October 7, 2010

Bird Guano Industry Flourishing In Peru

Bird excrement is once again prized as gold in Peru as a handful of islands off the nation's Pacific coast are literally covered in tons and tons of guano.

"It is a natural, organic fertilizer and Peru is the only place in the world that it is exploited commercially in this way," Rodolfo Beltran, director of Agrorural, Peru's rural development agency, told AFP News.

"It has been a historical commodity in Peru and now it's making a comeback. It has a great future."

Peru is the number one producer of guano, ahead of Chile and Namibia.

Guano production took off from the 1840s and 1880s, which then accounted for most of money available in Peru's national budget. 

Thousands of Chinese laborers, convicts and deserters died extracting guano.  Peru and Chile fought over the commodity during the War of the Pacific in 1879 through 1883.

Peru is taking a more sustainable approach to this oddest of natural resources.  Beltran told AFP "It's a treasure of Peru, we are the only one in the world to have that."

It all starts with looking after the birds; the Guanay cormorant, the Peruvian booby, the pelican and the marine ecosystem in which they thrive.

In Guanape Sur, one of the 21 islands three miles from the coast of Lambayeque in northern Peru, there are over half a million birds.

The birds own the skies and compete for almost every inch of the tiny island for nesting space.  The by-product is thousands of tons of guano.

About 280 laborers do the backbreaking work of collecting and bagging the guano into 110-pound sacks to be winched onto waiting barges and towed to Salaverry, which is a port of the northern Peruvian city of Trujillo.

The scientists expect to collect about 23,000 tons of it this year.

Guano can be sent abroad for organic fertilizers where it can command a high price tag.

Over 200,000 tons of it were exported a year in the past and distributed to about a million small organic farmers.

Most workers pack up and head home for a break after working for eight months on the islands.  A guard stays behind to protect the birds and their waste from poachers.

"It gets lonely, as you miss your family," Juan Mendez told AFP. "But it is actually a nice job working with the birds."

"The poachers can kill up to 200 birds in a single night," he said. "They stun them with bright torch light and use a stick to kill them. Then they sell their meat... in cheap coastal markets."

The seabird population has doubled in the past five years to about five million. 

The birds are still threatened by overfishing and the uncertain impact of climate change.

The birds rely on Peru's coastal waters, which contain about 80 percent of the world's biomass of anchovy and enables them to breed in such numbers.

However, the Humboldt current is crucial for the birds as it pushes cold water from Antarctica up to the equator.

Mendez told AFP that during this time, tens of thousands of seabird chicks or eggs perish.


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