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Agony for Japan livestock farmers in nuclear crisis

by Staff Writers
Fukushima City, Japan (AFP) May 20, 2011
As more people are forced to leave their homes around the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, anger is growing in a farming community forced to make the agonising decision whether to slaughter livestock or face ruin.

The desperate lowing of starving cattle echoes out across the valleys surrounding Katsurao -- the only noise breaking an unearthly silence which envelopes the hamlet.

No one is seen during daylight except a few farmers making the difficult and dangerous journey back to their land to feed cows, pigs and chickens.

Katsurao, 25 kilometres (16 miles) northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, is among the communities newly designated as no-go zones, meaning no one will be allowed in from as early as late May.

More than 10,000 cows -- prized for their marbled beef and rich milk -- have already been left behind in the scramble to escape Fukushima prefecture, many of them locked in sheds where they starved to death, farmers have said.

As the no-go zone spreads, ever more farmers are being forced to make agonising decisions over whether to move their livestock to safe areas and incur huge costs, slaughter their animals or -- perhaps the most unacceptable option -- leave them to their fate.

While local authorities have given no mandatory instructions, they are "strongly urging" Katsurao farmers to empty their sheds before the no-go zone is enforced, officials said.

At best they will earn a one-off payment for the meat but they will get nothing if their livestock are found to be highly contaminated.

Quite what price a cow might raise now is anyone's guess: many emaciated animals have eaten little for weeks, locked up in sheds by owners who have long since fled, fearing high levels of radioactivity. Others, untethered by their desperate owners, roam in search of food.

"That cow, over there, will die in a few days as it cannot come and eat with the others," said Shinji Sakuma, pointing to one of his 70 milk cows that was too weak to stand by itself.

"I am frustrated," said the overwrought 55-year-old at the Sakuma Ranch he started 35 years ago.

"Our cows have done nothing wrong, haven't they?" he said, wiping away tears of anger and frustration.

The authorities have yet to make an announcement on compensation for affected farmers but the central government says Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), which runs the disaster-hit atomic plant, is responsible for paying all damages.

Tetsuji, Samuka's 35-year-old son, is not looking for a fortune -- just a safe farm, clean grass and healthy cows.

"We don't need money as long as we can get back what we used to have," said Tetsuji, whose family plan to move 20 of their cows to the northern island of Hokkaido, although Katsurao's authorities, fearing the spread of radioactive contamination, have urged owners to slaughter.

His sister Ruriko, 33, who was also visiting the ranch with her family, said she was scared witless by a series of strong aftershocks and fears the prevailing wind, which carries with it radiation and the threat of desolation.

"The east wind is scary," she said. "Radiation is invisible with no smell. Once things are settled, I will leave Fukushima, where we have been haunted by radiation fears all day long."

Prime Minister Naoto Kan's government banned people from going within 20 kilometres of the plant last month and has recently instructed farmers in the zone to slaughter thousands of cattle and other livestock.

"We are urging our farmers to move their cows outside or auction them as quickly as possible" as a similar instruction may be imposed on livestock in Katsurao soon, said Hiroyoshi Tuboi, a village official.

More than 4,000 cows as well as tens of thousands of chickens were being raised in the village of 1,500 people, mostly farmers and forestry workers, before the disaster.

The Fukushima plant, where reactor cooling systems were knocked out by the March 11 quake and tsunami, leaked radiation into the air, ground and sea in the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl 25 years ago.

"I thought Chernobyl was someone else's problem," said Toshie Kosone, another cattle farmer in Katsurao.

"We will dispose of all of our cows even if they can be sold or not," Kosone said. "Even if we can come back here there is no guarantee that contamination can be removed. I have no confidence in resuming farming here anymore."

But livestock farmers are not the only villagers who are feeling the bite.

Yuko Sugimoto, 56, who ran cottages in Namie, another village newly designated as part of the no-go zone, had planned to raise and sell organic vegetables this year.

"We spent years creating chemical-free soil for organic vegetables but now it's covered with radioactive materials," Sugimoto said. "What an ironic consequence. The nuclear accident messed up my dream."

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