When guano imperialists ruled the earth

The Industrial Revolution spelled doom for Peru's finest organic fertilizer. But bird dung will fly again!

Published February 29, 2008 8:41PM (EST)

Because no day is complete without further investigation of fertilizer's historic role in the evolution of the global economy, How the World Works intends to brighten your Friday with some deep thoughts on bird poop.

Specifically, Peruvian guano.

Glenn Davis Stone, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, whose fascinating work on the uptake of genetically modified cotton by Indian farmers has been featured here previously in "Ganesh and Brahma Bow to a New God" and "The Napster Pirates of Transgenic Biotech," writes in to remind us of President Millard Fillmore's State of the Union address in 1850.

Peruvian guano has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that it is the duty of the Government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price.

From which followed the passage of the Guano Islands Act, which authorized U.S. imperialist expansion in search of guano.

The first clause of said Act:

Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.

The Incas are known to have exploited offshore guano resources for fertilizer, but the mid-nineteenth century saw the true heyday of Peruvian guano, as farmers around the world discovered that the excretions of the Peruvian Booby and the Guanay Cormorant were a superb, relatively odorless, source of phosphorus and nitrogen. So began "the guano rush." In 1858, Great Britain alone imported 300,000 tons of Peruvian guano, mostly for the purpose of turnip farming. The British Empire, in fact, completely monopolized the Peruvian guano trade, causing much gnashing of teeth and hardship for American farmers and prospective fertilizer-importing entrepreneurs. The Guano Act, therefore, was aimed at helping American companies compete in this nascent era of globalization. Around 60 islands, mostly in the Caribbean and Pacific, ended up being acquired.

For Peru, the golden age of guano -- from 1840-1880 -- was a tremendous boon, allowing the state to pay off crippling foreign debt. During that 40 year period the country exported 20 million tons of guano, earning around $2 billion in profit. Unfortunately, as W. Mathew wrote in "Peru and the British Guano Market" (Economic History Review, 1970), Peru immediately began again to borrow recklessly on international markets, and successively hiked up the price of guano to pay for the new loans.

This was not a prudent move. In the United Kingdom, where the Industrial Revolution was at full bore, chemists were busily unlocking the secrets of how to manufacture fertilizer. Price hikes for Peruvian guano offered a kick in the pants, as Antony Gibbs & Sons, the British firm that owned the rights to the Peruvian guano trade, were all too cognizant.

Mathew writes:

From the very earliest days of their involvement in the trade, the British guano consignees, Antony Gibbs & Sons, were aware that a watchful eye would have to be kept on the price level lest too much encouragement were given to their factory-based rivals. Competition, they wrote in 1843, "is our chief danger for it is plain agricultural chemistry is in its infancy, and it is impossible to say what discoveries in it may be made."

Of course, even without a price surge, Peruvian guano's days were numbered. Mathew again:

An all-purpose fertilizer, by its very nature, could not hope to dominate the market indefinitely. Developments in soil and plan chemistry, increasing sophistication in fertilizer manufacture, growing scientific awareness in the farming community, and increased interest in the subject of manuring stimulated by guano's success all combined, inevitably, to widen the range of special products appearing on the market and, accordingly, to reduce the area of the market which Peru could hope to retain. [James] Johnston [a professor of chemistry at Durham] remarked, ominously for Peru, when guano first appeared on the British market, that its introduction would "prove a great national service, if it shall teach us to imitate so valuable a natural production."

Yes indeed, and if one accepts that synthetic fertilizer has been critical to avoiding a global Malthusian die-off, then billions of people around the world can be thankful that we are not solely dependent on Booby shit for our phosphate requirements. Because there just isn't enough of it.

The price of Peruvian guano collapsed as a result of the industrial production of "superphosphate" and ammonia in the U.K., sending the Peruvian economy into a tailspin. But Peru continued to export guano at such a rate that by 1910 it had severely depleted its national resources. Bird poop that has accumulated over thousands of years cannot be replaced in a season or two.

But, intriguingly, Peru's guano travails were not all doom and gloom. According to David Duffy, a professor of botany at the University of Hawaii, the Peruvian government recognized the ecological disaster that it had created and responded by forming the Guano Administration Company, which Duffy calls "one of the first and most effective examples of sustainable exploitation of a natural population by a government." Guards were placed on each guano island to protect the birds from being disturbed, and guano harvests were strictly regulated.

Alas, if only we could say the story ended happily there! Peru's more recent fiscal and political agony, combined with severe overfishing of the once-vast schools of anchoveta that served as the primary food of the guano birds, has once again led to a drastic ecological consequences. Bird populations have plummeted. As Duffy writes, this is too bad for Peru, because, the circle has come round, and Peruvian guano is again a hot commodity, considered now to be one of the world's premier organic fertilizers.

I suppose that last point would make a nice place to stop, but I can't restrain myself from noting that David Duffy dedicated his paper, "The Guano Islands of Peru: the Once and Future Management of a Renewable Resource," to George Evelyn Hutchinson, whose classic 554 page work, "The Biogeochemistry of Vertebrate Excretion," published in 1950, "forms the basis for all research on the ecology of guano."

Technical reasons prevented me from downloading this masterpiece, originally published by the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, but I did find a review that appeared in the Journal of Animal Ecology in 1951, written by one Richard S. Miller, who manages a surprisingly blogospheric tone of snark for his day.

In spite of its profound title this is a study of aspects of the production, deposition and chemistry of "guano" and although eighty pages are devoted to guano formed by cave-dwelling bats the primary emphasis is on guano produced by sea-birds....

This work succeeds in compiling a vast number of facts documented by over 950 references, and it contains valuable information for ecologists. The stated purpose of the survey to correlate "available information on all aspects of the interrelations of biology and geochemistry" is, however, exceedingly ambitious, and although Prof. Hutchinson has performed a feat of scholarly research, the resulting chaos of fact makes this a cumbersome monograph for practical use."

Excessive ambition in the service of guano ecology is no vice, we say here at How the World Works. And a chaos of fact? What's not to like?

UPDATE: One Salon reader informs us that in 1972 he did the sound for, and narrated, an Encyclopedia Britannica film tribute to the Booby, "The Bird Who is a Clown." Another reader explains why guano wars led to Bolivia's enduring anger at Chile.

Thank you, thank you all.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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