The Disappearing Eucalyptus Forest of Cuzco
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.
This is very interesting. I just came back from Peru and spent quite some time in the sacred valley and did some hikes to the peaks near Ollantaytambo. I kept wondering, “where are all the trees?!” I mostly saw groups of eucalyptus trees, that I knew were not native. None of the locals I asked were able to tell me why the native trees were missing, but they all had a positive view on eucalyptus trees. One man blamed forest fires for the missing trees up on the bare hills. Does the high elevation on the hills surrounding the valley have anything to do with why there are no trees? One would think that some kind of pine tree would do well in the upper elevation parts of the sacred valley. The only places I saw trees other than eucalyptus were along rivers and streams .
Can anyone tell me more about this or guide me to where I can go for more information? As a biologist, I am fascinated and curious about the trees that once occurred, where they occurred, what happened to them, and the future plans to restore the trees. Thank you!
Altitude certainly matters, though the tree line is much higher here than for mid latitudes. Nevertheless, I learned from reading ethnohistory that the slopes near Cusco and the Sacred Valley were forested when the Spanish came. There were various native species involved and, from what iI have heard, reforestation efforts today focus on reintroduction of those native species. The current plantings though tend to be mono-plantings of a single species, it seems, rather than attempting to reintroduce the complex, upland forests that may have been there.
People say the Spanish deforested for efforts at building and such. I suspect that is part of the explanation, but I also suspect it has to do with the introduction of different means of cooking, ones that relied more on wood, as well as changes in the management of agricultural lands. I know with the nineteenth century wool, especially of camelids, was an important commodity–it motivated the introduction of the train to Cuzco–and so I wonder if land was not cleared to increase herds and hence wool. I also wonder about the impact of the introduction of European animals such as sheep and goats on the native forests.
I have never looked for literature on the forests and such, but there is a very good literature in anthropology on the sacred valley and farming, such a the work of Stephen Brush. I would also look for people in the reforestation efforts to see the literature they rely on.
If it is useful, here is a reference or two from JSTOR.
Biodiversity Conservation in Peru’s Eastern Montane Forests
Kenneth R. Young, Blanca León
Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Aug., 2000), pp. 208-211
Inca Agroforestry: Lessons from the Past
Alex Chepstow-Lusty, Mark Winfield
Ambio, Vol. 29, No. 6 (Sep., 2000), pp. 322-328
Here is one government document on reforestation although it is from the neighboring department of Apurimac. http://siar.regionapurimac.gob.pe/admDocumento.php?accion=bajar&docadjunto=553.
Just returned from Cusco to home in Australia & as an Australian couldn’t help but notice Eucalypts. Enquiries to two different guides about their history got responses that they were introduced in 16th century & used to strengthen construction for earthquake resistance. As Australia wasn’t ‘discovered’ by Europeans till 18th century I knew this was absurd. Thanks for clarification .
Thank you for your comment, Chris. I hope you enjoyed Cusco. Your comment made me look at the article again and I found an error right off the bat. I changed it. The article said eucalyptus was brought to Cusco in the second half of the twentieth century, but it was in the first half and then into the mid century with re-forestation efforts. Thanks again.
I think that the eucalypt, probably globulus (Tasmanian blue gum) was introduced in about 1860 after the gold rushes in California and Australia. During the rush of ’49 in San Francisco there were many Australians as well as Chileans and Peruvians. When the gold rushes started in Australia later on maybe some South American took some seed back home. I’m in Cusco as I write this, having come from Puno and wondering whether there were forests here before they introduced the eucalypts. I saw that they’ve tried other trees like Pinus radiata and Cupressus macrocarpa from Monterey California but they haven’t done well. They are spindly and sickly looking. The reason why crops can’t grow right up to the eucalypt is not that it takes away the water but that it actually puts a growth inhibitor into the soil to stop competition.
Hi Graeme, I hope you are enjoying Cusco. From what I have read the slopes around Cusco were forested with native species, such as Queuña. I know that current attention of reforestation is focusing more on using these native species.
Hi Graeme, I love eucalyptus trees, and want to plant a few of them in my land yet i was not aware of the growth inhibitors these trees release, are the growth inhibitors released by the roots or the leaves?
The Eucalypt in the Sierra of Southern Peru
Joshua C. Dickinson, III
Annals of the Association of American Geographers
Vol. 59, No. 2 (Jun., 1969), pp. 294-307
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Association of American Geographers
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2561632
Page Count: 14
“This species reached the Peruvian Sierra in the later half of the nineteenth century.”
Thank you, Gareth.
A short while ago I traveled the Andes in Ecuador and Peru by bus and foot. This was a thing that quite bothered me. In both countries many mountainous-areas are covered with exotic eucalyptus trees… I hope that in the upcoming decennia more and more indigenous trees will replace the eucalyptus as a part of a program. To bring back a taste of the original landscape.
I was brought to this article by googling for ‘eucalyptus peru’. The find below this article is the book Gareth refers to. If the finds on google are a representation of the amount of attention that goes out for this problem, it is sadly not much.
I so agree with you about the problems of eucalyptus and the need for reforestation with indigenous species. Thank you for your comment.