A Tree Breathes Rain, An Axe Brings It Down; Floods Sweep The Land

MIAMI--This is the story of a tree and what it means to the water supply and to the global environment. It is an ancient story but it is also a story as modern as the latest hardship in Haiti and El Salvador and parts of Africa and Asia.

The tree is called the huarango. It lives in southern Peru. Yet it can serve as a symbol for trees around the world and the influence they have on our lives.

More than 1,500 years ago, thick forests of huarango (pronounced wa-Ran-go) rose in the Ica River Valley of Peru, 120 miles south of Lima. The valley was one of the driest places on earth. The huarango made the region livable. The trees caught sea mist and moisture in the humid air in their leaves. The mist and moisture condensed and trickled into underground reservoirs or aquifers.

Over time the trees drank up the underground water with their deep and broad network of roots. They breathed moisture into the air. The moisture turned to rain and the land provided food for thousands of people of the Nazca Culture.

But the Nazca did not fully appreciate the huarango, according to new evidence gathered by British researchers. As the Nazcas grew and prospered, they wanted more land for planting corn and other vegetables. They decimated the forests.

Then came the rains, a deluge of greater magnitude than has ever been seen. The Ica Valley was covered in silt and more than 12 feet of water. Rich soil washed away. The nearby valleys suffered, too, and the Nazca never recovered. Today a few descendents struggle to make a living in a swath of river valleys that has become almost entirely desert.

"Had the trees not been chopped down, this flood would not have been a disaster," said Dr. David G. Beresford-Jones, the leader of a research team from Cambridge University in England in an interview from his home there. Instead, he said, much of the rain would have been caught by the trees. Their roots would have held the soil in place and the year of the flood "would have been a year of abundance."

The devastation that can follow the destruction of forests played out in Haiti last year after several hurricanes inundated the poor country that shares the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean with the Dominican Republic. More than 800 people died in flood waters and avalanches of mud that cascaded down denuded hillsides. Haiti was once heavily forested. Even now, with most of the forests gone, the people continue to hack down the surviving trees to make charcoal to cook their food.

El Salvador, a former battlefield in Central America, has also lost most of its forests. Compared with all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, it ranks second behind Haiti as a place of wasted forests, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

In early November, a thunderstorm that was so small it was all but ignored by forecasters, hovered over El Salvador. For nearly two days the storm let loose with heavy rain. It was the rainy season and the land was already soaked. The little storm was more than the hills could take. Clumps of earth broke loose. Huge mud slides tore through villages. At least 1,500 houses were damaged or destroyed, the New York Times reported; 140 people died.

This is the modern-day story of the huarango tree. Around the world millions of acres of trees have been bulldozed and burned. Nigeria and Brazil are countries where the trees have gone the fastest, the Food and Agriculture Organization says. Often the goal of destroying a forest is to create more open land for farming and ranching. Smoky fires from burning the trees add to global warming. The loss of trees means that less carbon monoxide is absorbed from the air. Less rain falls. Without the trees farm land requires heavy irrigation. When the rains come there is nothing to hold back the floods. Civilizations are not being wiped out these days. But lives are being lost in floods and landslides that could be prevented. Some private organizations and a few governments are replanting trees. But they have a long way to go to make up for the abuse of centuries. #