Travel To the Chincha Islands, the World’s Largest Guano Producer
When Ernesto Benavides’ ship approached a small island off the coast of Peru, it quickly became clear that he was entering poultry territory. Hundreds of birds circled above the brown dusty earth pancakes, and the frenzy of their calls cut the roar of the motorbike. Then a smell appears. “Everything smells of guano,” recalled the Peruvian photographer. “This is very bitter.”
Dirt – and the industry that extracts it – is what makes Benavides visit several islands, including Maccabi and Chincha, which are part of 22 small islands off the coast of Peru. Peru is the largest producer of guano in the world; more than 21,000 tons are harvested from Chincha alone each year, Benavides said. Around 4 million birds call the Peruvian archipelago home, and most of the guano comes from Guanay Cormorants, Peruic Pelicans, and Peruvian Boobies, according to the IUCN. While pelicans and boobies have a stable population, IUCN lists cormorants as being nearly threatened.
The islands were first discovered by the Incas, who recognized the benefits of guano for agriculture. Throughout the 1800s brown gold was in global demand for fertilizers and explosives; later in the century, resources became so valuable that two wars erupted over the ownership of the islands, with Spain, Bolivia, and Chile competing for them.
When Peruvians first started harvesting guano more than a century ago, its hard droppings reached depths of 200 feet. Extraction quickly eats away at deposits; from 1840 to 1870 an estimated 12 million tons were removed. At present, its depth is only a few feet in most places. “Peru is very rich in natural resources, but we are very poor in terms of its management,” said Benavides.
Demand increased again a few years ago, due to a combination of rising costs of synthetic fertilizers and increasing farmers’ interest in organic options. Currently, there are safeguards in place to help prevent wiping out resources or disturbing birds. The government strictly controls the extraction of guano, and Chinch is protected federally because they are part of the Guano Islands, the Islands, and the National Capes Reserve System. To avoid stress on birds, workers don’t use hard machinery or stay on an island for too long, Benavides said. Crop rotation not only reduces disturbance to birds but also gives time for guano shops to refill.
While guano harvesting continues at a more sustainable pace, no one expects the droppings to grow to a depth of a century ago – in large part because the islands have a small number of birds that historically call them home. This decrease is due to many factors, including over-fishing of anchovy – the main food source of birds – and the fact that obedient creatures make easy targets for poachers. “The number of guano is now reduced because there are not as many birds as before,” said Benavides. That is why, he said, protecting the islands is very important – not only to ensure the industry continues but also to help the birds that live there flourish.
After the sack is filled, its contents are thrown into a large sieve – called “El Elefante,” or elephant, for its size and shape – which separates bones, stones, and other debris from pure guano. The primo product is then transferred to a bag, which is stacked into a series of small dinghies, tied together with a rope. These “boat trains,” as they are called Benavides, transport goods to the mainland.
When the shift ended in the afternoon, Lucio Elio Portal Chiquian, 57, was filled with guano. Some workers wear handkerchiefs in their mouths and noses to avoid inhaling dust cut down during harvest, Benavides said. The dust and the smell of ammonia released by guano are only part of the harsh work environment. “The whole place is full of holes, full of fleas, and thousands of birds flying around your head,” said Benavides. “This is a very difficult condition.”
Workers attend the filter. Half a century ago, the guano harvest was carried out by Chinese prisoners and contract servants, many of whom died on the island. At present, the majority are Quechua-speaking workers from the Peruvian highlands, who are drawn by the ability to earn several hundred dollars a month – many times what workers at home produce. The islands do not offer showers, and only a few have formal shelters. Despite the difficulties, said Benavides, members of the community who are closely united are proud of the work they do.
Workers carry guano sacks across Chincha Island. Rich resources are not the only thing that attracts people to these uninhabited islands – hunters have long visited bird oases to kill birds for their meat and steal their eggs. Recently, the Peruvian government hired a full-time employee to guard the islands against these attacks, Benavides said.
The smell of Millions of Birds
Guanay Cormorants, Peruvian Pelicans, and Peruvian Boobies flooded harvest operations – both in terms of their large numbers and the pervasive odor from their guano. The bird’s main food source, Peruvian anchovies, has declined since the advent of the commercial anchovy fishing industry in the 1950s. Climate change brings new risks and uncertainties, such as how rising sea surface temperatures will affect fish that live in the cold.