Of the 104 types of weather and climate patterns seen on Earth, 48 can be found in Peru, said Del Miro Portillo, who serves as a lead guide for REI Adventures’ lodge-to-lodge treks through the Peruvian Andes. At nearly 15,000 feet above sea level, the highland regions surrounding Peru's Mount Salkantay are also home to the most elevated forests in the world. But locals say these forests are under threat.
Sadly, deforestation is nothing new in Peru. By 2014, between 8.9 million and 10.5 million hectares of Peru’s forests had been lost, or approximately 11.3 to 13.4 percent of the original forest area, according to a 2015 report from the Forest People's Program and the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (AIDESEP). Roberto Espinoza Llanos of AIDESEP spoke to the problem of deforestation in Peru during a breakout session at the COP21 climate talks in Paris last month. If deforestation is not addressed, he warned, "Peru could become the new Malaysia."
Some residents clear forests to make space for livestock-grazing or agriculture, but the primary cause of forest loss in the highlands is fire, as it is customary for local farmers to set fire to their land between growing seasons. The practice dates back to the Incan and pre-Incan societies that once called the Andes home, and it's also used widely in the West -- where forestry groups like the U.S. Forest Service call it a prescribed burn. But, as dry seasons extend in the highlands due to climate change, fires can quickly burn out of control and locals are often powerless to stop them.
"Sometimes they try to burn one hectare, but the fire goes out of control and they burn a whole mountain. That is very common," said Miguel Luza Victorio, chief of environmental services for Mountain Lodges of Peru, a locally-owned company that leads treks through the highlands to Machu Picchu. "In the past two months, every mountain in this area was burned."
This reality necessitates not only an earnest reforestation effort, but also a widespread educational campaign to teach residents how to properly manage their land, Victorio said. With this in mind, REI Adventures, Mountain Lodges of Peru and its associated nonprofit, Yanapana Peru, are spearheading a unique reforestation program Mollepata.
Over the last three months of 2015, the partners constructed a greenhouse in the district -- where local biologists and students will grow native seedlings to reforest nearly 250 acres (100 hectares) of damaged Andean forest. By 2018, 100,000 seedlings will be planted in the region.
"We have a lot of reforestation projects here in Cusco, but they are all done with occidental seedlings like pine and eucalyptus," Pastor told 3p. "The difference in our project is we are going to reforest with all native species."
To understand why this matters, let's look at water and erosion as an example. Home to 3,000 people, Mollepata is dangerously close to running out of water, and erosion on the Rio Blanco River further degrades the quality of the water that is available. Reforestation can solve both of these problems by reducing erosion and increasing groundwater reserves. But reforesting an area using non-native species can diminish, if not eliminate, these benefits. Eucalyptus, for example, though fast-growing and great for wood, can suck up 25 times more water than a native tree when planted in Andean soils, Pastor said.
"People are not conscious," he told 3p. "They just think: 'Reforestation, so pine, pine, wood, wood. Faster growing. Better results.' But they do not know the damage they are doing. One of the things we are trying to show is that we have to reforest but with native species."
Since plant stores aren't an option in the highlands, a group of biologists led by Victorio trekked up and down Mount Salkantay to gather native seeds by hand. The stockpile of seeds, compiled after several months of work, will be germinated in the greenhouse for planting in the fall of next year, to coincide with the region's growing seasons, Victorio and Pastor said. Victorio's team has already mapped out the entire region to determine which species will perform best in each location.
"This is a seed project," Victorio said with a hint of irony. "It's a small project. For reforestation, we need a lot of money. But we are an example that we plan to replicate in different parts of Cusco."
For its part, REI Adventures, which works with the locally-owned company as a lodging partner, also has a significant stake in the Sacred Valley, and Mount Salkantay in particular, as the lodge-to-lodge trek is its most popular out of 150 trips across the globe. The company has been in talks with Enrique Umbert, CEO of Mountain Lodges of Peru, for years about a collaborative project in the region. The greenhouse in particular is an effort more than two years in the making, said Cynthia Dunbar, general manager of REI Adventures.
"We're super excited to be able to partner with them on this project," she told 3p. "It's one of those places where we have an obligation and certainly the passion to help take care of it so that future customers of ours and other companies can really enjoy that outdoor space."
The company will fund the project to the tune of $172,000 over three years through its grant program, which backs nonprofit efforts to "care for the outdoor places that our customers love," its parent company, REI, says on its website.
Of course, in the case of Mollepata, the most significant stakeholder group project organizers are looking to reach is local residents. The construction of the greenhouse itself employed 10 locals, and the site will serve as an ongoing educational hub for local students. But educating surrounding communities about responsible forestry is the organizers' main goal.
"All of the land has owners," Victorio said, gesturing to the stretch targeted for reforestation. "For us, we are challenged to go to talk to every family, explaining the benefits … We have consulting meetings with them to explain how they must use their soils, how they must divide this part for reforestation, this part for the animals, this part for recreation, etcetera. That is the main challenge, I think, for us."
Each family can own upwards of 100 hectares of land, so getting them on board is not only crucial for the project, but also for the preservation of Mount Salkantay. "It's been tough," Pastor said of initial interactions with landowners. "But some of them are very enthusiastic about it. We think that when we start reforesting, those families who haven't joined the program will see the benefits, and they will knock on our door and say they want to reforest, too."
"This project is not only reforestation ... conservation is the most important thing," Victorio added. "We want this to be a whole-life project."
"... The goal for us is that 15 years later we can have a huge, protected reserve forest that people can use in a sustainable way. It will also help us to show tourists that these forests are the highest forests in the world with native species that have been here since the Incas."
Image credits: 1) and 2) Mary Mazzoni; 3) Courtesy of REI Adventures