Restoration and conservation

Conservation areas

Slender-billed finch in the conservation concessionProtecting the remaining fragments of Huarango woodland is essential: without these seed resources the restoration of local forests will become impossible.  In September 2007 the lengthy process of obtaining permission to set up a government Concession for Conservation in the region was completed with Grupo Aves Peru (GAP). Under Resolución de Intendencia No. 117-2007-INRENA-IFFS, government-owned relicts of Huarango forest in the Tunga Usaca region of the Rio Poróma, Nazca (513 ha), were delimited as a reserve under GAP's responsibility. Fieldwork was completed in December 2008, contact was made with the local communities, and biodiversity refuges were identified for incorporation into the management plan - for which the government allows two years.  However, due to lack of funding and changes in INRENA and GAP, the management plan for the reserve has yet to be developed and implemented. The project is now seeking funding to activate the management integrating the reserve to the nearby Lomas de San Fernando.

Lomas vegetationThe Lomas de San Fernando has long required protection from mining interests, illegal hunting and unregulated dune-buggy tourism, and in 2009 an area of 154,000 ha was declared a reserved zone, conferring some protection prior to Park formation. This is an absolutely unique ecosystem, home to endemic fauna and flora and iconic species such as the Guanaco and Condor. The Parks authorities have requested help to support baseline biodiversity research and target conservation priorities for the management plan. If resources are secured to support this work, it will help local authorities and communities to develop strategies to maintain biodiversity and sustainable livelihoods. It is also hope that, building on the experience of three years of research through the Darwin Project, a community-based restoration programme will be established in degraded areas within the adjacent GAP reserve, helping to re-establish connectivity in the landscape.

Biodiversity studies

Alfonso OrellanaThe project catalogued the flora of Ica through extensive collection, with herbarium vouchers representing approximately 520 species in 64 families (previous studies had recorded about 200 species). This inventory included at least one new species and includes many rare and threatened plants. About one third of species are from the Gramineae, Leguminosae and Compositae families, around 20% of the flora appears endemic to Peru and southern Ecuador, and 14% are endemic to southern Peru. Local knowledge, colloquial names, plant ecology and habitat information were also recorded. Specimens are housed in a new herbarium at UNICA, was established by the project.

Comprehensive surveys of birds and reptiles were also coordinated by the project, revealing new and diverse records for the area including rare endemic species surviving in habitat relicts such as the slender-billed finch (Xenospingus concolor) and the black-necked woodpecker (Colaptes atricollis). Also, insects such as the large Cerambycid beetle (Calocomus rodingeri) - the female at 65 mm long being one of the largest in western Peru - surprisingly living in dry forest relics. Local engagement with biodiversity was greatly amplified when the bird, insect and reptile relationships to plants were demonstrated in talks, posters and educational events, for example around seed dispersal and pollination.  

Satellite images revealed relicts of vegetation for conservation concessions and government Lomas protection, but during fieldwork extensive areas of invasive non-native species were found, especially Tamarix aphylla. Tamarix invasionoccurs in extensive monotypic stands completely dominating parts of the region’s riparian ecosystems, especially in Ocucaje and the lower Rio Ica. This is destroying biodiversity, producing high levels of salinity and excluding all other plants. Campaigns to highlight its destructive capacity are ongoing through publications and the regional government.

Plant nursery

Project nurseryA project plant nursery, dedicated to the production and germination of native trees and shrubs, was constructed in the Faculty of Agronomy of UNICA, introducing a new emphasis on native species. The nursery developed propagation protocols for the majority of local woody species from scratch, with seed collection training by personnel from the MSBP and RBG Kew. Local capacity-building was extended into the community by the tree nursery staff, once techniques for low-cost seed storage and germination had been developed. MSBP/INIA Chile provided training for propagation trails. The nursery produced over 40,000 trees and shrubs to supply project restoration trials and tree planting programmes over 3 years, and today produces some 10-15,000 trees and shrubs per year for the ongoing planting programme.

Research has resulted in the propagation of most native woody plants. It was found that phreatophytic species such as the Huarango (Prosopis) are best planted out at an early stage before tap roots reach the bottom of containers, and when possible germinated in situ. It was possible to achieve 98% germination rates for Prosopis seed stored over 15 years at room temperature in plastic bottles. One drop of kerosene was mixed to about 5,000 seeds to prevent bruchid beetle attack. Other breakthrough studies included successful Prosopis germination using 50% sea water, and germination of endemic cacti. The Project‘s tree nursery continues to be funded by Trees for Cities.

Working with agroindustry and traditional agriculture

Habitat restoration trials in agroindustrial sites in Peru contrast favourably with the village community setting for trials, in that they are well protected from livestock and have more consistent water-supplies.

Planting at Fundo ChapiFundo Chapi (847 ha) is an intensive asparagus and avocado farm situated on the eastern side of the Rio Ica valley between the Andean quebrada ecosystems and the riparian system. The fundo is strategically placed across the ephemeral streams and wildlife refuges that link these two areas. Following agreements with the owners, the project began a habitat restoration trial in 2007. The project’s initial survey recorded no native plants species and two bird species in the designated area. In November 2007, 23 key precursor species were planted in groups derived from reference ecosystems, with bird perches and nesting sites installed. Drip feed and tree pit watering supplied minimal irrigation, and a range of comparative plots were set up.

By June 2010, 39 species of birds, 3 reptiles and 75 species of plants (i.e.not planted) had been recruited, including local endemics. The numerous insects included biocontrol species beneficial to the agroindustry. Trials of comparative plots (below) showed significant growth improvement with mulch and subsoil watering. The area is now used for education with the local community, fundo workers and schools whilst being monitored, expanded and set-up as a conservation area. The Chapi management team is proud of the project, for which it won an environment award.

Comparative plots 

Comparative plots in agroindustry were set up to test planting density and irrigation techniques such as drip fed irrigation, fog-capture and subsoil watering with tubes, mulches and nitrogen fixation. Climate was recorded by dataloggers clocking relative humidity and temperature. Monthly monitoring recorded height, canopy area and basal stem measurements and species recruitment. To make sense of the data it was necessary to record water supply, plant health, insect attack and phenology observations. Efforts were made to ensure planting techniques could be replicated easily through recycling of discarded materials such as plastic bottles without cost.

Monthly monitoring over several years recorded several hundred thousand data points which, following a lengthy data cleaning process, were analysed to determine the most effective techniques for plant establishment. Monitoring needed to record: general health, phenology, human error and insect attack in order to interpret results.  The canopy area (using the basic ellipse formula width x length x 0.8) was more effective than basal stem width measurements to assess growth during the initial period of 2-3 years. Comparative plots included native tree and shrub species: Acacia macracantha, Prosopis limensis, Schinus molle, Lycium americanum, Grabowskia boerhaviifolia, Tecoma fulva, Tara spinosa, Pluchea chingoyo and Crotalaria incana. Analysis of results found, in summary:

  • Low watering regime with mulch demonstrated twice as much average growth in aggregated height, and three times for canopy area, when compared to un-mulched plants.
  • Comparing irrigation techniques with the same water quantity, the best plant growth of both height and canopy area was achieved by sub-surface watering using 3-4 litre plastic bottles.
  • All species with a sub-soil watering regime developed basal branching – more effective to reduce sub-canopy soil desiccation.
  • Comparing planting density, Prosopis heights were unaffected but canopy area grew twice as much in low density planting. Schinus was at least three times taller in higher density planting, with other species unaffected.
  • Sewage water showed high rates of establishment of Bulnesia retamo, (a plant unique in Peru to the Ica region), together with the non-native weed Tribulus terrestris. Sewage dumping also allowed the natural regeneration of groves of Prosopis limensis, Parkinsonia praecox and Parkinsonia aculeata, which that formed the natural thornless hybrid Parkinsonia x carterae.
  • Fog capture from shade netting provides a significant source of moisture for restoration 4 months of the year June – September.

Large scale restoration for the future

Natural regeneration and traditional agriculture

The season and El Niño flooding is a vital regeneration pulse for biodiversity and livelihoods in the rainless desert environment of southern Peru. The knowledge of how to use water and plants has been acquired over generations and from the experience of natural climatic fluctuations, which are traditionally highly integrated to myth and culture.

In the Andean outwash valleys that merge with the coastal plain, traditional seasonal 'spate agriculture' systems divert silt-rich flood waters into irrigation canals and river terraces for the production of crops such as maize, beans, pumpkin, and chickpeas. At the same time, sophisticated channels and furrow systems sustain natural regeneration of native plants and agricultural biodiversity along the field margins and borders. Here, a functional assemblage maintains soil fertility and humidity with the mixture of native dry-forest species and fruit trees such as: Inga feuillei, Tara spinosa, Pouteria lucuma and Spondias purpurea, whilst also sustaining medicinal nectariferous herbs such as Indigofera truxillensis, Galvezia fruticosa and Waltheria ovata. Furthermore, annual irrigation allows rapid regeneration of Acacia macracantha varieties to provide sustainable fuel wood coppicing.

However, things are changing as decreasing seasonal river flow, rises in copper and gold prices and agroindustrial jobs mean that land is abandoned and left un-irrigated. Without irrigation, forest regeneration is curtailed and seed banks lost. The remaining population (often old with mothers with young children) resort to permanent removal of the vegetation for firewood.

Without the protection afforded by local vegetation and compounded by deforestation in higher the river catchments, short-burst, high velocity, spate river-flow (know as Huaycos) increasingly cause riverbed down-cutting, leaving intakes 'hanging' and irrigation canals dry with groundwater falling.

Today in many Andean outwash valleys, rebuilding of the riverbed is a prerequisite for significant restoration (that includes endemic plant communities, agro-biodiversity and ecosystem services) and in turn may depend upon traditional irrigation methods.

Thus the large scale restoration or reforestation must be based upon river natural flooding and irrigation that is impeded by the river downcut formation. Despite this, techniques are known locally and still used occasionally (as recorded by the project) to effectively 'raise' the riverbed to the level of irrigation intakes. During the dry season, using manual labour (or machinery), huge boulders are levered into the riverbed. When the seasonal river flood arrives it brings large volumes of gravels and suspended sediments, which in a matter of hours can backfill boulders to raise the riverbed and reconnect river flow with irrigation channels intakes.

The project is seeking finance to assist this type of regeneration. Judging from meetings with many of the stakeholders, this collective task has the capacity to regenerate not only biodiversity and agriculture but also community and culture.