The huarango, a giant relative of the mesquite tree of the American Southwest, survived the rise and fall of Pre-Hispanic civilizations, and plunder by Spanish conquistadors, whose chroniclers were astounded by the abundance of huarango forests and the strange Andean camelids, like guanacos and llamas, that flourished there.
Today, though, Peruvians pose what might be a final challenge to the fragile ecosystem supported by the huarango near the southwestern coast of Peru. Villagers are cutting down the remnants of these once vast forests. They covet the tree as a source of charcoal and firewood.
The depletion of the huarango is raising alarm among ecologists and fostering a nascent effort to save it.
… many Peruvians view the huarango as prime wood 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 1 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.
“Peru needs a massive rethink about its development trajectory,” said Alex Chepstow-Lusty, a paleoecologist with the French Institute of Andean Studies who worked on the Nazca study with Mr. Beresford-Jones, the Cambridge University archaeologist, analyzing pollen that showed the transformation of Nazca lands from rich in huarango to fields of maize and cotton to the virtually lifeless desert that exists today.
“With Peru’s glaciers predicted to disappear by 2050, the Andes need trees to capture the moisture coming from Amazonia, which is also the source of water going down to the coast,” said Mr. Chepstow-Lusty in an interview from Cuzco, in Peru’s highlands. “Hence a major program of reforestation is required, both in the Andes and on the coast.”
Nothing on this scale is happening around Ica. Instead, the growth that one sees in poor villages are of shantytowns called pueblos jóvenes, where residents eke out a living as farmhands or in mining camps.
Outside one village, Santa Luisa, the buzz of a chainsaw interrupted the silence of the desert next to an oven preparing charcoal.
The chainsaw’s owner, a woodcutter from the highlands named Rolando Dávila, 48, swore that he no longer cut down huarango but focused instead on the espino, another hardy tree known as acacia macarantha. “But we all know huarango is the prize of the desert,” he said. “For many of us, the wood of the huarango is the only way to survive.”