The King of the desert is dying
Known by the scientific name ‘Prosopis pallida’, the Huarango tree belongs to the carob and mesquite family. Although many varieties of the extended Prosopis family can be found all over the world, the water-gathering qualities of the pallida have given it a critical role in the southern hemisphere. The Huarango tree also grows along the northern coast of Peru, where it is better known as the Algarrobo tree.
(The derivation of the name Prosopis is ‘towards abundance’, from the ancient Greek ‘pros’ meaning towards; and ‘Opis’, wife of Saturn and the goddess of abundance and agriculture.)
The Huarango/Prosopis tree boasts highly nutritious seed pods that taste rather like nougat candy. When prepared as syrup (‘jarabe de huarango’ or ‘algarrobina') it is sweet and nutty and similar to molasses. Used in flavourings, toppings and beverages, it is most commonly recognised as the base for a popular Peruvian cocktail. When ground into flour and used in baking, no sugar is necessary.
The pods have 11-17 percent protein, including lysine, and a healthy 25% fibre. It takes between 4 and 6 hours to digest, as opposed to the 1 to 2 hours it takes to digest wheat. Since the body metabolises it more slowly, it means a more constant blood sugar level over a longer period and one does not get hungry as soon. It is also a good source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and zinc among other vitamins and minerals. It is low carbohydrate, low glycemic, and low in fat. A long tradition of medicinal uses ranges from digestive aids to cauterisation.
Huarango is a remarkable leguminous hardwood, capable of living for over a millennium and providing timber, forage and food.
No other desert tree has as pervasive an influence upon soil physical, chemical, biological and moisture properties; sub-canopy microclimate; neighbouring vegetation and wildlife and insect populations.
History of Peru’s south coastal deforestation
(Excerpt from the book “The Lost Woodlands of Ancient Nasca”, by dr. David G. Beresford-Jones.)
The history of the deforestation of the coast of Peru is an old and gradual story traced through the Spanish chronicles, administrative records and recent memory. The 20th Century witnessed acceleration of this process. On the south coast, the story is now all but complete. For its sensitive ecology, adapted to the niche of marginal desert lands, the consequent environmental change is profound.
The seeds of dramatic environmental change were sown in the cultural cataclysm that followed European conquest. Rostworowski cites Mancio Sierra de Leguizamo, conquistador and companion in arms of Pizarro, who reflects melancholically in his memoirs upon the lost ‘order and harmony’ of the Inca Empire, and upon how well its people had managed its, ‘lands and mountains and mines and pastures and households and woodlands’ (1981: 55; my translation).
In La Crónica del Peru written in 1553, Cieza de León provides one of the earliest and most eloquent descriptions of the coastal valleys: ‘as fresh and luxuriant as sprigs of basil’, ‘with woods and glades full of birds of many types, great numbers of pigeons, turtledoves, turkey hens, pheasant, partridge and many deer’. ‘In the thickets of the valleys are algarrobos and fruits like those of Spain’ (1995 : 203; my translation). His narrative proceeds to describe the woodlands of many valleys during his first journey down the Peruvian littoral in 1547.
Of the valley of Motupe he writes, ‘the algarrobos and other trees extend over a great stretch thanks to the humidity they find under their roots’ (ibid: 204-5; my translation); of Tucumé, ‘also wide and pretty and full of groves and woodlands’ (ibid: 205; my translation). In the valley of Paramonga, ‘no less delightful than the rest’, ‘we saw nothing more than abandoned woodlands and groves’ (ibid: 210; my translation). He describes the valley of Pachacamac, today drowned in Lima shanty town sprawl, ‘as fragrant and full of woodlands as its neighbours’ (ibid: 215; my translation); the Valley of Mala as, ‘full of dense glades and groves’ (ibid: 216; my translation); Guarco (now Cañete) as ‘large and wide and full of orchards’, with, ‘canals of water running under the shade of its groves and woods’ (ibid: 216; my translation).
Of the valley of Ica, Cieza de León writes, ‘it is no smaller and less populous than the rest’; and, ‘there are in this valley great thickets of algarrobo woodlands and many orchards of the fruit trees that I have described, and deer, pigeons, turtledoves and other game’ (ibid: 221; my translation). From Ica he visits the, ‘beautiful valleys and rivers of the Nasca’ (ibid: 221; my translation).
Another great cronista, Father Bartolomé de las Casas writes in 1550 that the Valley of Ica was very rich in algarrobos: ‘the whole road was enclosed on both sides with fruit trees placed there to provide on the one hand shade for travellers, and on the other, food for the poor carrying nothing to eat. And these trees were especially garrobos, whose fruit is similar to our garrobos, out of which they make bread of a certain kind’ (cited in Yacovleff and Herrera 1934: 291; my translation).
Martìn de Morúa in his Historia general del Perú (c.1600), describing the coast in general, relates that, ‘there are woodlands thick with different wild trees and especially algarrobos’. The town of Ica, he describes as situated amongst, ‘burning sands, surrounded all about by trees that they call huarangos, and we algarrobos’ (cited in Rostworowski 1981: 56; my translation). Father Calancha describes Ica in 1639 as, ‘surrounded by wooded countryside of trees known in these parts as guarangos, of hard wood, and tall, growing sideways as contorted mountains’ (cited in Sánchez Elías 1957; my translation).
Exploitation of Huarango/Prosopis Forests
Initially, coastal forests provided hunting opportunities for the Spanish conquerors. The quantities of deer on parts of the coast up until the 18th Century were such that traps had to be prepared to protect crops (Martínez Compañón 1778; cited in Rostworowski 1981). Europeans rapidly imported other animals particularly pigs and goats that could be sustained upon Prosopis fruits. Cobo relates how great quantities of livestock could be sustained upon algarrobo fruits, which, ‘were as nutritious as any grain’ (1956 : 125; my translation). In Ica this led to the development of a flourishing tanning and soap industry which lasted until the end of the 18th Century and exported products as far as Panamá.
The newly founded colonial cities required great quantities of timber for construction and fuel. As early as 1535 the council of Lima were expressing alarm at the extent of deforestation and were issuing orders for the planting of new trees. The order was repeated the following year, presumably because it was not being adhered to. By 1569, Salazar de Villasante was observing that the country around Lima had been completely stripped of trees for three leagues (17 km) around.
The 20th Century witnessed coastal deforestation at vertiginous rates. Prosopis forests were consumed as domestic fuel, in brick-making furnaces and charcoal production, as fuel for railways and in the expansion of agriculture. It is conservatively estimated that between 1950 and 1980 some 200,000 hectares of the coast were deforested (Grados and Cruz 1996).
South of Ica, one of the last Prosopis forests in the middle Ica valley, near Santiago, was destroyed and sold as charcoal in 1945 by resolution of the Ministry of Public Works. The forest, of over 63 hectares, had around 1,700 trees, all of them more than 300 years old. Rostworowski (1981) cites an ineffectual written complaint of the agricultural engineer, Noriega, over this action. Noriega states his belief that the result would be desertification since only these large, old trees had roots sufficiently deep to extract subsurface water in the area.
To the east of the city, the areas of Yauca del Rosario, Tingue and la Pampa de los Castillos were once covered by large extents of Prosopis forest used by residents to obtain firewood and for animal fodder. This area has been converted to large-scale agriculture
Agricultural expansion has caused removal of much Prosopis forest in Ica as elsewhere. In 1890 there were some 9,000 hectares under cultivation in the Ica valley; by 1929 18,000; and by 1960 30,000 hectares. By 1993 there were around 38,000 hectares under cultivation in the valley (Vildoso 1996).
The story of Nazca is similar. Silverman, writing about the site of Cahuachi writes, ‘my older workers recalled that in their youth (the 1930’s and 1940’s) the narrow valley floor around Cahuachi was covered by monte including huarango (Prosopis chilensis) ... over the years the hardwood huarangos have been cut down and burned for fuel or made into charcoal’ (Silverman 1993: 13).
Today, the dry forest of the Peruvian south coast has undergone an almost total process of deforestation. A practical restoration of nature is urgently required today. Vegetation restoration and reforestation projects, as well as sustainable resource management are desperately needed, and should be based on wide interdisciplinary biodiversity inventory and study, where school, community and agro-industry engagement is seen as a prerequisite for success.
The Instituto Nacional de Recursos Naturales (INRENA), the Peruvian Government institution charged with managing natural resources, is responsible to monitor and control deforestation, through the provision of maps, data and capacity building. This has, for instance, resulted in a regional government ordinance revoking all permissions to make charcoal, and the prohibition of felling of huarango (Decreto Supremo No 043-2006-AG). Neither INRENA nor the regional government, however, have the resources necessary to enforce regulations over the widely scattered valleys of the region, and illegal charcoal making continues.
Despite reforestation efforts during the last decade, a charcoal industry mafia has been taking down trees faster than restoration projects can grow them.
Deforestation in the south coast of Peru is only part of the contemporary global environmental issues. Everywhere in the world vegetation is increasingly reduced to small relicts, the diversity of cultivated plants is eroded, and a quarter of the world plants are threatened with extinction. The forthcoming decade will be a critical time for people and plants. One fifth of the world’s poorest inhabitants live in arid lands and almost one billion hectares of these have suffered human-induced degradation.
Today, we know the importance of trees and the risks of losing the planet’s lungs, the risks of erosion, the loss of habitats. Science has spelled out the dangers, and yet too few seem to share the sense of urgency. All around the world there are those who don’t care, don’t believe, or simply don’t want to give up their profits. We can’t just watch and see how we are destroying our own planet, our nature and the future for our kids. It is time to change our ways.
David G. Beresford-Jones
Kathryn Huber, Delia Ackerman
Part of the text in this article are quotes from different articles written by David and Kathryn (with their permission of course).
The following short film about the Huarango tree, was provided by Kathryn Huber and Peruvian documentary filmmaker Delia Ackerman.