmental information by displaying their walking trajectory in 3D and displaying the survey results on a map, and interacting with environmental issues using all five senses. Although it is starting to become more common in society, we aim to develop and disseminate a new aesthetic sensitivity education that combines “science and technology systems that ‘measure’ from space”, “outdoor natural environmental education”, and “utilization of ICT tools”, all of which are difficult to learn at school and at home.

In the future, we would like to research such biomass survey environmental education programs involving participation from citizens and develop them as programs that will play a role in solving global environmental issues. Further, we would like to contribute to the improvement of remote sensing technology by comparing the actual survey results of this survey with artificial satellite data.

Activities of AEON Environmental Foundation in Aya town

AEON Environmental Foundation implemented its first tree-planting in Aya in 2013, within the “Aya & AEON Forest” program. It was a three-year project hold on the forest spot that had been overcut due to felling season, during which 15,000 trees were planted with the help of 1,750 volunteers.

In 2017, the Foundation signed a cooperation agreement with the JBRN, and a new AEON creating-forest program started. The new three-year program was based on the BR concept of integrating biodiversity conservation and economic development. During this program about 5,200 trees native to the area were planted, amongst which were flowering trees that attract honeybees – the main pollinators of the local specialty Hyuganatsu, scientifically known as “Citrus Tamurana”.

Since 2020, we have started survey program to calculate the amount of biomass in Aya town AEON Forest utilizing remote sensing technologies.

As for further activities, the Foundation aims to create a “New AEON Satoyama” based on Aya town model. When considering how tree-planting activities should be held in the future, the most important thing is to create a “Sustainable Society”, and we speak on the need to create a recycling society with people accepting and utilizing the blessings of nature.

We have moved on from the age where conserving the ecosystem was central to the era of revolution to “the creation of a Sustainable Society”. Now are required those environmental activities that protect nature with comprehensive ideas and involve all stakeholders that are being in the nature. This is a time of revolution going beyond the previous environmental policies to dynamic environmental activities.

Aya AEON Forest activities

Fig.5 Tree-planting in 2014

Fig.6 Planting site in 2018 (after 4 years)

  Fig.7 Tree-planting in 2015

Fig.8 Planting site in 2018 (after 3 years)

Fig.9 A wooden observatory tower

Fig.10 A stone monument

Fig.11 Tree-planting in 2021


Fig.12 Sakura tree-planting in 2021