- At Tottori University, he experimented in nearby sand dunes and developed irrigation techniques that transformed Tottori’s barren dunes into profitable fruit, vegetable, and flower farms. When he retired in 1972, Toyama devoted his golden years to applying 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.
- In 1990, Toyama began working with the Engebei Desert Development Model Zone in Inner Mongolia where China’s scientists were battling severe desertification exacerbated by seasonal floods.
- Toyama recommended large stands of fast-growing poplar trees, founded the Japan Association for Greening Deserts and recruited tree-planting volunteers from Japan.
- Toyama’s landmark demonstrations have inspired Chinese environmentalists and skeptical government officials alike and the more than thirty Japanese voluntary organizations who are planting trees in China today.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his twenty-year crusade to green the deserts of China in a spirit of solidarity and peace.”
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.
Your Excellency, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a great honor for me to have been selected as one of the recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding this year. I wish to express my deep appreciation to the members of the Foundation for giving me this award, and to all of you gathered here today. This award is not only for myself, but for everyone who took part in greening the desert.
I am especially grateful for the interest taken by our friends in the Philippines, and our fellow Asians, in the problem of desertification, and for this great honor bestowed upon my humble self today.
I consider the desert a place that is not suited to human life. This is the reason why people living in the desert suffer from poverty. It has always been my belief that plants and trees are life itself, and that by planting trees in the desert we participate in creating life. By so doing, we provide peoples of the desert with a means to escape poverty, and live a bountiful and meaningful life.
You are aware of our problem in Asia. One-fourth of the earth’s landmass is composed of deserts. I find it significant that people from Japan, a country with no desert, are able to rise up and join forces with the people of the Philippines, to help our desert brothers and sisters all over the world in overcoming poverty. I believe that as Japanese, who have no experience of the desert, this is our fate, our duty, indeed our life.
In receiving this award, I am especially moved by the deep understanding of the people of the Philippines, and their desire to recognize, and help, our endeavors.
I really can not find the words to express my gratitude. My heart is full of gratitude and happiness.
I am now 96 years old, but I am filled with the desire to give my all to make every person in the world a happy person! That perhaps best explains my feelings on accepting this award.
Our world is a world of turmoil, of strife, and of wars. This is the reason why we can not find happiness on earth. In the midst of all this, I find this recognition and assistance from the Philippines an encouragement for us in Japan to continue our efforts to help the peoples of the world in attaining happiness. For this, I am truly grateful.
Thank you to all of you from the bottom of my heart.
In everyone’s lifetime,” wrote Seiei Toyama, “there is a fateful moment that determines one’s life.” For Toyama, who died in 2004 at the age of ninety-seven, that moment was meeting Akio Kikuchi, professor of horticulture at Kyoto University. It was Professor Kikuchi, he says, who “helped me put my feet on China’s desert.” In fact, “everything I did began with Professor Kikuchi.”
Seiei Toyama’s long productive life began on December 14, 1906, in Yamanashi Prefecture, near Mount Fuji. He was the third of seven children of Shodoh Toyama, a Pure Land Buddhist priest, and Fusae Toyama, a homemaker. The family lived in a Buddhist temple and their circumstances were humble, so much so that, for elementary school, Toyama was sent to live with his maternal grandparents in Yokosuka City in Kanagawa Prefecture—a day’s journey from home in those days. Toyama says he actually “grew up” there, under the strict guidance of his grandfather, a pharmacist who specialized in Chinese medicines. When he finished elementary school, he returned home to wait his turn to attend junior high school. Meanwhile, he was sent to study in a small village school. There, he came under the spell of a local teacher who introduced him to plant life and the joy of growing things. This was the beginning of his fascination with agriculture, he said.
Through much thrift, Toyama’s family managed to send him to Hikawa Junior High School, some distance away in Yamanashi Prefecture. Boarding in the nearby town of Katsunume, he found himself in an area famous for its koshu grapes, which by legend had traveled to Japan across the Silk Road along with Buddhism. Everywhere around him there were vineyards, some of them run by the families of his schoolmates. Toyama began joining his friends picking grapes at harvest time. He noticed that grapes darkened as they ripened and—since he also ate grapes as he picked them—that those close to the main branch were sweeter. The local grapes ripened and were shipped in October, but Toyama noticed that those still remaining on the vines after harvesting and chilled by the November frosts were sweetest of all. Only the local people ever got to taste them.
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