Human activities have drastically reduced the natural habitats of Polylepis, a rare genus of tree species that dominates the high-altitude forests of the Andes and can grow from an elevation of 3,000 meters close to the glacier line, at approximately 5,000 meters above sea level. A recent analysis by Beatriz Fuentealba and Steven Sevillano of reforestation efforts of Polylepis in Ancash, Peru, has highlighted the importance of local communities for the successful implementation of these activities.
The analysis, published in the book Beyond Restoration Ecology: Social Perspectives in Latin America and the Caribbean, focused on the project “Conservation Corridor of Polylepsis in the South of Los Conchucos” that was implemented by the non-governmental organization, the Mountain Institute. The project was developed in 2004 for a period of five years to preserve, restore and recover the Polylepsis forests— or queñuales, as they are known in the Peruvian Andes— of the southern area of Conchucos in the Ancash region. This new study makes the results of the project available to a wide readership.
The Ancash region, located in the northern part of Peru, is known for the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, which runs through the region and preserves the largest reserve of tropical glaciers in the world. Polylepsis forests located in this area have received protection from the national government since 1975 when Huascaran National Park was created. The protection of the national park was strengthened in 1977 when UNESCO recognized it as a biosphere reserve.
Queñuales are a type of Andean forest ecosystem. Manuel Peralvo, a researcher at the regional NGO CONDESAN, told GlacierHub in an interview that these ecosystems generate multiple benefits that are key for the well-being of Andean communities including hydrological regulation, reduction of risks of natural hazards and long-term maintenance of Andean biodiversity.
As Beatriz Fuentealba told GlacierHub, Polylepsis forests in the Cordillera Blanca help store soil water and maintain a moist environment throughout the year. She explained that queñuales are important for water regulation because the roots of these species support the infiltration of water into the soil. The abundant leaf litter that the queñuales produce allows for more water storage and improves soil nutrients. These forests also support the protection of puquios, or water springs, situated near local communities.
Moreover, Fuentealba pointed out that queñuales also generate a distinct microclimate. As a result, they become a biodiversity refuge. “Inside queñuales there is less solar radiation, more moisture and extreme temperatures are attenuated,” she explained. This microclimate allows for the development of particular mosses and other plants that do not grow in other areas. Several bird species also depend on the natural resources located in these forests.
Steven Sevillano told GlacierHub that queñuales are recognized as islands of biodiversity. In addition, he pointed out that in a climate change scenario they will be key for high-Andean biodiversity conservation. For this reason, the disappearance of queñuales would not only indicate the loss of a rare species but also the loss of habitat for several other species that use these forests as a refuge.
Unfortunately, the queñual populations have sharply declined due to logging for firewood, clearing for pasture for ranching and other activities. In 1978, before the Mountain Institute implemented the project, several reforestation efforts had been developed. One of these initiatives was initiated by Pompeyo Guillen, a park ranger in Huascaran National Park, who promoted the planting of queñuales with the support of the population living in the surrounding areas. National government programs contributed to this initiative with food in exchange for the labor provided. In the last 20 years, private mining companies established in the region have further supported these activities by paying a wage to people who take part in reforestation work.
The project “Conservation Corridor of Polylepsis in the South of Los Conchucos” sought to reach conservation agreements with local communities. Thus, it established ways for the project to support an increase in economic development of the local communities working on reforestation efforts. These conditions included cattle breeding, tourism promotion, and the improvement of local education. In exchange, the communities would propagate, reforest and preserve queñuales.
“Participating in reforestation activities is not easy, it requires effort, time and attention in order to increase the success of the reforestation,” Sevillano told GlacierHub.
Despite these difficulties, such efforts allow participants to become engaged with conservation projects and to recognize the importance of these forests. They take care of them and appreciate them more because they also start to value their own efforts, he added.
Fuentealba indicated that the challenge of working with communities is understanding the reasons that each local community has for participation in reforestation initiatives, which leads them to participate in these activities. Furthermore, the approach of particular reforestation projects to include local populations differs.
Considering these experiences, the study suggests that a strategy to ensure the sustainability of reforestation projects of queñuales involves increasing the awareness of the benefits provided by queñuales, as well as connecting local communities with their natural resources.
When working in restoration efforts, it is not only relevant to understand the degradation level of the forests. It is also important to connect with local populations and comprehend how they will be impacted, their relationship with these ecosystems, and their values. Such participatory projects can reduce negative community impacts on forests while supporting positive ones.