|guarangos at the entrance to the oasis Huacachina
|just outside of Ica, Peru
ANOTHER PIECE IN THE NASCA PUZZLE
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
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"
|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
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 www.kew.org/scihort/tropamerica/peru/index.htm
[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 http://www.arch.cam.ac.uk/dgb27
[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)gmail.com