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Turning trees into water:
Scenes from a Peruvian planting festival

Words: Cecily Layzell

Photos: Musuk Nolte

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In the Peruvian Andes, Indigenous communities are reviving ancient knowledge and water practices to protect their way of life and restore vulnerable mountain ecosystems. 

During the Quenua Ryami Festival, Indigenous communities in the Cusco region of Peru plant tens of thousands of quenua seedlings a day on the steep slopes of the Andes. Quenua trees are fast-growing, resistant to cold winters and can survive altitudes of up to 4,500 metres above sea level.

In addition to regulating the climate and preventing erosion, what makes these trees so invaluable is their ability to store and filter the water that feeds springs and wetlands downstream. As climate change disrupts rainfall patterns in the Andes, the trees are helping residents and ecosystems to become more resilient. 

Although climate change is a relatively new challenge, Indigenous communities have long understood the importance of carefully managing water in this rugged landscape. The Incas developed an ingenious system of qochas or ponds to regulate their water supplies. Some of the ponds were designed to capture water during the short rainy season for use in dry periods. Other ponds allowed water to seep slowly through the soil, recharging aquifers and keeping vegetation for livestock green.  

This system is now being revived to complement the communities’ tree-planting efforts. “It’s a beautiful practice that contributes to reforesting the headwaters of the Cusco mountains and ensures access to water for agriculture during the dry season,” says Lima-based photographer Musuk Nolte, who is documenting the communities’ progress in Seeds of Water.

He hopes his project, which is ongoing, shows positive solutions to water issues and amplifies the ancient knowledge of Indigenous people in the fight against climate change.

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Planting quenua trees high in the mountains during the annual Quenua Ryami Festival.

Reforestation with quenua promotes water infiltration into the subsoil, boosting the presence of water during dry seasons. It also purifies the air of carbon dioxide, and contributes to restoring the balance of the high Andean forest ecosystem.

Residents of Patacancha rest after leading a pack of llamas loaded with quenua seedlings to the top of a mountain for planting.

Unloading the quenua seedlings. The trees are originally endemic to the Andean highlands but use as timber and fuel has led to significant deforestation.
The villagers of Patacancha carry bundles of quenua seedlings up to the highlands, where they will be planted at an altitude of over 4800 metres above sea level.
Indigenous communities living here always carefully cultivated sustainable water practices, digging large ponds high in the mountains to store water in the rainy season. Planting quenua seedlings complements this ancestral tradition.
The entire community of Abra Malaga gets in on the planting.
Aerial image showing the scale of the quenua tree planting operation in the community of Patacancha.
Residents of Patacancha taking a break.
Patacancha villagers share a meal after planting the quenua seedlings. This activity is carried out under the ‘Minka’ tradition – an ancient Inca tradition where the entire community joins forces in a collective effort.

A bag filled with quenua seedlings.

Close-up of a quenua seedling before planting.

peruvian mountains
View of the mountain range from the summit of Abra Malaga.
planting season in peru

Reinaldo, a 13-year-old boy, is dressed as a Huallata, a bird that lives near rivers and is believed to be a sign of a good planting season.

A group from the Quelcanca community provides a musical accompaniment to the planting.

Community members of Quelcanca caught in a downpour on the way back to their village after planting over 20,000 bushes. The journey takes more than three hours.
turning trees into water
Mothers also join in, carrying their babies in traditional ‘lliqllas’.

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