Celebrating South America's Historic Olive Trees

The organization Sudoliva documents and preserves historic olive trees which tell the story of the European colonization of Latin America.
El Señor de Ocurica heritage olive tree, Valle de Azapa, Arica, Chile (Photo: Eliete Vera)
By Daniel Dawson
Dec. 7, 2023 16:59 UTC

While the olive tree is widely asso­ci­ated with the Mediterranean basin, it also has deep roots in the Americas.

The first olive trees arrived on the con­ti­nents with Spanish mis­sion­ar­ies, estab­lish­ing a foothold in many for­mer colonies, from Argentina to California.

However, the his­tory of these cen­turies-old olive trees in South America has been largely for­got­ten with an esti­mated 70 per­cent of them hav­ing been removed to plant other crops.

See Also:Centuries-Old Groves Restored and Harvested at Trajan’s Historic Home

Sudoliva, an orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to doc­u­ment­ing and pre­serv­ing cen­te­nar­ian trees in the Americas and pro­mot­ing a con­ti­nen­tal olive oil cul­ture, is work­ing to change this at the sec­ond edi­tion of its her­itage olive tree con­test.

Founder Gianfranco Vargas told Olive Oil Times that the event is an aca­d­e­mic and cul­tural ini­tia­tive cre­ated in 2017 that seeks to pre­serve healthy cen­te­nar­ian trees in the olive-grow­ing regions of the Americas.


Gianfranco Vargas with the centenarian tree planted by San Martin de Porres in Lima, Peru (Photo: Eliete Vera)

Trees are nom­i­nated for the com­pe­ti­tion and assessed by a panel of judges based on their size, health and age, which is deter­mined using his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments and the non-inva­sive Santander Method.

Santander Method

Developed by the pres­i­dent of Santander Bank, who is an avid mil­lenary olive tree col­lec­tor, the Santander Method is a non-inva­sive pro­ce­dure to esti­mate olive tree age. The method uses lasers to mea­sure the radii and diam­e­ters of the olive tree from var­i­ous points and uses this data to esti­mate for how long the tree has been grow­ing.

However, Vargas said the most impor­tant cri­te­rion is the cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of the cen­te­nar­ian olive tree in the region.

The big win­ner from this year’s con­test was the Savona Heritage olive tree located in the Azapa Valley of north­ern Chile. Based on his­tor­i­cal data, it was prob­a­bly planted more than 450 years ago and is con­sid­ered one of the old­est olive trees in South America,” Vargas said.

Indeed, his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments show the tree was planted in 1550, a decade before it was thought olive trees arrived in South America.

Having this data, it is pos­si­ble that olive trees were planted in the region at that time, pre­ced­ing what his­tory tells of the entry of the olive tree to Peru, Chile and Argentina,” he said.

The com­pe­ti­tion also rec­og­nized an olive tree planted in Mexico City that is thought to be one of the old­est in the Americas.


Jorge Lombardi Arata with the Savona Heritage olive tree in Chile’s Azapa Valley (Photo: Eliete Vera)

According to his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments, [the Tláhuac Heritage olive tree] was prob­a­bly planted by mis­sion­ary Martín de Valencia and may be one of the first olive trees planted on the American con­ti­nent, at almost 500 years old,” Vargas said.

Based on his research, Vargas said olive trees were brought to the New World for reli­gious rea­sons by Spanish mis­sion­ar­ies.

As a result, cen­te­nar­ian trees can be found across the con­ti­nent at the site of his­toric mis­sions, includ­ing in the rain­for­est of east­ern Peru and the moun­tains of Colombia.


Many archives of reli­gious orders indi­cate requests for olive oil with urgency because the holi­est sacra­ment for Catholics is a lamp of the taber­na­cle, which rep­re­sents the pres­ence of God,” Vargas said.

The churches said, we need olive oil; we need to plant olive trees; we need this prod­uct because oth­er­wise we do not have the pres­ence of God,’” he added.

Commercial olive cul­ti­va­tion began later in south­ern Peru and north­ern Chile, where the trees thrived in the cli­mate and soil. Known as Botija olives in Peru and Azapa olives in Chile, the fruit was har­vested when mature and became an inte­gral part of the local food cul­ture.

See Also:Making Award-Winning Olive Oil from California’s Centenarian Trees

According to Vargas, South America’s cen­te­nar­ian trees also tell the story of the inequal­ity that plagued the con­ti­nent.

Since the first trees were brought for reli­gious pur­poses, the Spanish crown pro­hib­ited indige­nous peo­ple and, later, enslaved Africans from tend­ing to them. However, this changed with the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of trees.

For this pur­pose, Sudoliva rec­og­nized the Don Eulogio Baltazar Chanes Heritage olive tree, also located in Azapa, to pre­vent the region’s legacy of inequal­ity from being for­got­ten.

The Don Eulogio Baltazar Chanes Heritage olive tree from Azapa was also rec­og­nized, where there was a very impor­tant hacienda ini­tially worked by native or indige­nous slaves and later worked by slaves of African descents,” Vargas said.

The idea is that we keep this his­tory alive,” he added. Our next objec­tive after the con­test is to make rules or laws in their favor.”


Sudoliva judges measure trees and use historical documents to confirm their age. (Photo: Eliete Vera)

Since 2017, Sudoliva has cat­a­loged 51 cen­te­nar­ian trees in the Americas and has worked with gov­ern­ments in Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Peru on leg­is­la­tion to pro­tect the trees.

In Peru, we already have the first law from the pre­vi­ous con­test that pro­tects the cen­turies-old olive trees in the Moquegua region,” Vargas said.

In Chile, based on this con­test, we have already had con­tact last week with law­mak­ers from the Arica region to make a law to pro­tect the olive trees of the Azapa Valley,” he added.

Sudoliva is also work­ing with gov­ern­ments in Mexico and Argentina to pro­tect cen­te­nar­ian trees in both coun­tries.

Another prong of Sudoliva’s strat­egy is to help farm­ers and other locals who care for the cen­te­nar­ian trees develop gas­tro­nomic and cul­tural tourism around the trees.

Since many trees were removed for eco­nomic rea­sons, it stands to rea­son that cre­at­ing eco­nomic value is one way to ensure their pro­tec­tion.

We want it to be a cen­te­nary olive tree route,’ he said. That is the work being done so that this tree route is ulti­mately linked to two aspects, the reli­gious aspect and the gas­tro­nomic aspect, with the gas­tro­nomic aspect based on each coun­try’s regional cui­sine.”


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