Luo Guanzhang, 80, retired 20 years ago. Yet, the old man's mind remains focused on the mission that he has set for himself a long time ago: lifting his village out of poverty.
Luo Guanzhang's home village of Niuzhuang, Wufeng Tujia Autonomous County of Hubei Province, is located at 1,540 meters above the sea level. It is one of the most remote and least developed villages in China, with some 8,000 inhabitants struggling with poverty for generations. But recent results are significant: in 2015, the average per-capita annual income of local villagers was 7,508 yuan ($1,150), 106 times more than that 20 years ago. But what is the secret behind this success story?
In 1997, Luo resigned from his position as deputy head of the Standing Committee of the People's Congress of Wufeng Tujia Autonomous County. He then returned to Niuzhuang, his native village.
Luo Guanzhang (left) works with a villager
Seeing the many dilapidated houses and infertile land, he realized that his village was sinking ever deeper into misery. He decided to do something about it by bringing prosperity to its inhabitants.
One day, Luo met by chance a trader who was looking for gastrodia elata, a medicinal plant used for traditional Chinese medicine. But when the trader knew that the local annual production amounted to only 500 kg, he changed his mind. "It's not profitable enough," he said.
This encounter allowed Luo to discover a potential solution. In fact, because of its great therapeutic virtues, gastrodia elata is a very popular product on the market. And the natural conditions of his village are favorable to its cultivation. But before making money, villagers first had to learn how to grow the plant on a large scale. This required appropriate techniques, such as sexual reproduction of the plant.
At 60, he did not hesitate to study how to overcome this technical obstacle. To keep abreast of the latest scientific research, he subscribed to a dozen academic periodicals, and carefully took notes while reading them. He also visited Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces to learn from their experience in growing gastrodia elata. But such experience had to be fully adapted to local conditions as well. And to achieve this, Luo had to carry out more than a hundred tests over three years, writing hundreds of pages of observation notes. In May 2000, the first seed was reproduced in his mountain village, where freezing temperatures last four months a year.
What he did nest is to spread and pass on his knowledge to his fellow villagers. He began by convincing the family of Yang Xuchao, one of the poorest households in the village, to learn how to grow the plant. With his help, Yang benefited not only from material support, but also from a financial loan of 3,000 yuan ($450).
In just one year, Yang managed to earn more than 10,000 yuan ($1,500), with which he built a seven-room brick house on his land in place of his former hut. Among Niuzhuang's 1,500 households, a number decided to follow his example. From 1997 to 2015, the local cultivation area of gastrodia elata increased from 220 square meters to 16,800 square meters, with the total revenue increase of 180 million yuan ($27.3 million).
Under the leadership of Luo, villagers also started cultivating land and breed animals. Over time, they specialized and eventually established the current three pillars of Niuzhuang's economy: tobacco leaves, herbal plants and vegetables.
"Luo has devoted his entire life to the mission of lifting people out of poverty," said Li Sida, former deputy chief of the village. Now at the age of 80, Luo finally succeeded in ending poverty in his home village, a result of his perseverance, sense of responsibility and pragmatic spirit.