Tuesday, 2 September 2008


photos by lali cienfuegos


Surging world prices for synthetic fertilizers and organic foods are shifting attention to guano, an organic fertilizer once found in abundance on these islands off the coast of Peru. Once the cause of pacific wars, its rising demand is causing a dilemma for the government – on whether what is left should be sold abroad or kept in the country.

Two hours by boat, across from the port of Trujillo, in Northern Peru, men on the island of Guañape Norte begin their day raking and collect bird dung. They live secluded from the rest of the world, on different islands at time, under working conditions that have changed little from a hundred years ago. No women or alcohol are allowed on the island. They often they stay for four months at a time, returning home for a few days. For most of the year however they are here on the islands.

An exceptionally dry climate preserves the droppings built over years of up to one metre. Over the past decades industrialized fishing of anchovy as well as the effects of ‘El Niño’ have considerably lowered bird levels and hence the amount of collectable bird turd. While the bird population has climbed to 4 million from 3.2 million in the past two years, that figure still pales in comparison with the 60 million birds at the height of the first guano rush in the mid 19th Century.

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