Destroying Relics

huarango grove

Flipping through the black and white pages of a paper filled with distressing international news, I encounter a different kind of massacre occurring in our southern neighbor, Peru. In the southwest desert region of they country, sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, a group of ancient trees are under attack.  These ancient trees, called huarangos, are relatives of the American mesquite tree and can live to be around 2,000 years old.  Unfortunately for the survival of this tree, however, the extremely hard wood of the trunk can create a very long lasting charcoal, which can be sold for a high price.  Peruvian authorities have prohibited the logging of the huarango tree, but that doesn’t stop its desecration.  Villagers go to the huarango groves at night and quietly cut down the trees with handsaws, rather than noisy chainsaws.  They can then sell the valuable wood or charcoal on the black market, and come home with a substantial profit.  Aside from the fact that people are cutting down trees older  than the Inca civilization, this logging actually benefits short-term economic standing of the rural communities surrounding huarango groves.  Families can make a lot of money from a single tree.  Why then should the logging of this ancient angiosperm be hindered?

The huarango tree is a keystone species in the desert environment.  It absorbs water coming down from the mountains, retaining water in an otherwise parched community.  It has incredibly deep roots, with some extending 150 feet down into the earth to reach groundwater.  These root systems hold soil in place to prevent erosion, and fix nitrogen in the earth to keep the dirt healthy.  The Andean glaciers are predicted to disappear by the year 2050, and the huarango trees will be essential to absorb what water there is on its way over the mountains to the coast.  Huarango trees are essentially the glue that keeps the ecosystem in balance.  Environmentalists have recognized this, and have started reforestation projects.  But it takes hundreds of years for a huarango tree to reach an adult size, and they are usually cut down well before they can even look like a tree.

The moral debate over the preservation of the huarango tree is truly a great one.  Do you let people cut down the trees now for financial security and suffer the consequences later?  Or do you cut people off from their highest source of income so they have a safe place to live in the future?  I personally believe that that the preservation of the huarango tree is the necessary course of action. This is not just because I am a tree hugger, but because it is ultimately more sustainable to save these relics.   The seed pods of the tree can be harvested to make flour, molasses, and beer.  Although these products are of lower value than charcoal, they do serve as a way to bring income to a poor family.  The presence of these trees will also protect the villages people inhabit in the future, offering protection from drought and landslides.  In this situation, the tree huggers aren’t so crazy after all….

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/08/world/americas/08peru.html

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