March 2017

White paint on trees:
Protection or harm?

White painted trees are to be seen most places in South America and are a well-known part of the larger cities' scenery. But have you ever stopped and thought about why?

By: Rina Nidam Møller
Projects Abroad Volunteer

Photos by: Rina Nidam Møller

When travelling in South America, either as a tourist passing through the country or as a local going to work, one cannot help but notice the many different species of trees that cover the city scenery. Green trees in the middle of larger cities are always a lovely sight, but in South American cities, most trees have more than just their natural loveliness, which draws attention.

Their trunks are painted white.

The trees are painted from the bottom of the stems to around waist height or a bit higher. The thickness of paint on the trees differs, as it depends on how old the paint is and also the height of the tree. Though a different sight for a foreigner, this unusual way of decorating the trees does not seem to draw attention from the locals. They simply pass by or sit on benches in deep conversation, giving no indication of noticing the many white painted trunks that surround them. However, if you do stop them on their way or politely break into their conversation to inquire if they know why this is done to the trees, they will gladly give you an answer. However, the answers they will give you most certainly will not be the same. Some will say that it´s to protect the trees from insects eating the bark. Others will say it is how it has always been. Others again will simply not know. Turning to the tourists, the question will not be better answered. Here some will also not know and others will link the painting of the trees with their experience of the "chaotic traffic" and explain it "as a way to keep the cars inside the road."

Though it is understandable that tourists think it has something to do with traffic, since a lot of the trees are located near the street, this have nothing to do with the case. Instead, the explanation from the locals, who explained it as a way to protect the trees from insects, actually is a part of the correct answer. But there is more to the case. Painting the trunks of the trees is an old and multifunctional method used to protect the trees in various ways.

"El blanqueado del tronco de los árboles," is in fact done to protect the trees from ants, bores, and other insects that will try to eat the trees.

According to Eduardo Felix Pire, an independent environmental researcher, the white painting of the tree trunks, or as it is said in Spanish "El blanqueado del tronco de los árboles," is in fact done to protect the trees from ants, bores, and other insects that will try to eat the trees. The paint's chemicals will burn the insect if they try to crawl onto the tree and will scare them away. The painting, he explains, is also said to protect the trees from diseases and from animals, who will destroy the trees' bark while trying to sharpen their claws. In some areas of South America, the method is even used to protect the trees from climate change that occurs when the seasons change. His research even points at a possible aesthetic explanation. Painting the trunks of the trees simply gives the trees an aesthetic function, because it gives the impression that they are taken well care of. But are they?

Though the general idea and willingness to protect the trees comes from good intentions, the painting of them does not come without certain consequences. Eduardo Felix Pire's research also looks further into the negatives and possible damages which are associated to the use of this method. One of the possible problems connected to the use of this method is associated to its execution. The paint covers the bark and this has consequences. Trees, like any other plant, needs to breathe. Some trees have stems with photosynthetic abilities, so when their trunks are painted, this ability is reduced. Not only does this affect the trees negatively, but it also affects the environment. When the trees' photosynthetic abilities are reduced, it means that the trees' ability to absorb carbon dioxide from their surroundings is reduced as well. Therefore, the carbon dioxide levels in their surroundings will rise and create a negative impact on the environment. Another consequence of using the method is associated with the paints' chemical composition. Today, most of the paint used to paint the tree trunks is lime based instead of latex based, all to prevent or at least minimize the aforementioned problem. Though this might solve one problem, it also creates another. When it rains, some of the paint, if not all, will wash off the trees and permeate into the soil. When this happens, it changes the soil's PH value. This change will affect the trees' roots and make it difficult for them to absorb nutrients form the soil. Here one might argue that it does not rain much in South America, but it still does sometimes, and at times it even pours down relentlessly. Besides, the rain has more than just this particular negative effect.

Today, most of the paint used to paint the tree trunks is lime based instead of latex based, all to prevent or at least minimize the aforementioned problem.

Though not actually harming the trees themselves, the rain will affect their aesthetic appearances. When the rain washes off the paint from the trees, it makes them look weather-beaten and create an impression of the trees being neglected and unattended. This might seem as a silly problem, but for some locals it is important that their city looks presentable due to their pride for their city; additionally, it is a problem when it comes to tourism. The logic goes like this: the prettier the cities are, the more tourists will visit. Therefore, following this logic, trees that look neglected and unattended will affect tourism by making the town look less attractive. It is simple as that.

Now the question remains: why do people still use this method if it harms the trees and affects not only their chances of survival, but also those of the environment? Is it because it does more good than harm? The question still remains open, but one thing is for certain: the trees still stand, they still grow, and their trunks are still covered with a white layer of paint.

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