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Mercy Corps and Wal-Mart throw a lifeline to seaweed farmers in tsunami zone

Japan, May 12, 2012

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Richard Read

The Oregonian
May, 2012

MINAMISANRIKU, Japan -- The ocean shimmers pink in the sunrise as Kazunori Takahashi and his father, Kenji, winch up green fronds of seaweed, their boat sending ripples across a wide bay.

The men wouldn't be here except for deft moves by Kazunori, 33, who steered the ship over last year's tsunami waves, and for an improbable partnership. Mercy Corps, the Portland-based humanitarian organization, has teamed with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, to help revive the economy of this devastated coastal city.

Mercy Corps and Wal-Mart are advancing a trend in which companies and nonprofits forgo handouts, instead boosting recovery by rebuilding businesses. They've replaced equipment farmers need to process the seaweed, known as wakame (wah-ka-may), which is used in miso soup and other Japanese cuisine.

It's not aid," said Randy Martin, Mercy Corps East Asia director for partnership development. "It's the regular economy coming back to life. It's just really healthy from a community point of view to see all these people coming together and returning to the livelihood that they know so well.

Martin, based in Tokyo, said he travels Japan's disaster zone looking for markets as opposed to emergency shelters. Mercy Corps bought vehicles for entrepreneurs, for example, who drive to far-flung temporary-housing communities selling food and supplies.