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Old Japanese Man Plants Trees in China
There is a bronze statue of an envoy of green in the Exemplary Desert Development Zone in Engebei in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The inscription on the base of the statue states: Mr. Toyama regards desert prevention as a road to world peace. Although he is in his 90s, he never gives up his goal. His spirit is admirable, his aspiration can be examined and his meritorious service should be commended.

Devoted to Afforestation on Desert

Toyama Masahide is a surly old man. He has shouted at a reporter who was interviewing him, “Don’t you journalist know coverage alone cannot make the world green? The whole world would have been encroached by desert if there was nothing more than news coverage.”

Fifteen years ago, the 80-year-old man went to the Yellow River valley such as Gansu and Ningxia Provinces in western China, wearing a green armband with a logo of “Assistance Group to Chinese Desert Green Development.” With the ambition of “putting on green clothes on the yellow dragon,” he began his project in the desert. Fifteen years later, now 96, he looks much thinner than before, but is as hale and hearty as ever. Still wearing that green armband, he is engrossed in his greenery project as usual.

Toyama is from Yamanashi Prefecture of Japan. He is an honorary professor of the Tottori Daigaku (University), Doctor of Agronomy, and leader of the Japanese Desert Practice Association. He was honored as “earth villager,” honorary citizen of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and was granted a United Nations award for his contribution to the betterment of humanity for continuously planting trees in the Kubuqi Desert in Inner Mongolia. All the people in the Exemplary Desert Development Zone in Engebei called him a “great old man.”

Sweating with Chinese People

Toyama drew up a co-operation plan with the Chinese Academy of Sciences when he visited China 22 years ago. After going back to Japan, he set up the Desert Practice Association of Japan and began sending Japanese Assistance Groups to China to help the mainland beat back its encroaching deserts.

Toyama said friendship between China and Japan is not only a topic of conservation, but Japanese people should also sweat together with Chinese people. To carry out his promise, the old man traveled between Japan and Lanzhou for five years. When he was 84, in 1990, he was appointed a general instructor of the Exemplary Desert Development Zone in Engebei. From then on, people would always see an old man in work clothes, carrying a kit bag, wearing a sun helmet and a pair of high rain boots on duty there. Toyama worked 10 hours a day, for eight to nine months each year. He also made speaking tours in Japan to mobilize Japanese volunteers to plant trees in China.

Ten years of effort have gained considerable results. One third of the exemplary zone, or 100,000 mu (10,704 acres) of desert have been planted with trees, with a large area of shrubbery such as Salix Mongolica struggling tenaciously against wind and dust in cold weather. Now, the 336th assisting group send by the Desert Practice Association of Japan is staying on the exemplary zone. Among them, there are people over 70 years of age, as well as teenagers. They come to China at their own expense, bringing saplings along with them. According to the record in the Desert Practice Association of Japan, all together 6,600 Japanese volunteers in 335 groups have been to Engebei at their own expense since 1991 to the end of 2001 and they have finished three “1 million trees projects.”

The Toughest Problem

It’s a normal before the group set off to Engebei for Toyama to give a speech. The old man believes that “planting trees on desert is a way towards world’s peace,” in which the spirit of the Foolish Old Man who moved the mountains should be encouraged.

Toyama also has troubles. This year, the sandstorm initiating from the boundary between China and Mongolia, not only crossed northern China but also hit Japan. In the high-altitude photo of the earth taken by a satellite, there is a white cover over the Sea of Japan. Even the volcanoes in Japan were covered by dust. Pointing to the photo, the old man said a quarter of the Earth’s land is becoming desert, and it’s possible that the figure will be one-third in another thousand years. Moreover, half of the land in China and the United States is now desertified. “If China doesn’t deal with this, Beijing will be threatened by sand dunes in 100 years,” he warns.

Another thing troubling the old man is the insufficiency of saplings. “There is no sapling. The key problem is the lack of saplings.” Toyama repeated the sentences in Chinese. “Planting a sapling needs two to three years. Without saplings, how can you plant trees?”

In regard to the desertification in China, the old man took out the high-altitude photo of the Earth again, and wrote a sentence on it: “China will be lost to desert if 100 trees cannot be planted each day. Please plant more saplings.” He said: “The whole Chinese people should take part in the planting project, instead of acting only on festivals such the Arbor Day.”

Toyama has said many times he regards Engebei as his second home as well as his final settling place. When being asked the recipe for health, the 96-year-old man smiled, “Live doesn’t need rest. To me, I just work from morning to night. It’s time to rest after death.”

(china.org.cn by Zhang Tingting, July 11, 2002)

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