Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/August 1880/The Cinchona-Forests of South America

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IN the month of June, 1879, I visited some of the principal cinchona districts of South America. The following notes are based upon my own observation and information obtained from native bark dealers and gatherers. I shall speak more particularly of the cinchona-forests of Ecuador, once the only source of bark, and still yielding large quantities. The bark territory is divided into the district known as Bosque de (forest of) Guaranda and Bosque de Loja.

The Bosque de Guaranda is a vast forest, extending from about 1° north to 2° south; it covers with its rich verdure the western slopes of Chimborazo, and the outlying ranges of the Cordilleras to more than ten thousand feet above the sea-level, encompassing within its higher limits the picturesque city of Guaranda. This district is the source of most of the barks exported from Guayaquil, and has never yet been fully explored. Guayaquil, the main shipping port of Ecuador, is a city of thirty thousand inhabitants, situated on the Guayaquil River, sixty miles from its mouth. The river is navigable to this point by large ocean-steamers. The southern extremity of the Bosque de Guaranda is reached at Pueblo Nuevo, a small town on one of the eastern branches of the Guayaquil River, about seventy-five miles from this town. A small steam-launch plies between the places.

The elder cinchona district, Bosque de Loja, was the source of the first barks taken to Europe. It extends from 2° to 5° south, to the boundary-line of Peru, and covers the western slope of the Cordilleras below the timber-line. This district has been worked constantly for over two hundred years, and the quantity of bark it furnishes to the Guayaquil market has fallen off in recent years.

At Pueblo Nuevo, mules and servants were engaged for the journey to the mountains. Wheeled vehicles are useless, for want of roads, and all transportation is done on the backs of beasts or Indians. Before reaching the highlands, forests of ivory-nut palms with their long, graceful, feather-like branches, and scattered trees of Cinchona magnifolia, a valueless species, are met with. Occasionally we found clearings, with extensive haciendas of cacao, coffee, sugar-cane, and anatto. The farther we got into the higher mountains, the more the difficulties and dangers increased, and at last a point was reached where the mules had to be abandoned, and, after continually ascending and descending steep places, a point on one of the great spurs was reached, whence was seen an undulating sea of wilderness as far as the eye could reach—a gorgeous expanse of matted verdure; here and there tall, slender columns of gigantic palms pierced the forest-roof, and gracefully waved aloft their drooping branches and leaves; and now and then a huge bank of clouds drifted up, like a Newfoundland fog, curtaining the grand scene for a few moments, and then quickly passing off. Our cascarillero soon descried some cinchonas in the distance by their glistening leaves, which reflected brightly the vertical rays of the sun.

This characteristic reflex of the foliage, with the bright, roseate tints of the flowers, and in some species also of the leaves, affords the means of discovering the cinchonas among the mass of the forest giants. The glossy leaf of the India-rubber tree is easily mistaken for the cinchona, but skilled cascarilleros are usually able to distinguish, at a great distance, varieties by the color of the flowers and general appearance of the tree.

At the bottom of a ravine we followed a small stream, till suddenly our guide shouted, "Cascarilla!" and we were gladdened by the sight of a number of fair-sized trees of Cinchona succirubra.

The cinchonas seek the most secluded and inaccessible depths of the forests; they are rarely grouped in large numbers or close together, but are distributed in more or less irregular, scattering patches. The older trees are grand and handsome, forty to eighty feet in height, trunks straight, branches regular, leaves evergreen (six to ten inches long), of a dark-green color, sometimes tinged with crimson, the upper surface of an almost waxy luster, flowers in terminal panicles of bright rose-tint and of an agreeable fragrance. The bark of the large trees is usually completely covered with mosses of the most delicate, lace-like texture, interspersed with lustrous, variegated lichens and diminutive, trailing ferns, while air-plants and vines in profusion entwine themselves among the branches of the trees, and hang in graceful festoons, forming hammocks, in which clusters an abundance of parasitic growth, particularly of the orchid family. Vegetable growths develop with wonderful luxuriance beneath the interlacing branches, which permit but little access of sunlight underneath. Everything is saturated and dripping with moisture; the very air we breathed seemed a clammy, aromatic vapor. In these vast forests atmospheric changes are continuous and abrupt; drifting banks of gloomy clouds are followed by glaring sunshine, and then tempestuous showers—all in rapid succession. The temperature is more even, averaging about 65° Fahr., seldom exceeding 80° or falling below 45°, the altitude being about six thousand feet.

To discover cinchona-tree patches in the forests, the cascarilleros ascend such high spurs as command a good view of the surrounding valleys and mountain-slopes. After discovering a forest that indicates sufficient value to render it profitable to work, a certain limit of forest land is condemned and a claim made to the Government; upon the payment of a certain fee, a title is granted on very much the same plan as those upon mining claims in the United States. The next step of the cascarillero is to apply to a bark-dealer for funds with which to work the claim: if he can present satisfactory evidence that his forest is a profitable one, sufficient money is usually advanced, the merchant holding the title as security, with an agreement that the bark shall be delivered and sold to him exclusively; sometimes the dealers purchase claims outright, and employ men to work them. For many years the bark-trade of Bolivia was monopolized by the Government; the cascarilleros were obliged to sell their bark to a bank established for the purpose, and receive for it whatever price the officials chose to pay. This system was conducted with such flagrant injustice and dishonesty that it was finally broken up. Now, each republic levies a duty on all barks exported.

The season for bark-gathering begins about the 1st of August (in some forests as early as June), and lasts till October or November; during these months the bark cleaves most readily, and, on account of less rainfall, the forest is more accessible. It is next to impossible to enter it during the wet season. A master cascarillero with his gang (sometimes several hundred peons) establishes a main camp in the forest, on an elevated point where there is an opening in the forest, so as to allow the bark as much exposure as possible. The peons are formed into squads, and scatter through the forest, establishing small camps. When they are ready for work, and the bark-gathering begins, one or two from each division seek out the trees, while others cut down and peel them. The trees are first decorticated from the ground up as far as can be reached, and then, after felling and removing the clinging vines and mosses, the rough, outer bark is beaten off with a club or mallet. The bark is then cut around the trunk in sections of two to three feet, and longitudinally in strips of six to eight inches in width, then removed with the blade of a machete.

When first taken from the tree the inner surface of cinchona-bark shows a handsome cream-tint, but, on exposure to the atmosphere, rapidly darkens to a dirty red. The barks are usually taken to the main camp for drying and storage. The thick bark of the trunk requires great care in drying, because of the excessive dampness of the atmosphere, which sometimes necessitates the use of artificial heat to prevent molding; it is piled up in tiers with sticks between the layers to allow free circulation of air, and heavy stones or fragments of rocks are placed on top to flatten it. The thin bark from the young trees and small limbs dries more rapidly, and rolls itself up into quills.

One of the greatest difficulties connected so far with the gathering of cinchona-bark is that of transporting it to the coast at the end of the season. It is roughly sorted, mainly according to the part of the tree from which it is obtained, and packed in bales of about one hundred and fifty pounds each; the Indians carry these bales on their backs a distance of sometimes hundreds of miles to a transfer warehouse, whence it can be transported by mules to the nearest shipping place. The worn appearance of most flat bark of commerce is due to the long friction which it undergoes during transportation.

The Indians, in carrying bark, bear the main weight of the burden upon their heads, by placing over the forehead a strip of rawhide to which are attached cords of the same material lashed to the bale; they stoop forward to maintain their equilibrium, and use long Alpine sticks to steady and aid them in ascending or descending dangerous cliffs. The skeletons of hundreds of wretched peons can be seen in the far depths of the chasms below of some of the older trails, bleaching beneath the tropical sun, whose earthly toils were ended by a misstep on the verge of one or the other frightful precipice, and now and then ghastly human skulls are seen placed in niches or crevices in the projecting rocks of the mountain-sides along the narrow passage, suggestive of lurking dangers. Another fearful terror to the Indians is the malarial fevers, to which they quickly yield, owing to great exposure and want of nutritious food. It was said that, during a recent severe malarial season, as many as twenty-five per cent, of the Indians employed in one district died from fevers before the harvest was completed, and it is only by extreme poverty, or obligations as peons, that they are induced to enter the bark forests to encounter the dangers for the meager pittance of ten to twenty-five cents per day.

The final sorting and classifying of bark are done at the main store-houses at the coast, where it is closely packed in ceroons of previously moistened cowhides (hair-side out), or in bales of heavy sacking. There it is that most of the adulteration is done. The admixture of inferior barks with higher grades is not so much the result of ignorance as sometimes supposed, for the bark-dealers are generally very expert in determining the different varieties and estimating the values of barks. Yet, strange to say, very few bark-merchants ever become wealthy.

All barks enter the market bearing certain brands; these brands used to gain a reputation according to the quality of bark they represent, but frequent occurrence of sophistication of reputed brands with inferior grades of bark has brought on the result that large buyers do not any more purchase cinchona-barks without first making careful assays, but even with this precaution they are sometimes deceived, on account of the adroit manner in which the barks are mixed.

The points of shipment for Ecuadorian barks are Guayaquil and Esmeraldes; for the barks of northern Peru, Payta; from southern Peru and Bolivia, Arica, Islay, Iquiqui, and Callao. A limited quantity of Bolivian bark is exported by way of the Amazon to Para. The greater portion of the bark produced in the northern and eastern districts of the United States of Colombia reaches the market by way of Carthagena and Baranquilla on the Caribbean coast, but that collected in the state of New Granada is mostly shipped from Buenaventura on the Pacific coast. Venezuela furnishes very little bark, and that is sent from Puerto Cabello.

As regards the prospects for future supplies of cinchona-barks from the native forests of South America, the outlook is exceedingly discouraging; the greatly increased use of cinchona alkaloids during the last few years, with the consequent demand for larger supplies of bark, has caused a very thorough working of the old forests, and energetic seeking for new ones. The discoveries of paying forests are becoming more and more rare every year, and the new forests are found at greater distances from the shipping ports, and are more difficult of access.

The tract of country yielding the cinchona is not so unlimited as some writers would lead us to believe, nor is the supply inexhaustible; it is a fact recognized by natives and dealers, who are well informed about the extent and resources of the cinchona-bearing districts, that if the present ruinous system of destroying the trees is continued, and no effort made to propagate new growths, they will, before many years, be practically exterminated from their native soil.

With the abundance of seeds yielded by the cinchonas, one would naturally expect young plants to spring up in great numbers, but such is not the case; the light-winged seeds mostly fall upon and adhere to the ever-moist foliage, where they quickly germinate and decay; or, if, perchance, they fall to the ground, it is exceedingly difficult to gain a rooting, as the soil is covered to a depth of ten to twenty inches with loose, decaying leaves. Beyond all doubt, the cinchonas might be successfully cultivated in their native country, especially in the exhausted forests; but the natives show no enterprise, and foreigners receive no encouragement from the governments to attempt it. Two Germans have recently made a venture at cultivating cinchonas near the city of La Paz, Bolivia, but as yet the plants are not sufficiently developed to determine the results.

The almost continuous revolutions and wars in those South American countries so unsettle everything as to render investments hazardous; the roads and ports are sometimes blockaded for months, preventing the importation of goods or shipment of barks, often entailing heavy losses upon the dealers.

In case of war or revolution, every Indian peon is subject to military duty, and, if required, is forced to enter the army; sometimes it is impossible to obtain sufficient cascarilleros to make it pay to enter the forests; hence it is that political troubles in those countries so greatly influence the price of bark and quinine.

The efforts of the Dutch and British Governments in taking energetic and extensive measures, by establishing vast plantations of cinchona-trees in their eastern colonies, to insure against the possibility of the world's bark-supply becoming exhausted, are therefore of paramount importance; and it is a matter of general concern and gratification that their experiments are proving from year to year more successful, yielding an excellent, ever-increasing supply of bark, mostly rich in valuable cinchona alkaloids.