Guano

Belgium is a small and fractious country, which bears evident scars of the joys of nationalism and religious strife. The nation has brought the world some unlikely gifts, including the European Commission, the best beers in the world, and ‘Bande Dessinée.’

BD, as it has become known, also extends to France, but my childhood memories of it are from Belgian artists, particularly Hergé, Uderzo, Morris, and Edgar P. Jacobs—although I must include Frenchman René Goscinny, who wrote the texts for both Asterix and Lucky Luke.

The Anglo-Saxon world never really had an equivalent of the Franco-Belgian ‘strip’, although Superman, Spiderman, and other superhero comics were in a similar vein.

Strip is far closer to Manga than to the US model, and the most emblematic series, Tintin and Asterix, were simultaneously delightful and instructive.

Both Tintin and Asterix traveled widely, and both taught me a lot of history and geography—although I think Tintin provided more of the latter, whereas Asterix ran the gamut from the Greeks to the Romans, Egyptians, Ancient Britons, Visigoths, Vandals, and of course Gauls.

Both heroes had idiosyncratic  companions—Asterix had the gigantic Obelix, possessed of supernatural strength because of a childhood fall into a vat of magic potion, and the village bard, whose musical talents were severely underappreciated.

Tintin’s most loved companions only appear as the books evolve—they are Professor Calculus, an archetypal absent-minded genius, and the fantastically named Captain Haddock.

And it was Haddock who introduced me to guano, in a superb book called the Temple of the Sun.

The book also introduced me to llamas, Incas, and Peru. Guano, or bird shit, was widely used as a raw material for fertilizer, but it was only a decade after I saw a bird poop on Captain Haddock that I realized oceanography was the reason so much guano existed.

The good captain being shadowed by an Inca in the Temple of the Sun.

In a classic ecological cascade, coastal upwelling caused by the southeasterly trade winds brings nutrients to the surface, which in turn generates high primary production. The microscopic phytoplankton supplies the base of the food chain, and drives the biggest fishery in the world—the Peruvian anchoveta, which in recent years ‘only’ yields between five and ten million metric tons annually, due to overfishing.

Seabirds prey on the fish, and out comes guano, a heady cocktail of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—the word wanu is Quechua, the ancestral Inca language, still spoken today by 13% of Peruvians.

Cormorants, boobies, and pelicans are the king-shitters, and the production of fine guano also requires an extremely dry climate, which promotes volatilization of ammonia; although the main production was centered in Peru, Namibia and Baja California were both important guano-producing regions—they all share a common oceanographic feature: eastern boundary currents, that push away from the shore due to a combination of prevailing winds and the earth’s rotation, leading to rich surface waters for birds.

Peru is famous for its many hundreds of varieties of papa, or potato, for ceviche, pisco, and of course the coca leaf. But guano was one of the precursors of industrial agriculture in the XIXth century, and although its importance declined after the development of the Haber-Bosch process in 1909, it has now found a new niche in organic agriculture.

Any commodity attracts human greed, and with greed comes conflict. Guano was the reason behind two wars, the first in 1864 between Spain and a Peru-Chile alliance, followed by the War of the Pacific, in 1879. This was a bloody, four year war for territory, with Peru and Bolivia allied against Chile, and like many wars, began over a squabble—in this case, a tax imposed by Bolivia on a Chilean saltpeter mining company.

Chile made substantial territorial gains upon its victory, and genuine hatred between Peru and Chile endures to this day. In fact, Chile seems to be the most disliked nation in Latin America, although Argentina is perhaps considered the most arrogant—this is not just an exercise in random bigotry, it illustrates how historical perspective can help in formulating policy.

One final historical nugget on this excursion through ornithoexcrement is that the saltpeter extracted from the mines of Latin America’s Pacific coastline played an important role in the manufacture of explosives—and a substantial part of the mining was performed by one hundred thousand indentured workers from China.

Of course, the Haber process was also used by Germany for manufacturing explosives, after the allies imposed an embargo on saltpeter imports during World War I. But although the process doesn’t just produce ammonia for industrial agriculture, it nevertheless accounts for the food supply to one third of the world’s population—clearly, organic agriculture is a rich man’s indulgence.

Thus you see how an article entirely devoted to bird shit can be far more fulfilling than the bullshit produced by Marine Le Pen in last Wednesday’s debate.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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