The southern coast of Peru is one of the driest places on Earth. Why would anyone choose this parched location to re-plant a forest?
It’s not an obvious place to choose if you’re looking for somewhere to plant trees, but for restoration ecologist Oliver Whaley the harsh environment of the northern fringes of the Atacama desert is part of the point. By helping to restore the shrinking native forests, the aim is to benefit local people and wildlife, prevent soil erosion, and help alleviate climate change.
“If we can get trees established here, and learn how to do it with as little water as possible, then it is a model for the rest of the world,” he says.
While the plight of the world’s rainforests are well known, the same cannot be said of tropical dry forests. These less biodiverse, but equally remarkable forests, face threats every bit as severe as their better known cousins.
The Atacama dry forest “is really an ecosystem on its last legs,” says Mr Whaley, of London’s Kew Gardens – an internationally renowned botanical research institution.
The tree under threat is the huarango, Prosopis limensis, found only in the Ica region of Peru.
In this parched landscape, the hardy huarango is no stranger to thirst. Although rain seldom falls, it is able to capture moisture from other sources – trapping fog on its leaves, directing the water downwards towards its roots. The roots themselves are among the longest of any plant – 50m to 80m – and seek out underground water sources that flow from the Andes.
The huarango is also a valuable source of food and fuel, and a keystone of the local ecosystem. Whaley estimates that when he arrived in Peru, just 1% of the original local forest habitat remained – much of it consumed in charcoal production.
Not unlike some of the challenges faced in my neck of the prairie. Though we also face encroaching trees because our native grasslands have been abused by grazing.
RTFA. Lots of detail and information you ain’t going to bump into elsewhere.