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Archive for April, 2010

The White Stuff: How bird-shit can change your life

April 27th, 2010 No comments

I’m coming into port at Pisco, past the Paracas Peninsula. It’s  home to a culture who created some of the finest of all pre-Columbian weavings, but I’m more interested in the bird-shit: in the guano islands that are dotted over the sea as one approaches, with frigate-birds and pelicans flying between them, over a fishing ground that even now, after the depredations of Chinese fishing tankers, is still one of the richest in the world.

It was the Incas who introduced the world to the idea of guano as a fertiliser – ‘guano’ is a Quechua word.  By the 19th century it had become a huge industry, with fortunes being made;  the Gibbs family of Tyntesfield being the most famous British example.  As with any commodity in the New World, the rights of natives were trampled in the rush to lay hands on the money.  At one point, the entire population of Easter Island was transplanted by force to work the guano fields.

Over time, the use of guano came to be replaced by the nitrates mined in neighbouring Chile – a new trade the British supported, backing Chile in the ” War of the Pacific” against Peru and Bolivia to secure their interest in the nitrate holdings.

But it is now enjoying a revival, as an organically approved fertiliser.  Every six or seven years, depending on the frequency of el Niño, the locals “harvest” their crop on three islands off the Paracas Coast, La Chincha, Ballestas and Isla Blanca, and get some 40,000 tonnes of the white stuff.  It sells at two dollars a kilo, a good commodity price, although the work needed to extract it is backbreaking and often dangerous, with ‘guano-slides’ when stacks collapse;  they bring tough miners down from the mountains to help.

It’s the guano that helps make the Pisco valley so green:  as I leave the boat and drive into the desert, an oasis appears of cotton and maize fields, with orange groves and palms dotted throughout — a vision of what organic farming can achieve.  There’s a satisfaction in feeling that something so intrinsically useless as bird-shit should yet be so useful.

In Chile after the Earthquake

April 13th, 2010 No comments

I flew into Santiago airport with some trepidation – arriving just days after one of the world’s largest recorded earthquakes, at 8.8 – but it takes a while to spot any sign of damage at all.  Given that most taxi drivers can never resist a moan, mine was more concerned that the 2005 Skoda he’d just acquired had been installed with a tape rather than cd player.  ‘What is the point of that,’ he complained and apologised.  He’d wanted to play me some Iron Maiden to celebrate my common British heritage with the group.

Heading into town, we cross a few bridge-sections of road which have had to be plated together, but Santiago itself seems unmarked.  The Zócalo, the central square, is the usual picture of shoe-shine boys, old men sitting on benches and a religious nut preaching the end of the world to a disinterested audience.

In the shopping streets nearby, the atmosphere is rather as if a fire alarm had gone off in John Lewis and now everyone was back in the building and shopping.  But then the Chileans are different from the rest of South America.  As one tells me:     ‘Everyone here is middle-class –  except for the new president, Pinero, and his friends, who are filthy rich!’  Many of the more menial jobs – the maids, the cleaners, the security guards – are taken by Peruvian and Bolivian immigrants these days.

The rest of the continent make jokes about the Chileans being a nation of bland shop-keepers, from their less spicy food to the mild, more temperate climate they enjoy.  I was impressed by the resilience and pragmatism they showed in the face of the earthquake – and by the foresight with which buildings had been constructed, in the main, to withstand such huge force.  But then they have had a long time to get used to such attacks.  175 years ago, almost exactly, Charles Darwin witnessed the Chilean town of Concepción, then, as now damaged by a ferocious earthquake:  ‘the most awful yet interesting spectacle I ever beheld.’

Eating a caldillo of conger eel in the Central Market, a magnificent iron-framed building erected by British investors in the past, I found the food was not so much bland as a balance of interesting flavours – perhaps why the Chileans have always been such natural and loyal allies of the British, from the 19th century War in the Pacific to that other 20th century War in the Atlantic, the Falklands.  We too have been accused of being a nation of shopkeepers;  though quite how we’d deal with a 8.8 earthquake, given our incapacity to handle a few wet leaves on a railway track, I’m not so sure.

written March 8 (posted late due to technical issues in posting from Pacific, as several of following posts will be as well!)