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Seasons Greetings!

Written by Russell Molina
Illustrated by Mariano Ching

Seie Toyama

Seiei Toyama was born to a family of modest means in 1906 in Yamanashi, Japan. His mother strove to educate him well and, in 1934, he graduated from Kyoto University’s Department of Agriculture. The following year, he embarked on an extended research tour of China. When Japan’s invasion in 1937 cut his studies short, Toyama returned to Japan bearing a surprising observation. In northwest China he had seen gourds and grapes and other fruits growing perfectly well in the desert sand. At Tottori University, he experimented in nearby sand dunes and, over the next many years, developed irrigation techniques that transformed Tottori’s barren dunes into profitable fruit, vegetable, and flower farms. When he retired in 1972, Toyama was Japan’s leading authority on desert agriculture. Still strong, and eager to devote his golden years to something useful, he began to apply his knowledge to China.

In one early effort, Toyama introduced the kudzu vine to secure the badly eroded banks of the Yellow River in northwest China. After persuading Japanese farmers to donate seeds, he and teams of volunteers planted three thousand kudzu seedlings along the fragile riverbanks. Meanwhile, at the Shapotou Experimental Station in Ningxia Huizu Autonomous Region, Toyama introduced modern grape-growing techniques and revived the region’s languishing vineyards.
In 1990, Toyama began working with the Engebei Desert Development Model Zone in Inner Mongolia. Here China’s scientists were battling severe desertification exacerbated by seasonal floods. Toyama recommended large stands of fast-growing poplar trees. To assist, in 1991 he founded the Japan Association for Greening Deserts and recruited tree-planting volunteers from Japan. Toyama’s volunteers had to pay their own way and even bring their own shovels and wheelbarrows. The first batch of two hundred included office workers, civil servants, homemakers, and students. Thousands more like them followed in the years to come to plant trees, alongside Chinese volunteers, as part of Toyama’s Project Green Hope.
Each time his volunteers set to work, Toyama made sure that every sapling was properly nested in the earth. Afterwards, he nurtured the young trees and monitored their growth. And when disaster struck—such as the floods of 1996 that swept away a million poplars—he doggedly replanted. As a result, today more than ten thousand acres of Inner Mongolia have been transformed from a barren wasteland to a stable habitat for birds and other animals and a green oasis where farmers grow vegetables and grapes, apples, and pears.
Altogether, Toyama has recruited and led 335 volunteer teams to plant trees in China. More than three million of his trees now grace the country’s desert landscape.
Toyama understands that greening the deserts of China will take "at least a century" and that his steps are merely the first ones. Nevertheless, his landmark demonstrations have inspired Chinese environmentalists and skeptical government officials alike. Meanwhile, more than thirty Japanese voluntary organizations today are planting trees in China.
Toyama, now ninety-six, is happiest in his high boots and sun helmet at work in the desert. He is sometimes cross with his young volunteers. "Plant them straight," he barks. But in Engebei today a bronze statue of him celebrates his remarkable work and spirit. People there call him "Great Old Man."
As a Japanese and a devout Buddhist, Toyama is ever mindful of Japan’s profound debt to China. For him, tree planting is a sort of "green atonement" for sins of the past. But it is also a gesture of hope for the future. "Greening the deserts is a testimony to our desire to live in peace and harmony," he says. So, "Let’s start digging!"
In electing Seiei Toyama to receive the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding the board of trustees recognizes his twenty-year crusade to green the deserts of China in a spirit of solidarity and peace.