Every spring, Yi Jiefang plants trees in China’s Inner Mongolia in the hope of holding back the spreading deserts and sandstorms, because greening the area was the wish of her only beloved, late child.
Yi’s son, Yang Ruizhe, died in a traffic accident in Tokyo in May 2000. The 22-year-old student at Chuo University was on a motorcycle heading to his part-time job after class when the accident occurred.
“I was in the depths of sorrow for a long time,” the 60-year-old Yi said in an interview in Tokyo. Her grief was so deep that she was not capable of doing anything — until she recalled Yang’s dream.
Several days before the accident, Yang told his mother, “I want to go back to China after graduation to reforest the area,” while watching TV footage showing dust swirling up in the air in a Chinese desert.
Overcoming her sorrow, Yi set up the nonprofit organization Green Life in Tokyo in April 2003, with the support of Japanese friends.
Since then, she has been traveling between Tokyo and Shanghai, where Green Life’s Chinese office is located, to gather volunteers who have helped her plant more than 200,000 trees in Tongliao, Inner Mongolia.
As she gains more and more support from sympathetic mothers and people associated with Chuo University, Yi anticipates that an area of more than 300 hectares will be reforested by next spring.
But Green Life ultimately aims to plant more than 1 million trees in Inner Mongolia, and to do so, rally support from a million people.
“I want to prove that if a mother acts, the world can change,” she said.
“The land we are reforesting right now used to be grassland until about 50 years ago,” she said. “I want to recover green there little by little.”
A Shanghai native, Yi came to Japan in 1987 to study Japanese at Tokyo’s Ochanomizu University and worked for a major Japanese travel agency. She invited her husband, a doctor, and their son to join her four years later.
In sync with the expanding deserts in Mongolia and China’s northeast, so-called yellow dust is increasingly spreading. Seasonal winds carry the dust, some of which is believed to contain toxic substances, to the Korean Peninsula and parts of Japan in the spring.
According to Buho Hoshino, an associate professor of environmental sciences at Rakuno Gakuen University in Hokkaido, researchers are starting to focus on Inner Mongolia as a new source of yellow dust.
“Inner Mongolia is suffering rapid desertification largely due to the shift from nomadic life to settled farming,” Hoshino said.
“In nomadic herding, animals move from one meadow to another, and stress on land is lessened,” he said. “But livestock eat grass by the root in fenced enclosures, damaging surface soil and accelerating desertification.”
Keiko Masuda, a professor of meteorology at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, also blames the encroaching desert on China’s population growth, the resultant increase in cultivation and grazing, as well as general aridity stemming from global warming.
At least, 3,500 sq. km of grassland in Inner Mongolia turn to desert every year and more than 420,000 sq. km, or about 35.6 percent of the whole autonomous region, were already desert in 1999, according to Hoshino.
“The yellow dust phenomenon has thus strengthened, causing more and more damage to extensive areas,” he said.
Some researchers are skeptical of the effects of tree planting, with some saying it will put further pressure on the land, which is already running out of water.
Masuda said, however, that tree planting will produce a significant effect if it gains cooperation from residents in China, and also if trees are planted on land that is becoming arid, instead of on land that already is arid.
“After Japanese teams leave, local residents can keep an eye on the trees and help them grow,” she said. “Without such support, the trees are often left unattended, or uninformed residents sometimes cut down the branches as a fuel resource.”
In this regard, Yi’s project has successfully involved locals in her tree planting drive.
Green Life has a contract with the local government in which the group is granted 700 hectares of land, but will provide the grown trees to local farmers in return decades later. Under the contract, locals are not allowed to cut down the trees for the next 20 years, and are required to plant five trees for every tree that is felled.
Tongliao is an eastern Inner Mongolian city and is not yet totally arid. Roughly 80 percent of the trees the group has planted have successfully spread roots, according to Yi.
Yasufumi Tanaka, director general of Green Life’s Japan office, said the Japanese backing helps Yi facilitate her efforts to gather support in China.
Like many mothers, she was worried about global warming and its impact on the environment, but had done little until she decided to act to fulfill her son’s wish.
In China, she has become a well-known environmentalist and mother who has turned grief into energy for stemming the deserts, with media flocking to her for interviews.
However, Yi said, “I’m not happy, because I lost my son, who was the most important thing in my life.
“But I also want him to know that I was saved by his dream, and I’m living a life blessed with love and support from friends, working for children of the future,” she added.