A dry, sandy outpost far off the Peruvian coast, the island of Lobos De Tierra was once home to a booming private business: Shoveling bird poop (locally known as guano, from the Quechua word ‘wanu’, which translated as “the droppings of sea birds”) into sacks, which was then delivered to the mainland and sold as fertilizer. The half-dozen buildings and rail track that facilitated this particular operation are now fallen into disrepair, abandoned a couple decades ago. We find a sole guard (Andres) watching over the island, kept company by a pet dog and tens of thousands of birds (blue footed boobies, pelicans, cormorants and more). He, his dog and hundreds of soaring birds greet us at the end of the wooden pier over which tons of sea bird droppings were once delivered from the low-lying hills to a line-up of waiting boats.
When I was in elementary school in the American Midwest, I can remember a particular social studies teacher – Mr. French – loudly pronouncing whenever we would go on a field trip and pass a particularly odiferous farm, “Smell that money!” Not yet schooled in the economy of manure, at the time I simply thought he had lost his marbles. In code, he was attempting to explain to us that animal leave behinds could be a very profitable business.
But bird poop as a boom economy? Absolutely.
Guano’s high levels of phosphorous and nitrates have long made it a fantastic fertilizer, especially along this stretch of dry coastline, since too much rainwater tends to drain its essential ingredients. The Incas were the first to collect it from this coast as a soil “enricher,” valuing it so much that anyone caught killing birds was threatened with death.
For centuries along this very coast, where islands and rocky shores were historically sheltered from humans and predators, birds and business thrived. The Guanay Cormorant was considered the most important producer, its guano judged to be richer in nitrogen than that of other seabirds. The Peruvian pelican and booby were not far behind.
Guano’s high concentration of nitrates also made it an important strategic commodity. The War of the Pacific fought between a Peru-Bolivia alliance and Chile (1879-1883) was primarily based upon Bolivia's attempt to tax Chilean guano harvesters and over control of a part of the Atacama Desert paralleling the Pacific coast (the discovery during the 1840s of the use of guano as a key ingredient in explosives made the area strategically valuable). Similarly, in 1856, the United States passed a law (The Guano Islands Act) allowing the federal government to take possession of any island containing guano, superseding any private citizen’s claim to the island, claiming its use in gun powder a national security issue.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the importance of guano declined with the rise of artificial fertilizers; today it is making something of resurgence, thanks to a boomlet in organic farming.
Though Lobos de Tierra seems a bit of a ‘dead’ place today, its handful of white-and-blue buildings faded and falling down, the island is still very much alive with animal life. Birds swoop and soar overhead, perfectly camouflaged sand-colored lizards dart underfoot. Along the surf line we find remnants of other species that call the area home, evidenced by a dozen turtle carcasses in varying stages of decay, as well as reasonably intact sea lion and dolphin skeletons. Just offshore swim a trio of humpback whales, and, its apparent even though we cannot see them, big schools of fish, judging by the feeding frenzies that take place several times during our morning exploration. As if alerted by siren, snoozing and squabbling boobies rise and dart en masse over the calm sea and simultaneously plunge – over and over and over – into what must be a huge school of passing fish.
As incredible as the birdlife is, what astounds me most as we walk the long sandy beach is the evidence of man we see everywhere, and I don’t mean what was left behind by the guano gatherers. Rather, the beach is littered with plastic water bottles, a flip-flop, a sneaker, paint cans, plastic oil bottles, plastic rope, plastic soap bottles and plastic bottle tops in every color of the rainbow, turning the otherwise monotone beachscape into an unfortunate riot of man-made color, all washed ashore from far away. In my experience these past ten years walking coastlines around the world, this is by no means unusual. Though we are a hundred miles off the coast of the South American continent, far from any kind of human population, we are still surrounded by man’s detritus. While plastic may not be the problem (man who allows it to be washed into the ocean is at fault), the fact that there is so much plastic all around us doesn’t help matters. Walking this stark beach is a powerful reminder that when we each get back home we need to recycle more, carry cloth bags to the supermarket, give up on bottled water and more.
As we walk the dock to catch the last Zodiac back to the ship, another monstrous feeding frenzy takes place just in front of us. Dive-bombing boobies and pelicans break the surface like machine-gun fire, providing us with an up-close glimpse at one of nature’s great spectacles. Of course they have no idea they are putting on a show for us; for the birds it’s simply lunchtime.