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