The lords of guano: science and the management of Peru's marine environment, 1800-1973

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Cushman, Gregory Todd

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This is an ecological history of a development project planned and managed by technical experts: the origin, decline, spectacular revival, and tragic fate of the Peruvian guano industry. In another sense, this is a social history of an elite type-- the environmental technocrat--and those they served. During the nineteenth century, scientific travelers appropriated Andean knowledge of vast, ancient deposits of nitrogen fertilizer for use by farmers in the Northern Hemisphere. During the early twentieth century, environmental scientists reoriented the guano industry for Peruvian use. They oversaw the development of perhaps “the greatest of all industries based upon the conservation of wild animals.” This project had both global and local repercussions. The two-way exchange of personnel, ideas, and technologies between Peru and the rest of the world revolutionized scientific understanding of the Peru Current ecosystem. This knowledge led directly to international recognition of the global importance of the El Niño phenomenon. Through the issue of human population control, Peru’s experiment inspired the emergence of an environmental movement that spanned the Americas after World War II. In Peru, technical experts fundamentally influenced the political process, input-intensive agriculture, artisanal and industrial fishing, the organization of “big science” institutions, as well as the guano birds and their ecological community. Ultimately, technocrats enriched and empowered a new ruling class for Peru. Beginning in the 1940s, the specter of an impending catastrophe in the global food supply gave impetus to the exploitation of the world’s fish stocks. To serve this demand, scientists helped engineer for Peru the largest industrial fishery on Earth. Their studies legitimated the decision to let the guano birds pass into oblivion so their food, the anchoveta, could be processed into animal feed. As a reflection of persistent global trends of food distribution, rather than feed the world’s undernourished, this fishmeal enabled affluent northerners to consume more meat. This fishery was carefully supervised by experts, but they proved unable to prevent its collapse during the El Niño of 1972-1973. This ecological disaster reveals how fleeting “sustainable growth” can be, even for the bestmanaged development projects.





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