A blanket of green trees covers the hills and pampas above the city of Cuzco, to the side of the site of Q’enqo. Made up of mature Eucalyptus trees that are not native to Peru, this forest has raised controversy and has people arrayed for it and those against it.
Eucalyptus trees came to Peru from Australia in the first half of the twentieth century, about the time the railway entered the highlands and made its way to Cuzco. This is also when beer came.
Franciscan priests were among the first to plant these trees along with people of the upper classes of the time. They liked this tree because it was fast growing and could survive in the harsh Andean climate at a time when, after almost four hundred years of European development, native Andean trees were disappearing.
The Eucalyptus adapted well to local climatic and soil conditions and grew, making for large groves and forests of Eucalyptus trees. These soon became part of the Andean landscape.
But it is more. Local people learned to use the plant. It became an important part of their way of life. It is used to treat respiratory illness, given its aromatic quality. People use it for medicinal baths and vapors. They also make oils and creams with it to heal themselves and neighbors.
Besides its curative properties, its wood is used as fuel for the classic Cuzco stove, the fogón. It imparts a particular scent to cooking and to the resulting food. Characteristically, the wood is hard and rather acidic. For that reason it makes very good firewood. As a result there is great demand for it. The wood is much needed by chicken roassters, restaurants with wood-burning stoves or ovens, as well as for neighborhood ovens. It also finds uses in many homes for the preparation of food.
It is also much used in construction. It finds its way into doorways and windows of rustic homes made from adobe. It is also used for roofing poles, beams, and scaffolding.
While the eucalyptus is much used and has become a typical part of our lives, it is also seen by many as a problem. It strikes roots deep into the ground and dies up the ground water. In Cuzco this includes the underground reservoir up near Qenqo. The Eucalyptus take water from it when there is such need for water here. Furthermore, they leave the land so dry that other species cannot grow near them, including our native species of trees.
As a result, the Eucalyptus trees have been defined as a problem needing eradicating. This is true for the trees on the Fundación Ernesto Gunther composed of an hacienda house and a forest of eucalyptus trees located right above the current Beer Worker’s neighborhood near Qenqo. Many of the trees were originally planted as future fuel for the beer factory when its boilers required wood fuel. Now called Cerveza Cusqueña, the beer no longer relies on wood firing to make its much liked beverage.
Today environmental groups are very concerned to reforest our hills, mountains, and valleys with native trees. As a result the Eucalyptus forest is under threat.
It is only a matter of time, as a result, until the Gunther Forest is cut down. But the people who live near it and who have seen generations of Cuzqueños stroll among the trees and enjoy their shade. The trees have witnessed the games and pranks of children, romances of youths, and visits of older people. Many people have dreamed, loved, or even lived by the side of one of the trees massive trunks. On them they have carved their names and put a heart and the words “I love you”.
The trees are being cut down. Many of those logs with intimate words and names on them now lie on the ground. They are being cut into fuel.
While some see progress in this, especially as it allows native species to grow, others find it a tragedy and hope no other tree falls. They too are part of nature and part of the culture and social world of Cuzco as we currently live.
But, they are falling even as you read, to be replaced with Queuña and Chachacomo trees. In this is a commentary about contemporary Cuzco and its struggle over values and the world around it.