The politics of Bolivia’s eastern Media Luna lowlands are under increasing attention after the ouster of the government of Evo Morales in 2019 and the repressive violence of the interim Áñez administration.1 The economic and political power of Santa Cruz as the main hub of agribusiness and gas extraction grew tremendously in the past forty years. Right-wing and elite Cruceño organizations and personalities have captured media attention recently, but much less is known about the migration and internal colonization efforts that built the rising agro-industrial region in the tropical lowlands.2 Nobbs-Thiessen’s Landscape of Migration offers a richly detailed history that helps to explain the political and ecological dynamics of the region through the lens of transnational mobility and environmental change.
The book is composed of five distinct case studies that answer a common question: “What happens when people, ideas, and technologies are transplanted from one location to the next? More specifically, how are the meanings of that mobility interpreted, conscribed, and enacted in a frontier landscape?” (234). The case studies begin in the agrarian-reform era after the 1952 revolution, which brought the National Revolutionary Movement (mnr) into power. The mnr initiated a program of internal colonization called the “March to the East” that aimed to convert Amazonian tropical frontier into farmland. The mnr’s motivations for this program were economic diversification from highland mining, food security, and demographic balance articulated as moving impoverished highlanders from the “overcrowded” Andes to the “undeveloped” tropical lowlands. The Bolivian state also welcomed transnational migrant streams, such as displaced Okinawans from the other side of the Pacific as well as Mennonites from Mexico.
Nobbs-Thiessen describes the complex and challenging lives of these migrants through a wide range of sources, including films from the era, letters making demands on the state, oral interviews, and archival research. Stories about the differential treatment of migrants by the Santa Cruz elite and the Bolivian state shed light on forms of transnational agrarian citizenship and race relations that span Spanish colonization to Bolivian internal colonization. Buttressed around this migration history is also the story of the development professionals and religious missionaries who administered life in the new eastern colonies.
Landscapes of Migration’s contribution to an interdisciplinary history of the lowlands is the nuanced description of how human and nonhuman migrations intertwine amid ecological and economic shifts. One of the most impactful transnational migrants to the Media Luna was the soybean. In the context of the international Green Revolution, agro-industrial innovation created new soybean varieties that flowed into the area through a new generation of Brazilian agronomists trained in the United States. Agro-industrial waste streams from North America were tapped by Mennonite farmers who repurposed aging U.S. machinery to jumpstart a “modern agricultural revolution in Santa Cruz.”
Global agro-industiral supply chains were disrupted by the collapse of Peruvian anchovy fisheries during the severe El Niño climate system in 1972/3. These fisheries were the world’s largest source of the fishmeal that was a critical fodder for industrially produced cattle, swine, and poultry. As agribusiness looked for an alternative protein supply, South American soy production became turbo-charged by the confluence of these ecological events, knowledges, migrations, and market forces. In this confluence, the meaning of soy changed. What had started as a food crop in Asia became an industrial cash crop circulating in feedlots, food preservatives, and biodiesel. An advertisement from the agrochemical giant Syngenta opens the book by proclaiming a “United Soy Republic” has arisen in the center of South America.
The ecological and political implications of the move toward export-oriented industrial agriculture are at the heart of Bolivia’s contemporary crisis. Questions of who will benefit and who will bear the burden of the lasting environmental effects of monocrop soy remain unanswered. Contradictions and contestations over the meaning of regional autonomy are one way that these questions have played out. Understanding the stories that braid transnational migrations with national internal colonization shows a living history for which the future is undetermined. Landscape of Migration unpacks this living history while also “demonstrating the ongoing work of migrants to lay claims to a contested landscape” (225).