guarango - tree of Life
guarango - tree of Life
guarangos at the entrance to the oasis Huacachina
just outside of Ica, Peru



k.m. huber 2007 



"Trees are sanctuaries… 

whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.

They preach… the ancient law of life." 

Hermann Hesse,  Wandering




            The huarango tree, native to the coast of Peru, is known in Quechua as tacco, which  means "The Tree"—not just a tree, any tree, but "The" tree, "The One." The ultimate provider. It has also been called "The Staff of Life," or "The King of the Desert." Those who know Peru have seen the designs of ancient cultures sketched across the landscape, woven through intricate textiles, or shining back from striking ceramics—images that offer glimpses into the spirit of the cultures that flourished there thousands of years ago. Those who have had the privilege of climbing a twisted thousand year old huarango, however, have touched the living, breathing substance of the world of the ancients. They have also discovered the fingers of global warming creeping through the treetops, leaving trails of shriveled leaves. Not many thousand-year-old huarango trees still remain, but their voices linger—to be heard by those who choose to listen.                


            Few people think of trees or global warming when they think of Nasca. Spaceships are far more likely to come to mind, thanks to Eric von Daniken's eccentric but widely publicized theories. Or sand dunes. A growing market for adventure tourism and the popular sport of sand boarding have brought a new type of traveler to the south coast of Peru. Most people who have heard of Nasca think immediately of the enigmatic lines etched across the desert pampas. People from all over the world come to Nasca every year to fly over those lines. With most of the designs visible only from the air, the huge outlines of animals and immense geometric patterns have stimulated a wide range of theories, from astronomical calendars to alien landing fields, from shamanic guideposts to ceremonial pathways. Many lines correlate closely to the course of underground waterways, and ray centers are often found atop small hills from where the lines stretch far past the horizon much like the Inca ceque lines of Cusco.[i] Many of the figures that are found on the celebrated Nasca ceramics are repeated across the desolate landscape, among them images of various seabirds, killer whales, hummingbirds, a huge condor, a spider, a 360-foot monkey, seaweed, flowers, and a tree. Archaeologists and anthropologists continue to speculate about the meanings behind the iconography, but the most common associations have to do with water and fertility. The image of the tree certainly reflects both, and it is quite likely a tribute to the huarango.


            A long-living tree full of endless bounty, the huarango was also the guardian that held back the desert. All along the south coast of Peru from Acari northward to just past Ica, huarango forests filled the valleys that cut through the desert, and maverick trees would appear of nowhere among the dunes. Wherever evidence of huarango is found, there is also evidence of the ancient Nasca culture—and vice versa.[ii] The lives of both species were completely entwined.  Today, most of the once great huarango forests are gone and desert has retaken the places where they once flourished. The few remaining trees are threatened by large scale agriculture, the insatiable market for charcoal, a new plague of insects, and global warming. It would appear, in fact, that the species is at risk of disappearing altogether.


            To understand the profound importance of the huarango, one must realize that Nasca is at the heart of one of the most fragile ecosystems on earth.  Part of the Atacama-Sechura desert that extends into Chile, it is also one of the driest places on earth. There is no rainfall along the Peruvian coast, and the surface rivers that fill with runoff during the rainy season in the mountains are not enough to sustain life along the coastal valleys. Water scarcity was a concern for the ancients, and it continues to be a major challenge for the current population. Severe drought often limits local agriculture even though the soil is some of the world's most fertile. Five thousand years ago, the extensive forests along the riverbeds were supported primarily by underground water—because the huarango had roots deep enough to reach it. The forests hosted a wide range of flora and fauna, including a profusion of birds, deer, camelids, and foxes. Fruit trees like the lucuma were able to thrive under the protection of the sturdy huarangos. By the sixth century AD, the people of Nasca had also developed techniques to tap the subsurface waters via elaborate canal systems, some of which are still in use today. Though the extra water facilitated cultivation and helped withstand drought, the real key to sustaining a habitable environment was the presence of the huarango tree. It not only provided food and shelter, but it anchored moisture in the landscape, tapping the groundwater as well as the coastal mist, the night air and the morning dew. Sending its taproot deep into the subsoil, it can draw underground waters upwards from as far as 60 meters below. This "hydraulic lift" makes the moisture available to other plant systems at the surface. Another set of roots spreads laterally to harvest the nutrients of the soils, stabilize the shifting sands, and anchor the region's fragile ecosystem. Small leaves capture moisture as the trees' long arms reach out to embrace the coastal fogs and the cool evening air. As a member of the legume family, the huarango constantly replenishes the soil by converting atmospheric nitrogen into usable nitrates. As a salt tolerant species, it also helps to rehabilitate saline soils. 


            Known by the scientific name Prosopis pallida, the huarango 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 same species grows along the northern coast of Peru as well, where it is known instead as algarrobo. Perhaps best known for its abundant fruit, the Prosopis pallida 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 flavorings, toppings and beverages, it is most commonly recognized as the base for a popular Peruvian cocktail. When ground into flour and used in baking, no sugar is necessary. Studies of similar mesquite flour being used in the US suggest that it is excellent for diabetics and people sensitive to blood sugar fluctuations. Its sweetness is a result of fructose, which does not require insulin to be metabolized. The pods have 11-17 percent protein, including lysine, and a healthy 25% fiber. 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 metabolizes 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 cauterization.


             It is no wonder that the huarango/algarrobo was once considered a gift from the gods—guardian of waters, source of food, provider of shelter and fuel, keeper of the balance. Yet somewhere the precarious balance was lost. As huarangos disappeared, less water was available. Droughts were more severe, floods more devastating. In 1998, heavy rains in the mountains sent rivers raging toward the coast which flooded the city of Ica and surrounding farms—something that would have not have occurred had the up-river canyons had trees. Although the cutting down of too many trees had already tipped the balance centuries ago, in the last hundred years that balance may have been pushed over the brink toward total ultimate collapse. According to Oliver Whaley, a British botanist and director of the Darwin Initiative Project in Ica[iii], the situation is serious.  In the last year alone, 80% of a huarango forest near Tunga was lost. [iv] Thirty years ago the province of Ica still had 50,000 hectares of huarango forest. Less than 1,000 remain in 2007. Of that, only 200 hectares are actually considered true forest. The National Department of Natural Resources (INRENA) has declared the huarango an endangered species—"vulnerable" at the national level, and at risk of extinction in Ica.[v] Of the trees that remain in the region, many are so weakened by pestilence that they no longer give fruit. Whaley points out that the trees had survived such attacks in the past simply by outliving them. Many of the larvae that suck the life from the leaves did not survive the cooler nights, or at least slowed down their consumption long enough for the tree to recuperate and regenerate. With global warming, however, the fact that nights have become 2 degrees celsius warmer has meant that the larvae are stronger and continue their destruction undeterred.


            Whaley might be described as an optimistic pessimist. As he points out the degree of irreversible damage he seems already to be mourning the passing of the once great Era of the Huarango, yet he also exudes confidence in the possibilities of change—literal seeds of hope. The particular huarango species of Prosopis pallida may never regain its former glory, but with help it will survive. As part of the reforestation project, other trees with a better chance of adapting to warmer nights are being planted alongside the huarango. Oddly, the weakened huarangos seem to thrive better when planted beside the molle, another versatile tree that offers nutritional and medicinal benefits, but does not attract the insect that is devastating the huarangos. Along with the projects of the Darwin Initiative, many groups around the country have dedicated themselves to reforestation and to educating the public about the serious implications of losing one of the world's most valuable resources-its trees. The regional government announced a crackdown on illegal cutting. However, until laws are better enforced and public awareness begins to turn around the demand for huarango carbon, trees will continue to be cut down faster than new ones are being planted.           

The last tree near the "lost city of Huayuri"
huarango milenario palpa
Guarango Milenario de Palpa - over 1070 years old
           Afternoon visitors to the excavations at the ancient Nasca ceremonial center of Cahuachi usually find it difficult to imagine that any community could thrive in such a harsh landscape. Pummeled by the Paracas Winds (Quechua for "rain of sand") it is easy to see how quickly the surface can change, and how quickly the moisture can be sucked from the air. A thick sliver of green runs along Nasca's narrow Rio Grande river, which most of the year it runs dry, making it hard to believe that woodlands once extended throughout the river basins and beyond.

            Although it has reached far more critical proportions in modern times, excessive cutting of trees is not a new phenomenon. The question is whether we will choose to learn from past mistakes. The research of archaeobotanist David Beresford-Jones[vi] indicates that there was a significant loss of huarango forests around the sixth century. It is clear in the archaeological records that the region suffered a series of severe droughts and dramatic El Niño[vii] climatic events, but their effect was made far worse by the fact that the area had already been destabilized by the diminished number of trees. Recent studies show that before the sixth century parts of the earlier forests had already been reclaimed by desert. Beresford-Jones postulates that the fragile balance was tipped when agriculture became more intensive and the old growth forests were cut down, perhaps to make room for more fields for cultivation. He dates that change toward the end of the influence of Nasca culture about the time when the more aggressive Wari were becoming dominant. He speculates that, coming from a totally different ecosystem in the sierra, they may not have had sufficient sensitivity as to the fragility of the coastal valleys. Up through the Early Intermediate period, the Nasca seemed to have maintained a workable balance. What the evidence makes clear is that that balance was gone by the early seventh century. The deterioration continued to worsen after the Spanish conquest and the colonial focus on even more cultivation for the wine and pisco industry. In the nineteenth century, the forests of the Pampa de Pisco were cut down to make way for the railroad from Ica to the port of Pisco. During the ever-recurring droughts, people often resorted to selling trees for firewood and charcoal, as they still do today. Huarango is long burning and fragrant, and its charcoal has long given the characteristic flavor to rotisserie chicken all along the coast of Peru. Scarcity of water tends to favor the larger agricultural operations because they can afford pumps for their wells and trees tend to get in the way in larger fields. When small time farmers have to turn to other sources of income, it is most often to mining or illegal cutting. Although the government is making an effort to curtail illicit charcoal production, the problem will be difficult to solve until the greater economic problems of the population are addressed.


            I was recently privileged to visit with, and climb (or more accurately, scramble over), two different thousand year old trees–one, a blackened, twisted algarrobo in the Bosque de Pomac in Lambayeque, and another, an aged and broken queen of huarangos in the province of Ica. The two particular trees that I met would have already been hundreds of years old when the Incas expanded into the region. The gnarly algarrobo, burdened by its own weight, seemed to crawl along the forest floor like a great fossilized serpent, peering from behind its injured twists and turns to wink triumphantly. It boasts scars from several fires and a good many axes. Legends surround it, and locals insist that some sort of enchantment had saved the tree on many occasions. How else to explain the fact that it has not followed the fate of most of its kind? The other tree, in Ica, had the same sort of resilient sense of turning broken limbs into another opportunity to embrace the earth, to spread out, and to provide low shelter and easy access for animals of all sorts (author included). Not long ago, that same tree was about to be harvested for charcoal, but a family from a nearby farm became involved the reforestation project and has taken on a new role in helping to protect the tree. There are plenty of neighbors who would be happy to carve it up at the first opportunity.


            In Jared Diamond's book Collapse, he describes the once lush forests of the now desolate Easter Island, then asks what might have passed through mind of the person who cut down the last tree. Indeed.  One has to wonder if the person even looked around. Perhaps he paused long enough to shrug. Everyone was doing it, after all.


            These ancient trees bring to mind Shel Silverstein's bittersweet fable about a tree and the little boy she loved. "The Giving Tree" follows the intersection of their two lives, beginning in the happy days of childhood with the boy sliding down her trunk, swinging in her branches, savoring her apples. But soon the boy becomes too busy to play, and too preoccupied with his life away from the tree. He disappears for years at a time and returns only when in need of something. In reply to his complaints about not having money, the tree offers him her apples to sell. When he needs a house for his family, she gives him her branches. And when he returns much later, sad, forlorn and wishing for a boat to get away from it all, she offers her trunk to carve into a boat. When the boy finally comes back again, he is a tottering old man, and the tree apologizes that she has nothing left to offer. The old man tells her that he wants only to rest, and when he sits on the stump, which is all that remains of the old tree, she is happy.


            While the tree gave everything for her friend, the boy behaved all too humanly—with constant demands and little gratitude. We can rewrite that part of the story. Perhaps plant some of those seeds before taking the apples to market. Leave more than a stump.


            One of the area's major reforestation and education projects, The Darwin Initiative is made up of a group of dedicated scientists, local volunteers and students of all ages. Whaley credits their successes to the enthusiasm of staff such as Consuela Borda and countless others. The university students and schoolchildren who are involved in collecting seeds and planting trees are becoming strong advocates for the future of the huarango. They helped put on a recent festival in Ica, organized by the Escuela Libre de Puerto Huamani and the Asociación Cultural Nasca. To celebrate the huarango, they offered music, educational materials, and a variety of food and drink derived from its pods. An entire food court was filled with products in such forms as flour, bran, cakes, cookies, huarango syrup (algarrobina), ice cream, coffee substitutes, juice and liquor. There were seed pods for chewing, which au natural can compete with any toffee. Samples of dyes were made from the resin. Most visitors left with their own sapling to take home and plant. Another project in Ica, the Huarangoica project, has been building dikes and reforesting Canyon Cansas for flood control. There is work being done, but so much more to do.


            When Whaley discusses the extensive deforestation, he reviews several causes: human impact in the region, the new pestilence attacking the trees, and the impact of global warming. He points out that this is not the first pestilence to attack the trees, for there are indications that earlier centuries faced similar plagues, but the forests eventually came back. Back then, the dead trees were left to shelter an nourish the new ones. The carcasses of dead trees today, however, merely give the carboneros more justification to carry out the wood to make charcoal. Again, for families that struggle merely to put food on the table, short term income trumps long term environmental benefits.


            The critical importance of the survival of these trees is clear in Ica, but it goes beyond the local impact.  Whaley likes to remind people that these fragile eco-systems are the first to feel the deeper effects of global warming. What is learned and the actions taken here can serve as global lessons. I would add that people outside the region should heed what happens here like miners heed their canaries. While advancing into ever deeper tunnels, a miner can work without noticing the decreasing levels of oxygen until he simply loses consciousness, sliding slowly into death. The canary is more sensitive to the lack of oxygen, so if it stops singing or drops off its perch, the miner knows he must leave the tunnel or face certain death. But he must notice the canary in time. One could view the region of Ica like a miner's canary, one who sings for the whole earth.


            The actions of every person or group do indeed affect the whole world. Just as fewer trees upriver mean bigger floods downriver, the world is becoming more aware that what happens in South America will be felt in Europe and across the globe. Seemingly isolated activities combine to create significant global impact. Global warming is the result of the combination of all the individual and corporate actions taken by human beings. Even though the fragile balance may have been irrevocably tipped in the dry forest ecosystems of Peru, there are interventions that can help and champions of reforestation who are working toward more sustainable environments. Adaptation and adjustment will be necessary, but it has to happen on a larger scale. Local issues are global issues. In the larger context, what farmers do in Wisconsin adds to what miners do in Brazil, adds to the impact of emission regulations in India. We can cycle it up or cycle it down. And whatever we do as a planet will be felt in the deserts of Peru. Hundreds of thousands of local and international groups dedicate their efforts toward environmental protection, planetary healing, and earth friendly changes. When corporations and government weave their efforts into those actions for change, we will see a real difference. We know what to do. The key is to do it, to act in time to keep some of those canaries alive.  In Ica, schoolchildren are planting trees and telling stories and sharing in a vision of new forests. Those forests will create an oasis for coming generations. Sheltered from the desert sun by a thousand ancient banches, the people of the future will hopefully speak with disbelief of the time when their ancestors nearly lost their most generous trees. 

[i] In Lines to the Mountain Gods Anthony Aveni discusses these ray centers and compares them to the Inca's structuring of Cusco as a reflection of "not only human social arrangements but also the ordering of the cosmos overhead. …Every social group in the city was assigned its own particular relationship to this radiating source of power.  The connection was made along a series of imaginary straight lines that were thought to fan out from the temple like spokes of a wheel. Each of these 41 lines, or ceques, was considered to be the special responsibility of a different unit of society." p.229-30

[ii] Oliver Whaley, Director Darwin Initiative, personal interview, April 2007

[iii] The Darwin Initiative Project works with local communities to promote habitat restoration, conservation and sustainable management. For detailed information see

[iv] Whaley, interview

[v] Regional Director of Natural Resources and Environment (INRENA), José Salcedo Alcántara, quoted in regional news by the Agencia Peruana de Noticias, April 25, 2007.

[vi] David Beresford-Jones, "Pre-Hispanic Prosopis-Human Relationships on the South Coast of Peru: Riparian Forests in the Context of Environmental and Cultural Trajectories of the Lower Ica Valley" doctoral dissertation 2005, available at

[vii] "El Nino", or ENSO, refers to abnormal weather patterns caused by warming of surface ocean waters in the eastern tropical Pacific and the Southern Oscillation, a see-saw pattern of reversing surface air pressure between the eastern and western tropical Pacific.

the desert advances
photo by Oliver Whaley

to see the award winning documentary short
"The King of the Desert is Dying"
by Peruvian filmmaker Delia Ackerman
(original concept and research - k m huber)  
contact information: kmhuber(at)