German botanist dedicated life to poverty relief in China

Xinhua
Holger Perner had been in western Sichuan plateau, where barren soil and atrocious weather kept many locals in poverty, for two decades.
Xinhua

Holger Perner, a German botanist, decided to take a nap after his three-day round-the-clock fieldwork in Zoige county of Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province. He did not wake up, dying peacefully in his sleep aged 57.

Perner had been in western Sichuan plateau, where barren soil and atrocious weather kept many locals in poverty, for two decades.

In his lab in Chengdu, where he took his last nap this April, rows of glass cans filled with blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, colored potatoes, orchids and herbs show his painstaking efforts in the past 20 years in China.

Perner made his first visit to China in 1997 when he was traveling with two Japanese experts to Huanglong in northwestern Sichuan. The travel agency mistakenly thought he was from Japan and arranged a China-born Japanese translator Gan Wenqing as their guide. Gan later became his wife.

"She soon learned German, and I have become a Chinese son-in-law," said Perner in an interview with Xinhua earlier this year.

Located in the southern part of the Minshan Mountain range, Huanglong is known for its colorful lake water, snow peaks and glaciers. It is one of 36 biodiversity hotspots in the world, and Perner was obsessed with the rich variety of orchids there.

Four years later, Perner moved to China as a senior advisor to Huanglong scenic area. He studied local ecological system and gave advice on its conservation. But he soon encountered a dilemma.

People matter most

"We are here to protect the environment. But local residents, living on the plateau and with poor infrastructure, barely had enough income. They need the land to survive. If we want to protect the environment, we must find a way out for them," Perner said in a television interview. "In the end, people matter most."

Locals have been living on highland barley and corn, but the two produce little income. Perner thought the acid soil ideal for growing blueberries.

Blueberries then sold for up to 800 yuan (about 120 U.S. dollars) a kilo in China and grows well in acid soil. In 2008, the German Embassy and Huanglong scenic area administration jointly bought a number of blueberry seedlings. Perner cloned them and planted them in nearby Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture.

The blueberry plan proved a resounding success. One family had a good harvest of 100 kilos in three years, and now over 110 families have followed suit, and the local blueberry acreage has reached 270,000 square meters.

Magic berries

Perner did not stop. He planned to introduce more berries. He and his wife set up a team to clone four more crops, including blackberries and cranberries.

"These fruits have been optimized in overseas market, but are rarely farmed in China," Gan said.

They planned to establish a complete industrial chain and partner with research institutes and universities to offer professional support to lower the risks for farmers.

This year, 20,000 cranberry seedlings will be planted in the Zoige wetlands - one of the fastest desertificating regions in China. And these cold-resistant little red berries are expected to improve local ecological system as well as bring wealth.

Data from the U.S. cranberry market showed the U.S. cranberry exports to China surged by more than seven times in the past five years. Between 2015 and 2016, China imported 5,820 tonnes of cranberries from the United States, up 55 percent year on year.

Perner also brought potatoes from Germany and planned to grow them there on a trial basis.

"We have just cloned those potatoes, they have sprouted. These colored potatoes are good for health and can be harvested annually, while the cranberries can only bear fruits in three years. It will become an excellent poverty relief project if we can combine both," Gan said. "But he left, even without saying goodbye."

Many researchers have learned about Perner's passing and offered help to Gan, and she is confident of keeping up the work.

"We may have some difficulties in research and development without Perner, but we have received worldwide help. I am confident that we can continue implementing Dr. Perner's plan," she said.



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