A Japanese entrepreneur who once taught in a school in China's Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region has spent the past two decades helping local people tackle the problem of desertification through re-greening projects, aiming to give something back to a place he considers his "second home."

Takeshi Sakamoto, 57, decided to make re-greening his life's work after hearing that the home of a former student had become engulfed by sand in the northern China region, already home to several major deserts and grasslands that supported once-prevalent nomadic lifestyles.

Another reason was the impact of the sand traveling further afield.

"I've learned that sand and dust stirred up (in Inner Mongolia) have reached Japan and become an environmental problem concerning our country. That awareness made me think this was a task I should tackle," he said.

Sakamoto, who taught at a local high school in the early 1990s as a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) volunteer, has so far succeeded in greening a sanded area of about 700 hectares — the size of 150 baseball stadiums — in the Inner Mongolia city of Ordos, some 600 kilometers west of Beijing, working with local people including his former ethnic Mongolian students.

The teacher-turned-entrepreneur, now based back in Japan in Saga Prefecture, helps fund his activities with the proceeds of a business he runs in Japan selling rock salt mined at an Inner Mongolia lake.

Pitching the product to Japanese customers under the slogan "Salt That Becomes Trees," he diverts some 10% of revenue to his desert reforestation efforts.

Local people were traditionally engaged in nomadic herding, but by the time Sakamoto was dispatched to Ordos as a JICA volunteer, most herdsmen had abandoned the nomadic life, he said.

"Desertification accelerated in the 1990s with decreasing rainfall caused by climate change, the cutting down of trees and the keeping of too many sheep and goats — that eat grass — for the lucrative cashmere business," Sakamoto said.

With local authorities starting their own large-scale reforestation projects from the 2000s, Sakamoto, who launched his salt business in 2004 to help with desert greening, said he felt that, at one point, foreign aid for tree planting was no longer in strong demand.

Local officials restricted the number of sheep and goats that can be pastured and encouraged herdsmen to relocate from deserts to urban areas by offering subsidies.

Sakamoto said those measures are effective but could significantly change local people's lifestyles and might not be sustainable because some residents could have trouble making a living after they stop receiving subsidies.

"What I aim for is establishing a model in which local people continue to live in their original places, keep sheep, do farming and secure profits. I'm determined to work toward that goal with my former students," he said in an online interview.

Sakamoto now focuses on establishing a sustainable farming model on re-greened plots.

"If reforested areas are left as they are and local people keep too many sheep, they could return to desert. In order to continue ecosystem restoration, we should not be satisfied with just greening and need to establish new farming models for a virtuous cycle of environmental protection and economic development," he said.

Marketing the rock salt through his firm Banben, named after the Chinese pronunciation of his surname, Sakamoto had visited Inner Mongolia several times a year for his desert reforestation project until the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from doing so.

Since 2011, Sakamoto has experimented with high-value-added organic farming, carrying out trials near the family home of a former student who established an agricultural company in the Mu Us Desert in Ordos.

On re-greened plots, Sakamoto has cultivated orchard trees from whose fruits oil can be extracted. He is thinking of planting yellowhorn trees this fall. Capable of growing in dry areas, their nuts can be used for oil and their leaves for tea.

During his latest visit to Inner Mongolia from late April to early May, his first since 2019, Sakamoto tested a super absorbent polymer made of organic materials such as fruit skins that can reduce the amount of water and fertilizer needed for farming.

"If we use chemical fertilizers, the soil will harden. It would be better to use organic fertilizers, making it possible to establish a sustainable model," he said.

An Elion Group industrial park project where grass is planted under solar panels generating electricity to power surrounding areas on May 31.
An Elion Group industrial park project where grass is planted under solar panels generating electricity to power surrounding areas on May 31. | Kyodo

Meanwhile, local authorities and Elion Group, a Chinese environmental firm combating desertification, have promoted the greening of the Kubuqi Desert in Inner Mongolia, the seventh largest desert in China, located north of the Mu Us Desert.

They have introduced spiral drilling and other techniques such as one requiring only 10 seconds to plant a tree sapling and have succeeded in better control of desertification, with the vegetation coverage rate in the Kubuqi Desert reaching 65%.

Local officials say reforestation efforts should move forward carefully because rapid expansion of forests could result in massive evaporation of water and ruin the ecosystem.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called for sustained efforts in the country's fight against desertification during a visit to Inner Mongolia in early June. He pointed out that China is one of the countries most severely affected by the problem, but said it has made remarkable achievements over the past 40 years.

China realized a "historic" transformation from "sand forcing humans to retreat" to "trees forcing sand to retreat" in key areas, Xi was quoted as saying at a symposium in the city of Bayannur by the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Sakamoto is not the first Japanese person devoted to desert reforestation in Inner Mongolia. In the Kubuqi Desert, agriculturist Seiei Toyama (1906-2004) promoted greening for 30 years, and China erected a bronze statue of him in 1999 to commemorate his achievements.

In Ordos, where coal mining is a major industry, there have been moves to shift to renewable energy such as solar and wind power. Elion has started an industrial park project where grass planting and animal husbandry are to be conducted with solar panels generating electricity to power the surrounding area.

Sakamoto said some local energy companies involved in coal mining in Inner Mongolia have shown an interest in investing in agricultural businesses to help diversify their operations.

Looking back on his 19 years of desert reforestation efforts, Sakamoto said the project has produced positive results following trial and error.

He is also appreciative that many of his former students and colleagues continue to have connections with Japan, with some joining the desert greening project and others studying in the neighboring country.

"My former students have inherited my approach. I hope this effort will continue for several dozen years to come" to ensure local people live in green environments with economic opportunities, he said.

An area in the Mu Us Desert in the Inner Mongolia city of Ordos in April 2005 where Takeshi Sakamoto and his supporters planted trees for reforestation.
An area in the Mu Us Desert in the Inner Mongolia city of Ordos in April 2005 where Takeshi Sakamoto and his supporters planted trees for reforestation. | Courtesy of Takeshi Sakamoto / via Kyodo