Hinterland Green

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ancient Huarango Trees at Risk As Ecosystem in Peru Losing Key Ally

The huarango is a storied Peruvian tree that can live for over a millennium and rests like a mirage amid the sand dunes just west of Ica, Peru. The tree has provided inhabitants of this desert with food and wood since before the Nazca civilization etched geoglyphs into the empty plain south of the city approximately 2,000 years ago. The depletion of the huarango, a giant relative of the mesquite tree of the American Southwest, around Ica is sounding alarm. The tree has survived the rise and fall of Pre-Hispanic civilizations and plunder by Spanish conquistadors, but the very survival of these trees of being pushed to the limits.
Villagers are cutting down the remnants of these once vast forests. They covet the tree as a source of charcoal and firewood. According to the New York Times, the depletion of the huarango is raising alarm among ecologists and fostering a nascent effort to save it. Many Peruvians view the huarango as a prime source for charcoal to cook a signature chicken dish called "pollo broaster." The long-burning huarango, a hardwood rivaling teak, outlasts other forms of charcoal. Villagers react to a prohibition by regional authorities on cutting down huarango with a shrug.

That the huarango survives at all to be harvested may be something of a miracle. Following centuries of systematic deforestation, only about one percent of the original huarango woodlands that once existed in the Peruvian desert remain, according to archaeologists and ecologists. Few trees are as well suited to the hyperarid ecosystem of the Atacama-Sechura Desert, nestled between the Andes and the Pacific. The huarango captures moisture coming from the west as sea mist. Its roots are among the longest of any tree, extending more than 150 feet to tap subterranean water channels. Source: NY Times
Protecting the huarango groves is going to be an uphill battle in this impoverished desert climate. As David Beresford-Jones is an archaeologist at Cambridge University who co-authored the Nazca study, pointed out in an interview with the New York Times, “It takes centuries for the huarango to be of substantial size, and only a few hours to fell it with a chainsaw … The tragedy is that this remnant is being chain-sawed by charcoal burners as we speak.”

Photo credit:  NY Times
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