Sir Charles Pereira

Forward-thinking hydrologist and agronomist

Herbert Charles Pereira, agronomist and hydrologist: born London 12 May 1913; staff, Colonial Agricultural Service, Coffee Research Station, Kenya 1946-52; staff, Colonial Research Service at East African Agriculture and Forestry Research Organisation, Kenya 1952-61; Director, Agricultural Research Council of Rhodesia and Nyasaland 1961-63; Director, Agricultural Research Council of Central Africa (Rhodesia, Zambia and Malawi) 1963-67; Director, East Malling Research Station 1969-72; Chief Scientist (Deputy Secretary), Maff 1972-77; FRS 1969; Kt 1977; married 1941 Irene Sloan (three sons, one daughter); died Teston, Kent 19 December 2004.

In a long career, Charles Pereira attained the highest scientific achievements as an agronomist and hydrologist. He was ahead of his time in addressing the problems of water and the need to increase food production to feed the burgeoning population of the world.

Long before Unesco announced the Hydrological Decade (1965-74), Pereira led research on the hydrological consequences of land-use changes in the tropics. Even during the interruption to his career caused by the Second World War, much of which he spent with the Royal Engineers in the Middle East, Pereira was able to use his scientific knowledge in finding water for the troops in the desert and in the building of bridges to facilitate their movement during the Italian campaign. He was mentioned in dispatches, reached the rank of major and wooed and married an army nursing sister, Lt Irene Sloan from Belfast.

Later, in Kenya, he led the local Kenya Police reserve in dealing with the Mau Mau insurrection which preceded independence. At that time, Pereira was the Deputy Director of the new East African Agriculture and Forestry Research Organisation (EAAFRO) at Muguga, where he had established a Physics division.

"Perry", as he was affectionately known, was awarded the Haile Selassie prize for research in Africa in 1966, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1969 and knighted in 1977.

Looking back over Charles Pereira's life and achievements, it is easy to trace the evolution of his lifelong concern that the Earth's population was increasing far too quickly to be sustained without massive increases in investment in agricultural research to raise production and to ensure the equitable use of the world's natural resources, particularly water. His early years were spent in the Cree Indian reservation in Saskatchewan, Canada, where his father ran a school and church and he first saw the problems faced by disadvantaged communities.

Returning to England he went to St Albans School. His degree in Physics and Mathematics at London University was followed by a PhD in Soil Physics at Rothamsted Experimental Station. He funded his research by part-time teaching and working at Ottershaw School in Chertsey.

Pereira's first official appointment was with the Colonial Service, in which he was posted to the new Coffee Research Station at Ruiru, Kenya. He then moved to EAAFRO, where he set up what are now recognised as a classical set of experiments measuring the hydrological impacts caused by land use changes in tea estates, rain forests, pine plantations, over-grazed thorn scrub and the contoured planting of subsistence crops on hillsides. Many of them were published in Hydrological Effects of Land Use Change in East Africa (1962). Pereira was an enthusiastic mountaineer in East Africa and was elected President of the Mountain Club of Kenya.

Leaving Kenya, in 1961 Perry was appointed Director of the Agricultural Research Council of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (later of Rhodesia, Zambia and Malawi). He learned to fly a Cessna 172 aircraft to carry out aerial surveys. After the unilateral declaration of independence by Rhodesia, followed by the break-up of the Federation, Pereira had to reorganise the research into three national groups, and his own position became redundant.

For a short time he became the Director of the Malawi Agricultural Research Council. He then undertook a six-month world tour as Chairman of the UN Land Use Commission of the International Hydrological Decade.

After 23 years of overseas life, Perry returned to Britain and wrote a book, Land Use and Water Resources (1973). In 1969, he became Director of the East Malling Research Station in Kent, the world's foremost research station dealing with fruit crops, under the umbrella of the UK's Agricultural Research Council.

In 1977 he was appointed Deputy Secretary and Chief Scientist in the Ministry of Agriculture (Maff), where he implemented the new customer- contractor relationship designed to make agricultural research in the UK more client-orientated. At this time, Pereira was one of a group of distinguished scientists appointed to the technical advisory committee of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) which was establishing a series of international agricultural research centres. These, through the breeding of dwarf, nitrogen-responsive crop varieties, very soon led to the green revolution that, in many developing countries, increased food production, particularly of wheat and rice.

As President of the Tropical Agricultural Association from 1989 until 2001, he maintained an active network of members whose experience spanned the developing world. Convinced by first-hand evidence of the increasing breakdown of tropical agricultural resources under the impact of unsustainable rates of population growth, in 1991 Pereira became a trustee of Marie Stopes International.

Roger Smith and Jim McCulloch