Guano: The Chesapeake and Peru

IMG_6197Today Maryland has eleven plants that manufacture fertilizer and sixteen other plants that blend fertilizer, none of which use guano as part of their product. While absent from modern products, guano was once a common import into the ports of the Chesapeake. In 1861 alone, the port of Baltimore received 53,959 tons of guano, much of which came from the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru. At this peak of the guano import for the United States, Peru’s government held a global monopoly on this trade.

Because the product is now rarely brought to the United States, I knew little about this product before visiting Peru. Before modern chemical fertilizers used throughout the watershed, guano had been essential for restoring the nutrients that had been stripped from the soil due to cotton and tobacco harvesting. While now outdated here, Peru still uses this fertilizer, especially for crops in the highlands region. This product is essential for food security in many of these areas and is therefore able to be used as a policital incentive for these communities.

IMG_5881These fertilizers, while now very different between these two areas, both have created many economic, political and environmental issues. Guano currently brings in so little income that the harvesting companies are becoming bankrupt. This product is then reserved for politicians to use as a voting incentive. In the Chesapeake region, fertilizers are also a large political and environmental concern but with incentives to reduce application instead of increased use. Instead of giving away guano for popular vote, the officials hope to reduce output in order to decrease the impact on the bay.

Although very different approaches to the situation, guano and other fertilizers throughout history, are used in hopes of food security but with environmental impacts. While chemical fertilizers poison the bay, guano harvests affect the populations and habitats for several important bird species. Throughout history these fertilizers have come with a cost for both the Chesapeake and Peru in order to provide food security for growing populations and environmental changes. There are apparent pros and cons to both guano and chemical fertilizers and both create political, economic and environmental tensions throughout the history of their use.

IMG_6195It is interesting to consider the affects on the United States if much of our fertilizer still was imported guano from Peru. This would not only affect our ability to grow and produce, but Peru’s economy and monopoly throughout the world. On the other hand it is also interesting to consider the change Peru would see if this traditional harvest that was once such an important part of their economy, seized to exist due to its lack of income.

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