Lima, Aug 13 (efe-epa).- The cinchona tree helped to save millions of lives when its bark was used to produce the anti-malarial medication quinine.
The tropical Andean forest plant has been used by native people for centuries for its medicinal properties and was harvested almost to exhaustion in colonial times to treat malaria.
Now hydroxychloroquine, a synthetic modification of quinine, is being used as an unproven treatment for Covid-19, Peru’s national tree is under threat of extinction again.
It has been endorsed by politicians including United States President Donald Trump and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro despite its dubious effectiveness.
Although hydroxychloroquine is not the same as quinine, a naturally occurring compound found in the tree’s bark, an increasing number of people have tried to harvest it from these endangered plants.
Forestry engineer and cinchona specialist Alejandro Gómez tells Efe that during the pandemic machetes have been used to illegally extract quinine, which causes huge damage to the trees.
Peru is home to 19 of the 24 varieties of cinchona in the world but only one variety is protected by law and cannot be felled.
It is unknown how many specimens are left standing as there is no national inventory.
Deforestation is the species’ greatest threat, especially from migratory agriculture which sees forests cleared through burning and felling and which also contributes to global warming.
There is also a lack of knowledge about the cinchona, which is sometimes mistaken for a ficus despite featuring on the country’s coat of arms.
“What we lack is proper knowledge, and there is a saying that says that what is not known, is not wanted, and what is not wanted, is not defended,” Gomez says.
“That’s why for us to defend something we have to want it, and to want it, we have to know it.”
Cinchona is known for its elongated and sparse crown.
It can grow up to 25 meters tall and its trunk can reach more than one meter in diameter.
Its leaves are green but turn reddish when they are about to fall and have a pointy shape.
In addition to the medicinal properties of its bark, the tree is also used to make tonic water and its wood is prized for cabinetmaking.
Gómez believes that 2021, when Peru will celebrate 200 years of independence, is the ideal occasion for Peruvians to rediscover their national tree.
“The bicentennial offers us an unbeatable opportunity to recover the emblematic tree that was practically forgotten years ago despite its medicinal properties,” he adds.
“The cinchona is culture, it is history and it is medicine. We have to combine efforts to reach a successful conclusion in the year 2021.”
One of the sanctuaries for the cinchona, called cascarilla in Spanish, is La Cascarilla farmhouse, in the Cajamarca region.