The Curious Case of Guano as a Staple

Peru – the heart of the Inca Empire – and thereabouts is where the potato originated, to be spread around the world after Europeans ‘discovered’ it. Off Peru’s coast a “weird trick of climate and topogrophy” created “[s]warms of anchovies (which) fed the birds that produced the guano that fertilized the fields that yielded such excellent potatoes.” (Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas, Empires of Food) So valuable was the guano on the Chincha and Lobos islands offshore Peru – which were part of that country – that “[a]s late as the nineteenth century industrial democracies [U.S. and Britain in particular] were willing to go to war to control it.”

The breadbasket of the American Midwest was particularly hungry for fertilizer. In 1850 American President Martin Fillmore declared Peruvian guano so “desirable an article to the agricultural interests of the United States” as to warrant the U.S. employing “all means properly within its power” to obtain it. In 1852 American Secretary of State Daniel Webster asserted: “It may be considered the duty of this Government to protect citizens of the United States who may visit the Lobos Islands for the purpose of obtaining guano.”

America wanted the guano but a British merchant house controlled its sale. American and British gun boats headed for Peru but diplomats managed to prevent open war. This did not stop the U.S. Congress from passing the Guano Islands Act in 1856 “explicitly granting itself the right to use military force to secure bird droppings.”

Amidst the maneovering, the guano, accumulated over thousands of year, and vital to the Incas who long used it in moderation – Ronald Wright in his Short History of Progress calls it “another gift of Inca agriculture” – was mined at an unsustainable rate, using Chinese workers more often than not kidnapped. In its time, guano was the largles export from Latin America to Europe and powered economic growth in Peru.

Artificial chemical fertilizer was developed to replace the natural, though in recent times guano has made a comeback as a fertilizer for organic foods.

(The Nobel Prize winning German chemist Fritz Haber, who invented the process to make the fertilizer, tweaked his invention so as to manufacture poison gas used by Germany against its enemies in the First World War.)

Overfishing, however, has depleted the anchovy and bird population is declining and bird droppings have dropped.

Meanwhile chemical fertilizers have provided the food that has made possible the global population explosion while, at the same time, entrenching fossil-fuel dependency and creating runoffs that are poisoning streams and rivers.

All of which is worth remembering the next time you park your car and return to find that it has been bombed by birds. Heed the Incas: scrape it off to fertilize your garden.

4 comments

  • “creating runoffs that are poisoning streams and rivers.”

    I’m pretty sure the run off of guano fertilizer would be as bad or worse then fossil fuel based fertilizer if used in the same amount. At least artificial fertilizer can be modified to reduce its harmful effects.

  • One key point about both the guano and various other resource booms in Latin America: They tended to leave devastation in their wake. There were boom towns, but overall most of the money went overseas. When the resource ran out or, as in the case of guano, was superseded, the boom towns turned into ghost towns, looted of anything valuable in them, the ostentatious churches stripped of their silver, and the population left impoverished.
    Now, oil is king. But whether those trying to stop global warming prevail or not, the writing is on the wall. Oil supply is losing ground against demand, and meanwhile renewable energy sources are steadily getting cheaper, and ways of using for transport in the form they produce (electricity) are rapidly improving. It will be less than 20 years before both solar and wind are definitively cheaper power sources than oil or even natural gas, and electric vehicles are widespread. At that point the oil boom will be over, and if Alberta does not learn to manage the resource more effectively, pocketing more royalties and using them to promote diversification in the province rather than worshiping at the altar of the boom, they are going to be left broke and with no local industry.

  • This reminds me of the Dutch tulip boom …good cautionary tale casts a lot of light on our current situation

  • Thanks Mel,

    An interesting case of waste = food and the constant linkages between nature and the economy that the staples approach can highlight.

    The guana resource itself appears quite dependent on an intricate ecosystem, that could easily be destabilized by ecological shocks (overfishing and climate change).

    The green paradigms talk about waste = food. Meaning that in nature all waste is used as a resource for other species. A green economy, might mimic this by ensuring that all industrial by-products are either re-used in industrial systems or returned as a food-source for nature (i.e. compost).

    The guano story also seems to highlight that the waste = food paradigm cannot do without another green paradigm catch-phrase of “diversity is good” – in both nature and economic systems.

    The desire to exploit the guano by foreign interests produced a series of social and political problems. Wouldn’t it have been better for domestic economies to have found their own natural fertilizers?

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