When meeting Susumu Kakebe, a Japanese forestry expert, one could easily mistake him for a local Chinese villager working on a nearby hillside - weathered face and hands, plain pants tucked into muddy plastic boots, a humble smile on his face.
However, when he begins to talk about his ambitious plan to bring vegetation back to the bare mountain slopes that were wrecked by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the excitement and confidence of this tree specialist begin to surface.
"We are going to plant walnut, wild jujube and loquat trees on the slopes after we consolidate the hillsides with cascades of earth banks," said Kakebe. "Soon, the mountain will turn green again, and the trees will bear fruits."
About 400,000 hectares of forest were lost when the 8.0-magnitude earthquake crumpled terrain across the eastern edge of the Tibetan Platau, killing nearly 90,000 people in surrounding towns and villages.
After nearly three years of reconstruction, brand-new and solidly built towns have sprung up from the debris, while children have moved out of temporary shelters and walked into modernized schools. Yet the mountain still bears witness to the horrors and its scars have not healed as well. In some places where slopes collapsed during the earthquake, little green is visible. Summer rains caused renewed landslides again in eroded areas, further revealing the bare rocks and ridges.
Kakebe is part of a five-year forest recovery project that started last year. With a grant from Japan and funding from the Chinese government, Japanese experts will help kick-start several demonstration projects in Beichuan, Wenchuan and Mianzhu.
The hillside project in Beichuan is located in the town of Leigu. Dozens of local farmers were hired to build embankments held up by iron wires, bamboo meshes or earth bags. The first phase, involving about 1.7 hectares of slopes, has been completed.
The farmers say they are impressed by the devotion and working style of the Japanese experts.
"Kakebe is very strict with the details of our work," said Mou Qihuai, a local farmer. "He went to buy the iron wires in person because of quality concerns. And he does the same work we do, such as moving stones and earth around."
Farmers will be assigned to look after the orchards after completion. When the trees grow up and bear fruit, they will share the profits made from their sale.
Jiang Libin, director of the Beichuan Forestry Bureau, admitted that the expenditure on each of the demonstration projects may not be applicable to other similarly deforested landscapes in quake-hit areas. Local governments usually have only thousands of yuan to spend per hectare, as opposed with the hundreds of thousands of yuan per hectare financed by the Japanese.
"However, these projects are still very useful for us to learn advanced techniques for forestry recovery," Jiang said, adding that the new methods can be applied to key spots, such as ecologically weak places and those close to densely populated areas.
These projects and the related training programs for Chinese officials and engineers will be critical in changing local people's understanding of forestry protection, said Jiang.
A first group of 10 forestry management representatives, including one from Beichuan, completed a three-week training program in Japan last year. Their studies included forestry recovery concept and planning, and witnessed systematic recovery projects in a country with long experience of earthquake relief.
The forestry and vegetation recovery program is one of four earthquake-aid programs led by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, known as JICA. The other training programs feature earthquake emergency response, earthquake-resistant construction technology and mental health assistance.
A series of training classes have been hosted by the All-China Women's Federation and JICA since 2009, targeted to local officials, school teachers and medical workers among others.
"The mental health assistance program is not as visible as the forestry recovery program, in which you can clearly see large-scale physical changes," said Japanese mental health expert Atsuro Tsutsumi. "But we'll keep working with our Chinese colleagues, not only smoothing out the scars on the landscape, but also the scars in people's minds."
Sadly, before Tsutsumi, Kakebe and other Japanese experts could finish their projects in China and return home, an even more devastating earthquake has hit their home country.
However, JICA said Sunday that these experts would stay in Sichuan and continue their work.