Saving Polylepis Forests in Peru

In Focus, September 2003

by Abigail Rome

The Andean condor, often referred to as the bird with the largest wingspan in the world, usually takes the credit as the flagship species for the mountain range that runs the length of South America. However, several lesser-known Andean species can make similarly impressive claims to fame.

One of these is polylepis, a group of tree species in the rose family, which wins the prize for being the highest altitude woody plant in the world. In many ways polylepis is a retiring tree, growing slowly and quietly in sheltered valleys close to the high Andean grasslands called paramo or puna. In a vista that features large open expanses punctuated by towering snow-capped volcanoes, polylepis can easily be overlooked.

However, as a result of a reduction in polylepis throughout its range, it is now receiving significant attention in the Cusco Department of southern Peru. One of the reasons is that the forests in this region contain three of South America's endangered birds. Lucky observers can see royal cinclodes, ash-breasted tit-tyrants and white-browed tit-spinetails flitting among polylepis branches or scratching for worms in the mossy soils below.

Polylepis forests, sometimes called "enchanted forests" because of their low canopy, twisted growth pattern and striking red peely bark, are relicts from pre-Colombian times. Before cattle and sheep were introduced to the Andean highlands, polylepis covered vast areas extending from Venezuela to Argentina, perpetuating productive microhabitats in otherwise exposed and harsh highland conditions. Among other ecological benefits, polylepis protects fragile soils from erosion, replenishes watersheds and harbors plants used by local peoples.

Outside the ancient city of Cusco, where the descendents of the Incas live at altitudes of 4,000 meters and more, polylepis is a mainstay for existence. The trees provide fuelwood, construction materials and medicinal plants to Quechua-speaking peoples who maintain much of their centuries-old lifestyle and tradition. Nevertheless, current consumption patterns, along with burning of surrounding grasslands to create pasture for cattle and sheep, are threatening the resource. While community members are well aware that their survival depends on maintaining these forests, they have had few options until recently.

Building A Partnership Approach

That's where the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and the Peruvian Association for the Conservation of Andean Ecosystems (ECOAN) come in. The two organizations have teamed up with support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) to work together with three local villages to protect the forests and develop alternatives for fuelwood and timber.

Their Polylepis Project fits perfectly into CEPF's strategic approach in the Tropical Andes to encourage community-based biodiversity conservation and natural resource management to offset threats and ensure durable change.

The key to successful conservation of these endangered birds and their habitats is solving the problem of unsustainable wood consumption. The Polylepis Project aims to develop a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) presence in the communities, provide data on and monitor biodiversity, include indigenous people in conservation, engage villagers and policymakers in biodiversity conservation, raise community awareness of conservation, make rural development more compatible with biodiversity conservation and build a constituency for conservation.

"We had a meeting of the minds with ECOAN," says Michael Parr, vice president for program development of ABC, a US-based NGO conserving wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. "We agree on the objectives and strategies for conservation and development of these communities.

"ECOAN, as a local organization with a long history of conducting biodiversity research, conservation and community development activities in the high Andes, is an ideal partner to work with because it values communication with communities but emphasizes action over discussion."

Planting for the Future

As part of the CEPF-supported part of the project, in the village of Abra Malanga, 86 community members, together with 13 young British volunteers and members of ECOAN, expanded polylepis forest by replanting 5,000 saplings. At an altitude of 4,200 meters above sea level, it was no easy task.

In nearby Cancha Cancha, where 3,000 polylepis saplings were planted, residents had to trek more than 11 kilometers uphill with an elevation gain of 1,000 meters to reach their planting site. For several days a parade of brightly-clad Inca people and tree-laden llamas and horses could be seen marching up the mountainside: the men wearing their handwoven red ponchos and bowler hats and the women in their black skirts and red shawls, stuffed with babies and saplings side by side.

In another of the communities, Huacahuasi, the closest polylepis forest is more than 12 kilometers away from the village. ECOAN has determined that if the 170 families continue their annual pilgrimage to harvest trees for firewood and construction, the entire resource will be gone within 30 years. Other sources of fuel are needed. Through the Polylepis Project residents have planted 10,000 eucalyptus trees on degraded lands far from native forests and close to the community.

"Using eucalyptus in place of native species has often been looked upon as an emergency measure, but gradually the people's eyes are being opened to see that these alternatives are necessary," says Constantino Aucca Chutas, president of ECOAN and local ornithologist.

In fact, one of the major positive outcomes of the project is that the villagers are becoming aware of the need to manage their lands in order to ensure its productivity into the future. Previously, some simply cut whatever they could find, without heed to where the polylepis were coming from or the long-term impacts.

ECOAN is also working to help these communities gain title to their traditional lands, an important move to provide incentive for sustainable management.

One of the steps in the process is the development of conservation action plans. Through a series of meetings, ECOAN and community members will discuss and put down on paper the steps they will take to protect existing polylepis forests and to supplement their needs for wood. Some of these include limited harvesting, reforestation and fencing replanted forests to protect them from grazing animals. And, they've found that a source of cash might also be helpful.

That brings us back to the birds and their conservation. Birdwatchers will travel far to see such endangered species as the royal cinclodes or the tit-spinetail. If these birds are provided with the necessary habitat and active measures are taken to ensure their survival, villagers may eventually be able to host visitors, taking them to see the fruits of their conservation labors and gaining some income at the same time.

In the meantime, a survey and monitoring program for polylepis forest species is underway. It has already paid off with unexpected and happy news. Recently ECOAN discovered a 6.5-hectare polylepis forest fragment with eight pairs of previously unrecorded royal cinclodes.