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 Universitys Department of Agriculture. The following year, he embarked on
an extended research tour of China. When Japans 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 Tottoris barren dunes into
profitable fruit, vegetable, and flower farms. When he retired in 1972, Toyama was
Japans 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 regions
In 1990, Toyama began working with the Engebei Desert Development Model Zone in Inner
Mongolia. Here Chinas 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. Toyamas 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 Toyamas
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 strucksuch as the floods of 1996 that swept away a million
poplarshe 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
Altogether, Toyama has recruited and led 335 volunteer teams to plant trees in China. More
than three million of his trees now grace the countrys 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 Japans 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, "Lets
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.