Neem (Azadirachta indica) : The “miracle” tree in Peru’s arid north (DW)

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Global Ideas

Using neem trees to combat desertification

It requires little water, grows fast and lays deep root – we’re referring to the neem. An intiative to plant the “miracle” trees in Peru’s arid north has proven to be a boon for the climate and local communities, too.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the neem tree – it’s robust, has several medicinal properties and its uses are so varied that it’s often referred to as the “village pharmacy” of South Asia. It grows across India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

The tree’s resilience is what prompted Elke Krüger to test out the species in Peru’s coastal north.

“We put it under water for several months, it can withstand temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius, and we even planted it directly on the coast in salt water,” says Krüger, who set up a non-profit organization called Plan Verde, or ”Green Plan.” And in the end, the tree survived. So did the other 200,000 neem trees that she planted in and around the city of Piura in northern Peru.

That’s a bit of a miracle in this part of the world. Not much grows along the coast of this Latin American country anymore. Its native tropical dry forest is disappearing fast, largely because the population is growing, and people increasingly depend on the land for wood and agriculture. That has taken a toll on the ground. Farmers have been struggling to deal with the dry, sandy soil that has started to resemble a desert.

Loose and sandy soil can no longer defend against storms and floods, either. Every two to seven years, Peru’s northwest coast falls victim to El Niño, a warming of the ocean waters in the Pacific. The climate phenomenon is unpredictable, bringing high and low pressure areas together with various ocean currents to create extreme weather patterns, like powerful storms and heavy rain. That further erodes valuable farm land, leaving the soil barren and the farmers desperate.

That’s where the neem tree comes in. Farmers in and around Piura have started to plant the trees around their fields. The neem tree can grow up to four meters in one year, and its roots reach deep into the earth, thus preventing erosion.

The trees also improve soil quality, and their fruits and kernels generate an oil that serves as a natural mosquito repellent and even prevents mosquito larva from growing. That quality makes neem oil a valuable weapon in areas where people are at high risk of contracting mosquito-born diseases like dengue fever or malaria.

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Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.