The tree that held back the Peruvian desert
The huarango tree of southern Peru has the longest roots in the world. They can reach down 50 metres or more into the ground, sucking up ground water that helps other plants to grow in a region where it has barely rained since the last ice age. For thousands of years the huarango literally held back the desert.
That was not all the huarango did. Its seed pods gave the local people food; its bark and leaves had healing properties; its branches provided charcoal; its shelter and leaves allowed crops to be cultivated and biodiversity to thrive. But as demand for charcoal and large scale agriculture grew to supply global markets, huarango trees were cut down and the desert advanced.
Now, thanks to scientists from Kew, students at National University of Ica and a Peruvian children’s environment charity (ANIA), and with the participation of hundreds of local volunteers and school children, the huarango is making a comeback. Of course it’s not enough simply to plant new trees. The other native plants and traditional agriculture that once thrived in the forest shade have also disappeared, leaving the huarango highly vulnerable to disease and dependent species near extinction.
Kew’s project has been gathering seeds of these species, learning about their ecology, propagating them in nurseries and re-establishing native vegetation on community land, in schools, in buffer zones around the remaining fragments of forest, and on the margins of agricultural land. An annual public ‘Huarango Festival’ has been established, new sustainable food products have been developed and marketed, tens of thousands of trees have been planted and educational materials are now at the core of the local environmental curriculum.
As for the local volunteers and poor migrant communities, they are living proof that biodiversity and restoration ecology are not only about science but also about saving human homes and habitats. More than that, their story shows the power of education to change the world we live in – a microcosm of what we hope to achieve with the Breathing Planet Campaign.
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