The Peruvian guano economy of the 19th century was a classic "boom and bust" story. The story took place during an earlier wave of globalisation that was cut short by the nationalistic conflicts that ignited the First World War.
In the first half of the 1800s, industrialisation and massive population growth in Europe had resulted in an enormous increase in the demand for food, which, in turn, made bird guano a prized fertiliser. At the same time, newly independent Peru - highly indebted after a lengthy war against Spanish colonial rule, but rich in high-quality guano deposits - was desperate for cash. And so a trade relationship was established whereby the Peruvian government sold the rights to carry out the guano exploitation to European companies who, in exchange, issued guarantees for loans with banks in London and Paris. The Peruvian government, confident that the guano boom would last, borrowed more and more money, much of which was spent on vanity infrastructure projects or disappeared into corrupt channels. Hence, when the boom came to a sudden end after around 30 years (triggered mainly by the invention of synthetic fertiliser), Peru was left with nothing but more debt.
By contrasting the barren landscape of the Chincha Islands - Peru's main source of guano in the 19th century - with the Tyntesfield estate of the Gibbs family, who controlled a virtual monopoly on the global guano trade between 1842 and 1861, the $tow High in Transit ($HIT) project reminds us that globalisation – because it produces winners and losers – should not be taken for granted.
The $tow High in Transit ($HIT) project is work in progress.