Restoring paradise

Source:Global Times Published: 2010-10-28 22:21:00

Li Minguo and Josef Margraf's home is a Dai style two-story wooden house that they designed and built themselves.

Vanda Margraf and Li Minguo in the family dining room. Photos: Liang Chen

By Liang Chen

On a September morning, Li Minguo, co-founder of Seeds of Heaven & Beyond Biodiversity Development Center in Yunnan Province wanted to visit her husband's grave on Bulang Mountain. Starting her red Paladin, she realized she hadn't driven for a long time.

"When Josef was here, I seldom drove car by myself. He drove for me," Li told the Global Times.

It is a two-hour drive from her home in Jinghong city, Xishuangbanna, to Bulang Mountain where her late husband, German biologist, environmentalist and rainforest expert Josef Margraf is buried. He died of a heart attack on January 26 this year.

Margraf is buried near an oak tree, symbolic for his love of trees and the 3 million trees the Seeds of Heaven Center planted in the area during the last two years.

After arrival, Li lay down next to the oak tree. She seemed to be at peace. By her side was a bottle of red wine.

"Josef relished red wine a lot," Li said with smile on her face. "We used to stay awake for a whole night, drinking and talking."

She looked at his gravestone, which forms a triangular together with a rock and an oak tree.

"A triangle is the most stable structure. The stone, tree and gravestone represent vigor, qi and spirit separately," Li said.

Looking around, one could see poplar, elm, walnut, camphor, fir, bamboo, orchid and other trees and flowers growing vigorously on the mountain.

In 2008, the couple rented six square meters of what was wasteland on the mountain from local villagers.

Rainforest dreams

"We planned to make it into an artificial rainforest, to restore the local biodiversity system," Li said.

But with her husband gone, Li has to shoulder all the center's biodiversity recovery projects and said that the biggest problem is lack of money.

"Each year, the expense of the rainforest recovery project costs us more than 1 million yuan ($150,275). Money is a necessity. We need donations at the start of the project, and then, we can support the sustainable development of the rainforest by exporting products out of the rainforests," Li said.

The couple was attempting a new way to save rainforests. First, they planned to develop native eco-products, such as tea, which are then sold to raise money to restore and protect rainforests in areas where they had once flourished, such as Bulang Mountain.

A natural love affair

Margraf's passion for biodiversity and the environment began at 18 when he worked as a driver for leading German environmentalists.

By 1989 as a trained biologist, he had succeeded in creating a new way to recover and renew the rainforests, called "Rainforestation," which rewrote the textbooks on rainforest protection in the Philippines. For that he was honored with a "Philippine Presidential Award" in 1997.

In the same year, he was assigned by the European Union to lead a panel on a rainforest protection project in Xishuangbanna for six years, according to the Guangzhou-based Southern People Weekly.

Until his death, he stayed in China to discover nearly extinct species and helped establish a biodiversity system in the rainforest region of the mountains in Southwestern China.

But eventually Margraf left the panel and decided to rescue the world on his own.

Life blessed him a lot that he met Li at a reception for a Peruvian ambassador about 10 years ago. It was their first encounter. The same night, Margraf played the piano for Li and proposed to her.

"I was shocked but I said yes after I came to. If he dared to demand (love), I dared to give," Li said.

Their mutual love of nature brought the couple closer together.

Born in Pu'er, home of Pu'er tea in Yunnan Province, Li was fond of forests and familiar with the close connection between the human beings and nature.

"My name, Minguo, means beautiful, knowledgeable and natural," Li explained.

About 10 years ago Li brought Margraf back to Yunnan.


Working alone

The couple used to split the work, with Margraf taking charge of foreign exchange affairs in which he oversaw students funded by Germany universities to work at the center. Li shouldered the responsibility of reception work and negotiating with local governments, villagers and project owners.

But nowadays it is all up to her.

Currently, she is working with the Pu'er government to establish an "urban biodiversity landscape," a plan to build a 3.5 square kilometer rainforest in the Pu'er city center.

"This was a life-subject for Josef. It is a blessing from him, a great honor for me," Li said. They always want to influence governments with their ideas, she added, but in a GDP-oriented governmental system environmental protection projects are not a priority,

The urban biodiversity project was initially vetoed by officials and businessmen who told her that "commercial requisition of land will cost us over 100 million yuan."

Though Li succeeded in persuading the government to go ahead, the project still hasn't been fully funded by the government and is also beset with other difficulties.

"They're idealists. They want to achieve their dreams, what if their dream turned into an ugly reality if the government won't follow their idea 100 percent?" Chen Yungang, executive director of Institution of Urban Management who participated in the project, told the Global Times.

Chen said it would be difficult to achieve their final goal because the couple also wanted to promote similar rainforest modules all over the world after the pilot project in Pu'er.

But Chen said Li is skillful at dealing with officials, because "she is an excellent communicator."

The idyll ends

When they first settled in Xishuangbanna, Li said she and Margraf dreamed of living in a world where human beings and nature were in harmony, not a society that exploited natural resources at the expense of the environment.

They rented 10,667 square meters of land along the Lancang-Mekong River. During that time, no other people lived within 100 kilometers and the place was wild and remote, ruled by rubber trees, previously planted by humans who had since left.

They cut down the rubber trees and planted thousands of different plants and built their home in typical Dai style, a two-story wooden house.

After they built their house, a Germany family and a Swiss family followed to build homes nearby. The three families frequently socialized and partied when Margraf was alive, but one family has since moved away.


Li and Margraf's daughters, 8-year-old Linda and 5-year-old Vanda, grew up more familiar with the local flora and fauna than with concrete and traffic lights and had been home-schooled by their father until he died. Now Li sends them to a primary school in Pu'er.

"If Josef were here, they would never have to attend school," Minguo said, while combing Vanda's hair. Margraf distrusted public educational systems and often took his daughters to the city library, or encouraged them to draw, create and perform plays or play chess in their courtyard.

Their bucolic lifestyle is also changing with the expansion of a residential and commercial development about 100 meters from their home. A developer is busy selling apartments, some people have moved in and the loud and penetrating sound of drills has frazzled the family's nerves. "One day, I may have to leave here, and move deeper into the mountains," Minguo said, frowning.

"They've been in virtual seclusion for over a decade. And all in a sudden, the family has been forced back into the earthly world. Minguo has to fight against all this pressure alone," Chen Yungang said slowly. "She has to meditate on it."


Risky rubber

Not only is her idyllic lifestyle at risk, Li also bemoaned the environmental destruction of her hometown for the sake of economic development.

On her way to Bulang Mountain, Li pointed out at mountainsides filled with plantation rubber trees.

"I really don't want to see this," she complained. She shook her head, and closed the car window.

The local government has heavily promoted the growth of rubber in recent years, due to its great economic benefit and the rubber plantations in Yunnan are 37 percent of China's total rubber area, with the per unit yield ranked first in the world.

But the growth of the rubber industry has already caused water resources to drop in Yunnan, Beijing Science and Technology Daily reported in 2008.

Official statistics showed in the past 50 years, the temperature difference between seasons in Xishuangbanna has also increased while the relative humidity decreased. For example, in Jinghong, the number of fog days fell from 184 in 1954 to 22 in 2005.

"Rubber trees draw enormous amount of water from underground to sustain themselves, just like a pump, and no other plant can survive near rubber trees. This destroys the biodiversity, " Li said.

Any single species dominating an environment is a disaster, she said, "so there shouldn't be any large scale single crop industry in the tropics."

In an attempt to lessen the single-minded reliance on rubber, Li said the couple went to the local government with proposals for protecting local water resources and switching economic engines.

They tried for several times, but failed.

"I will still talk to the government officials. I don't think they have any idea about the harm. They just ignore it in favor of developing the GDP," she said.

Standing strong

In later September, Li Minguo went to Beijing to accept a special award honoring her late husband and her for their long-term commitment to the rainforests. Co-organized by Tianjin TV International and Phoenix Television, the award ceremony focused on foreigners who have shown dedication to the protection of China's biological diversity.

"While I'm accepting the honor here, trees are still being chopped down and rivers are being polluted. But, I know Josef is also with me," Li said in her acceptance speech.

In a black evening dress and light gray scarf, she looked calm. Her daughters stood quietly by her side with flowers in their hands.

Offstage, she told the Global Times, "You know what? The atmosphere here is so provocative that they wanted me to cry."

But she didn't. "I did not want to show my sadness and frailty," she said.

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