[Loss Accountability of Top Down Ontologies, 2005 by Mary Mattingly]
“…the historical evolution of imperialism in both the East and the West has meant that most of the world’s actual islands became, at some point, off-shore colonial possessions of a distant metropolitan power. Treated as way stations, outposts, and resupply harbors, these outre-mer acquisitions tended to be spatially and legally marginal, regardless of their economic importance” -Sina Najafi
We’ve been having a lot of fun reading the current issue of Cabinet, which features a disparate collection of writing and visuals on the loosely interpreted topic of islands.
One of the highlights includes an interview with Columbia University Law Professor Christina Duffy Burnett that unpacks the convoluted intersections of economics, U.S. international law, territorial pursuits of islands, and the landscapes that result. In particular, Burnett describes the origin and process of the Guano Islands Act (1856):
“…in the first half of the nineteenth century, Europeans and Latin Americans figure out that the phosphate-rich deposits of seabird droppings that had accumulated on many small Pacific islands make spectacular fertilizer. The stuff is like magic, and farmers everywhere are suddenly clamoring to get their hands on some. There’s a boom, the price skyrockets, the Peruvians more or less control the market, and supplies are short. Everybody is looking for new sources, there’s tons of fake guano trading hands—it’s chaos. Enter the US farm lobby. Farmers in the United States start pressuring Congress to pass some sort of legislation that will improve domestic access to this vital excrement. The result is the Guano Islands Act, legislation that authorized the United States to take control of a guano island if a citizen discovered it and undertook certain actions to take possession of it.”
Sound familiar? Post peak guano? The boom-bust harvesting cycle reads like the current agricultural challenge of post peak phosphorous, only a century and a half earlier. As the Infranet Lab mused a while back, because there is no synthetic replacement for mined phosphorous (phosphate rock), new and more energy-efficient agricultural methods and technologies will likely emerge in the global landscape.
Some of these technologies could entail retooling earlier, and relatively low-tech biotic-based techniques such as guano collection, rather than the avant-biotech solutions of DuPont or Monsanto. Perhaps alternative corporate research and development projects will emerge, fostering a new market for proactive landscape architects, ecologists, and engineers designing geographic based systems that can regenerate the production of bird guano for multi-faceted and symbiotic gains.
[Above images: the Walvis Bay Platform, Namibia, constructed circa the 1930’s to perform as a harvesting receptacle for bird guano. Initially scoffed at, the constructed island made the builder into a millionaire. Image from here and georeferenced here]
The aptly named guano islands are highly site-specific accumulators of fertilizer. They only occur where both the climate is relatively dry (permitting the guano to accumulate rather than leach away) and where fish in the surrounding ocean are particularly plentiful to attract marine birds. Thus systemically speaking, an island isn’t really an island, but rather a point of connection within a larger circulation scheme. Simply adding more platforms won’t necessarily generate more guano because populations of marine birds are estimated to have declined by some 60% over the last few decades due in part to decreased fish populations available in the oceans. To generate more guano, bird populations would need to be revived, which would require more fish, which would require restoring the adjacent ocean ecology. An interesting design problem.
[Remnant mining infrastructure on Peru’s now guano-denuded islands. Image sourced here.]
Back to Cabinet: other notable contributions in the island issue include the co-opting of islands within the urban via the Islands of LA project (don’t miss their interactive map), an up close conversation with Tetrapod # 16-2-77 at work on the coast of Japan, photographs by Zhaou Renhui (for the institute of critical zoologists) of the rediscovered (2005) unique island fauna of Palua Pejantan (below):