Araucaria araucana: the tree that sustains indigenous cultures

The Araucaria araucana is an endemic conifer of Patagonia, with a very restricted distribution, which can live for 1000 years and reach 50 m in height .

Araucaria araucana

This species native to the south of the Andes Mountains has a special bond with indigenous communities. / Photo: Pixabay

LatinamericanPost| Jorge Guasp

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Distribution and characteristics of the Araucaria araucana

According to the Chilean Ministry of the Environment, the species is found "from the Biobío Region to the southern slope of the Villarrica Volcano in the Lakes Region, in two delimited areas: the first in the Nahuelbuta Mountain Range (37º40'-38º 40´S) and the second occurs in the Cordillera de Los Andes (37º 03'- 40º 03´S) ”.

The article Conservation Status and Characteristics of the Araucaria araucana Forest Resource, published in the BioScriba magazine in December 2014, states that “in Argentina, they are found in Ruca Choroy (Neuquén) and its neighboring area, Pulmarí, covering 4,000 ha; 66% of this surface is within the Lanín National Park ”; and adds: "the total area occupied by the species does not exceed 450,000 ha, of which 75% belong to Chile (almost all protected) and the rest to Argentina (36% protected)".

The Araucaria araucana grows on stony and primitive soils, well drained, of volcanic origin, susceptible to disturbances (volcanic eruptions, fires, landslides), and poor from the point of view of nutrient content.

This species is dioecious (each individual is male or female), and grows very slowly. Its foliage is evergreen. In the adult state, the specimens have a parasolate crown restricted to the upper part of the trunk. Its bark is thick, rough, and forms noticeable plaques. It can grow in pure forests, or associated with species of the genus Nothofagus such as ñire, coihue, lenga and raulí. It is the national tree of Chile, and is part of the shield of the Argentine province of Neuquén.

State of conservation

The study Allometric functions for the determination of forest carbon stocks for the Araucaria araucana species (Corporación Nacional Forestal, Chile, 2013), found that this conifer “was established as a National Monument in 1990 by the Ministry of Agriculture, under which prohibits their exploitation. Araucaria araucana forests have historically been important from a cultural, ecological, scientific and socioeconomic point of view. The drastic decrease in its distribution in recent centuries is associated with strong anthropic pressure (Donoso, 2006), which has led to the classification of this species as vulnerable (International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2001) ”.

Representation of the Araucaria araucana in national protected areas

Lanín National Park

Created on May 11, 1937, Argentina's Lanín National Park has an area of 412,000 hectares and protects a portion of the Patagonian Andean forest, which includes populations of Araucaria araucana.

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Conguillío National Park

“It is located in the La Araucanía Region, 148 km northeast of Temuco, in Chile. It has an area of 60,832 ha; initially formed by two different parks (PN. Conguillío and PN. Los Paraguas), being united and forming the current park. Conguillío comes from "Ko-nqilliu" which in the Mapuche language means "pine nuts in the water" or "between pine nuts" based on the abundance of araucarias and the existence of lakes and ponds that surround them "( conguilliochile.cl ).

The CONAF (National Forestry Corporation) of Chile describes the characteristics of the following national parks, which protect Araucaria araucana forests:

Villarrica National Parks

It was created on November 28, 1940 by Supreme Decree 2236 of the Ministry of Lands and Colonization. The unit stands out for the protection of fauna species such as the Bridges degu, the peregrine falcon, matuasto lizard, Darwin's frog and the percatrucha. As for flora, the araucaria appears as an emblem.

Huerquehue National Park

It is located in the Araucanía Region. It was created on June 9, 1967, by Supreme Decree No. 347 of the Ministry of Agriculture. The unit stands out for the protection of fauna species such as the Valdivian mole mouse, the choroy, the matuasto lizard and Darwin's frog. As far as flora is concerned, there is the araucaria.

Tolhuaca National Park

Tolhuaca National Park is located in the La Araucanía region. It was created on October 16, 1935 by Supreme Decree No. 2,489 of the Ministry of Lands and Colonization. The unit stands out for the protection of fauna species such as the güiña, peregrine falcon, green lizard and four-eyed toad. Regarding flora,  the araucaria, cypress of the mountain range and holy cherry are found. 

Link between Araucaria araucana and indigenous communities

The UNESCO project “ A tree at the center: the Mapuche Pewenche, the people of the araucaria” (Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems), narrates that “the Mapuche people encompass an extensive area, which includes parts of Chile and Argentina . In this vast region there are sub-regions named according to their location or ecological features, such as Puel Mapu (the lands of the East), Nag Mapu (the land of the plains), or Pewen Mapu (the land of the pewen tree, or tree Araucaria (Araucaria araucana). The Mapuche Pewenche value the nut of the araucaria tree for its flavor and for its use as a staple food. In the fall and winter, when the reserves of wheat or potatoes have been depleted, The araucaria nut guarantees nourishment. The tree also provides the main source of firewood, and its resin is used as a medicine to relieve headaches, colds, ulcers, menstrual pain, and is used to heal wounds and muscle strains The Mapuche Pewenche describe their relationship with the araucaria forest as analogous to that of an extended family (lobpewen) ”.

The Neuquén town of Villa Pehuenia, which owes its name to the Pehuén or Araucaria araucana, is an important Argentine tourist center, which receives visitors throughout the year. The Puel Mapuche community has the Batea Mahuida ski center, which allows the practice of this sport in the middle of a landscape characterized by the presence of araucarias.

Pehuén conservation, a challenge for governments and residents

Due to its slow growth, low regeneration, and restricted distribution, the Araucaria araucana is susceptible to various environmental and human factors that threaten it, including fires, livestock (which, along with rodents and wild boars, feed on its seeds or pine nuts), firewood extraction and pressure from the forestry industry.

The law 1890-1991 of forests and forest lands of the Argentine province of Neuquén, establishes in its art. 25º that “the isolated specimens and the pure masses of the species Araucaria Araucana, Pehuén, that vegetate in the territory of the Province, will be treated as permanent forests. In the management plans that include this species, the felling of sick, overmature or fire-affected specimens may only be authorized, and in all cases they must have a prior founded technical report from the forestry authority ”.

Although this law is important, it is clear that the regulations are not enough, and that the conservation of the Araucaria araucana depends on agreements between the public and private sectors, without which this emblematic tree, thanks to which many rural populations survive, will continue to reduce its area distribution, already meager.

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