The huarango is a celebrated Peruvian tree that can live for more than a thousand years. It has survived Pre-Hispanic civilizations and the arrival of the Spanish explorers. But it may not survive modern man.

And a new study shows that the loss of the huarango could prove catastrophic for Peru. A team of British archaeologists recently revealed how the Nazca — an indigenous people who lived a thousand years before the Spanish arrived in Peru — created an environmental catastrophe by clearing the huarango to plant their crops. This exposed the landscape to devastating desert winds, erosion and floods. Now, it's happening again.

David Beresford-Jones is an archaeologist at Cambridge University who co-authored the Nazca study. He emphasized the extreme importance of the huarango to the Peruvian ecosystem. As he told the New York Times, “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.”

The home of the huarango trees is the hyper-arid ecosystem of the Atacama-Sechura Desert, between the Andes and the Pacific. Few trees are as well-suited to this climate as the huarango. Vast forests of huarango used to exist. Remnants remain, but villagers are cutting them down for charcoal and firewood. The tree is a hardwood that outlasts other forms of charcoal. Regional authorities have prohibited the cutting of the trees, but those protective laws are being ignored. 

Reina Juarez is a maize farmer in San Pedro, a village of 24 people near a grove of huarango just outside the western city of Ica. As Jaures tells it, “The woodcutters come at night, using handsaws instead of chainsaws to avoid detection ... They remove the wood by donkey and then sell it.” Apparently, a charcoal seller can sell a kilogram of huarango charcoal for about 50 cents, while a bushel of huarango as firewood goes for about $1. As sources point out, this is a bargain in a place where a gallon of natural gas costs more than $10.

A major program of reforestation is needed in both the Andes and the Peruvian coast. Luckily, reforestation projects are underway. One project has planted about 20,000 huarangos in Ica and other areas. This project also focuses on teaching schoolchildren “about the history of the huarango in Peruvian culture and its significance as a keystone species for the desert, its roots fixing nitrogen in poor soil and its leaves and pods providing organic material as forage.”

Still, protecting the huarango groves is going to be an uphill struggle in this impoverished desert climate. As Beresford-Jones pointed out, “It takes centuries for the huarango to be of substantial size, and only a few hours to fell it with a chainsaw … The tragedy is that this remnant is being chain-sawed by charcoal burners as we speak.”