Friday, May 30, 2008

Peru and the economy of bird poop

Guano is a great mix and there is a market for it, once again. So what the heck is guano? After all, even Captain Haddock, a seasoned sailor did not know what it was (See Tintin, Prisoners of the Sun). Could it be the latest coffee fad from Starbucks? Not really! While the phrase "I would like a Tall Guano Latté to go" might sound realistic, it is quite unlikely that guano will end up in your favorite beverage! This term is used in Peru to differentiate between useless bird waste and the nutrient-rich waste of cormorants, pelicans among others. Guano is dung!

Now that you are aware of that fact lets see what is the hype about this complex substance. Guano, especially Peruvian guano is very rich in phosphorus and nitrogen in the form of ammonia. Before synthetic fertilizers were made available, natural sources were an important part of the economy of producing countries including Peru. Peruvian even fought with Spain to preserve it during the so-called "guano boom" in the 19th century. Starting in 1840 and for 30 years, 12 million tons were exported to America and Europe and then the "guano boom" busted.

Today, soaring prices for synthetic fertilizers ($600/ton last year) are rejuvenating the demand for guano and the Peruvian Island Isla de Asia has plenty of it....well not as much as before, but at least enough to sustain a 10 to 20-year demand. Peru exports it guano to Israel, France and The United States at a price close to $500/ton. The problem is that it is not a sustainable source because that the bird population is declining. The numbers have declined substantially from what it was in the 19th century (60 million birds compared to 4 million today). The seabird population is declining because of overfishing....because you see seabirds live on fish and guano, to be produced, needs food to be digested by someone....good Peruvian guano might not be around for very long.

NY Times
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