Rubber and Military Rule in Bolivian and Brazilian Amazonia

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 4:10 PM
Mile High Ballroom 1C (Colorado Convention Center)
Kathryn Lehman, Indiana University
During the 1970s and 1980s both Bolivia and Brazil implemented policies and projects designed to address problems caused by the ailing rubber economy in the Amazon region. However, state officials’ attitudes toward rubber and the labor system that produced it were often fraught with contradiction. Both governments desperately wished to rationalize production and to further integrate the Amazon frontier region into their respective nations. Military officials ruling Bolivia and Brazil during most of this period viewed state consolidation on the frontier as essential for national security and progress. At the same time, they encountered stubborn local realities including a highly specialized debt-based labor system dominated by large patrones, budding grassroots social movements, and the Amazon rainforest, at the time little understood by either state. In the border region of the Bolivian department of Pando and the Brazilian state of Acre, the realization of policies supporting rubber on the ground was deeply interconnected across the international border, revealing a degree of interdependence in state formation between the two states. Thus, owing to a confluence of historical and environmental factors, officials in both countries found themselves at worst begrudgingly and at best indifferently supporting what they considered to be an archaic labor system and a product of dubious economic feasibility. In this paper, I examine state formation on the Amazonian frontier shared by Bolivia and Brazil through a close analysis of rubber programs and projects. In doing so, I show that state formation on the Amazonian frontier was both shaped by material conditions and often a profoundly material process, which included the building and operation of rubber processing plants and the purchase of natural rubber for national industry. I also shed light on ways both workers and bosses contested, shaped, and adapted to state interventions in everyday life.