For the past decade, Yi Jiefang has been on a crusade to honour the wish of her deceased son - to plant the deserts of Inner Mongolia with trees. Now, with more than 1.1 million trees in the ground, the 65-year-old who has poured most of her savings into the cause says she must carry on, not just for the sake of her son but to raise awareness of the role of trees in protecting the environment.
What got you started on your project?
I'm a native of Shanghai. I studied and worked in Japan in the 1980s. Several years later my husband followed me to Japan, and was followed later by my son, Yang Ruizhe. We were happy together and our life was improving in those years. My son was admitted to a prestigious university in Japan and I was so proud of him. I thought I was so fortunate, but then disaster struck. My son died in a traffic accident in 2000 at the age of 22. For two years after his death, I thought of him every day. I wanted to do something to honour Ruizhe, since I felt guilty. He had to be separated from me for a long time when he was a child and he faced difficulties when he arrived in Japan, which was a completely different environment for him. He studied hard and was devoted to us. I remembered that two weeks before his accident, he and I watched a news programme on CCTV about sandstorms in northern China. He told me that he would return to China to plant trees in those deserts after he graduated. I later found that he had been concerned about the sandstorms for a long time. I said to myself, "Ruizhe has left this world and it's a pity that he didn't realise his dream". I decided to fulfil his wishes. I quit my job at a tour agency in Japan, which had allowed me to gain permanent residency, and returned to China with my husband in 2003. I registered an NGO in Shanghai called NPO Green Life and embarked on my cause of tree planting.
What's your impression of the deserts of Inner Mongolia?
I had never been to a desert before and when I saw my first in 2003, I was deeply impressed. It was so beautiful, stretching far and wide and full of golden sand. But I also realised that it was dry, desolated, useless and threatening humans' existence. I sighed at how much of China was on the verge of desertification. My plan to plant trees in deserts was so necessary. I travelled more than 8,000km across Inner Mongolia to inspect its deserts and decided to launch my project in the Taminchagan Desert, near Tongliao city in eastern Inner Mongolia.
Why did you choose this region?
I wanted to plant trees in a place with hard conditions, not a comfortable climate. Taminchagan means "the sea of death" in the Mongolian language. The county closest to the desert is one of the most poverty-stricken in Inner Mongolia and residents don't have wood or coal to heat their homes in winter when the temperature can drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius. So I hoped my project can also help alleviate poverty for local farmers. I signed an agreement with the local government to plant 1.1 million trees in an area of 10,000 mu (666 hectares) between 2003 and 2013. I promised to donate these trees to the local government after I finished planting and they promised to look after the trees and not to harvest any until 2023. Actually I completed the task three years ago.
What is the state of the environment there?
It's much different now than in 2003. Our poplars are 10 metres tall and animals, such as rabbits and chickens, often appear under the trees. A 5-metre-wide river that was virtually dry 10 years ago now flows all the time, with cows and horses grazing by the river. Local farmers are grateful for our project because previously they had to buy hay to feed their cows and horses. They have an ample supply of winter firewood from branches and twigs that fall from the trees. They realise that planting trees is not only good for the environment, but brings many other benefits. Farmers are self-motivated to protect the trees, without being paid to do so. But when I started my project, many farmers neglected the seedlings distributed by the local government and let them become dry enough to be burned for heat. At first they sniffed at my project, with young people saying they would leave this damn place sooner or later.
Planting trees sounds like a mission impossible.
It's difficult, but feasible. When we started planting trees, we had no experience and our first poplars were blown away by gusts the next day after we planted them. We learned a lesson and would bury a long stem section - about 1.5 metres of a 2-metre-tall seedling - underground. In this way our seedlings stood firmly to endure the strong winds. We dug a 20-metre-deep well to irrigate the trees, which is used only once for the trees - when they are planted. Once they're established there's no need to water them as the trees' roots can find water and nutrients from very deep in the soil. Generally speaking 85 per cent of the trees we planted survived and I owe this success to my son, who blesses us with rain whenever I lead my team to plant trees. Farmers jokingly ask me not to leave because each time I went, it rained and it never failed to work.
What did you do over the past three years?
At the end of 2010 we began to plant bushes in the Wulanbuhe Desert at Bayan Nur , in western Inner Mongolia. This desert has an even harsher climate than Taminchagan, with only half the amount of rain. We planted a kind of bush that can survive in temperatures ranging from minus 40 degrees to 60 degrees with very little water. So far we have planted an area of 2,500 mu (160 hectares) but our target is 10,000 mu. As well as this, we started planting trees this year in the Hunshandake Desert in the Xilingol League of eastern Inner Mongolia, about 400 kilometres north of Beijing.
What's been the biggest challenge for you over the past decade?
Fundraising. To support this campaign, I used up my son's compensation and have sold two of my flats in Shanghai. The mainland government is not keen to help environmental protection NGOs and has not given us a penny. The environmental protection authorities have never sent officials to support our large-scale public activities, even though we invited them. I go to Inner Mongolia to plant trees 10 times a year. It's very hard work and my health has deteriorated. My relatives and husband don't understand what drives me on and have asked me to quit. I told them that I can't because I have committed myself to my son and also to the public. Preventing desertification is something we can't put off.
How has the public responded to your projects?
Before 2007 only my husband and I went to plant trees, by hiring local farmers. Later, when some media reported it, volunteers began to join us. Now about 300 volunteers follow me on planting trips every year. Our project has raised awareness.
What should the authorities do?
Our government should attach more importance to the land desertification issue. I think if they allocate more funds for tree planting, it can change our bad environment. The central government squanders hundreds of billions of yuan on the South-to-North Water Division Project, but I don't think it will do much good for the environment. Instead, far more trees should be planted.
Yi spoke to Alice Yan