Field on Nobbs-Thiessen, 'Landscape of Migration: Mobility and Environmental Change on Bolivia's Tropical Frontier, 1952 to the Present' [X-posted from H-LatAm]

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Cross-posted from H-LatAm

Ben Nobbs-Thiessen
Thomas Field

Field on Nobbs-Thiessen, 'Landscape of Migration: Mobility and Environmental Change on Bolivia's Tropical Frontier, 1952 to the Present'

Ben Nobbs-Thiessen. Landscape of Migration: Mobility and Environmental Change on Bolivia's Tropical Frontier, 1952 to the Present. Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges Series. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 342 pp. $37.50 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-5610-6

Reviewed by Thomas Field (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) Published on H-LatAm (October, 2021) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

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In this unique reappraisal of land tenure changes following Bolivia’s 1952 revolution, Ben Nobbs-Thiessen employs a cultural approach to explore contested meanings of the sustained postwar push to populate the country’s Amazonian eastern lowlands. Beginning in earnest during the revolution’s civilian phase (1952-64) under the cross-class Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, MNR), the nationalists’ “March to the East” has typically received less historical attention than the MNR’s more radical measures, such as tin mine nationalization and widespread agrarian reform. Yet these numerous Amazonian resettlement programs, which continued to accelerate through the revolution’s military period (1964-82) and under neoliberal civilian government (1982-2006), profoundly transformed Bolivia by converting fallow frontier backwaters into dynamic, export-oriented transnational spaces. Among the pioneers who migrated were displaced Okinawans, mobile Mennonites, and unemployed Quechua and Aymara from Bolivia’s Andean highlands. Some of the colonists raised livestock; some grew profitable cash crops like rice, soybeans, corn, and coca; still others cultivated subsistence and small market fruits and vegetables.

As Nobbs-Thiessen shows, the March to the East seemed to solve a series of nation-building problems for Bolivia’s middle-class nationalists (civilian and military alike), issues ranging from the tin-dominated country’s long-standing dependence on imported foodstuffs, to the ethnic separateness of the indigenous Andeans, to the austerity-induced mine worker unemployment crisis. Backdropping this story were the enthusiastic liberal nation builders in the US government, who adopted Bolivia’s nationalist party as a non-Communist showcase of developmental evolution. This book rightly begins, therefore, by recounting extensive efforts to encourage Andean resettlement, through US-funded propaganda films hailing Amazonian colonization as a noble nation-building project that combined “Bolivian force and Yankee money” (p. 26). Given the stakes and intensity of US ideological and strategic involvement in the effort to dislodge potentially troublesome indigenous Andeans—whether collectivist Altiplano peasants or radical mining camp proletarians, or both—this is the book’s strongest and most consequential chapter.

In contrast, the book’s two chapters on the Okinawans and Mennonites recount how non-Bolivian colonists understood their contribution to the nation-building process, performing “agrarian citizenship” in ways that reveal a curious and underappreciated transnational aspect of the Bolivian national revolution. By presenting themselves as “model farmers,” Okinawans and Mennonites were eventually complemented by local Amazonian elites who contrasted the foreign arrivals favorably against undesired Andean “invasion” (pp. 73, 221, 21). As one Mennonite told Nobbs-Thiessen, from the perspective of migrants, resettlement can often seem boring and quotidian. A group of people decides to move, and then they move.

Aside from a section on the US military’s postwar removal of the Okinawans, one learns little about the larger national, regional, and global forces at play in these resettlement programs. The voices of migrants and supposedly apolitical US technocrats are given preference, sometimes giving the feel of reading an anthropologist’s raw field data. US and Bolivian government ideas are sometimes accepted uncritically, particularly claims by nation builders that there was too much “overcrowding” and “excess labor” within the Andean high plateau’s “challenging environment” (pp. 4, 29, 108). Nor is it clear that Nobbs-Thiessen disagrees with US-funded nationalist filmmaker Jorge Ruíz, who depicted the Aymara and Quechua highlands “as a place mired in a hopeless past” compared to the Amazonian “lowlands as a transformative space of limitless possibility” (p. 27). Nobbs-Thiessen only occasionally expresses skepticism toward these high modernist tropes. This leaves authors of his primary source base—Bolivian and US propagandists and their migrant subjects—to reconstruct a frontier mythology in which Amazonian resettlement becomes a readymade solution to demographic labor crises that were being manufactured by the same nationalist party bureaucrats and their benefactors in Washington: the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Bolivia’s March to the East occurred alongside similar Pax Americana agrarian resettlement programs elsewhere in the Third World, including under US-backed dictatorships in Guatemala and southern Vietnam. The book briefly mentions counterinsurgency on page 185, in the form of a popular joke that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was secretly behind USAID’s Andean resettlement program during the Hugo Banzer dictatorship (1971-78). Yet it was indeed the CIA—in the person of the infamous counterinsurgency specialist Edward Lansdale, who visited Amazonian colonization efforts in 1963 and praised them as being analogous to the “opening of our own West.” General Lansdale’s only complaint was the lack of effective propaganda in the colonies: “It would be a macabre joke,” he wrote, “if the US and Bolivian government helped these people get a fresh start in life—and the Communists then taught them out to live it, the Communist way.”[1]

This was a prescient warning, since the great irony of the US-backed March to the East was that in spite of fervent efforts by CIA and USAID officers, the Andean migrants brought with them collectivist cultural and trade union organizational traditions. As Nobbs-Thiessen points out, this eventually ushered in one of the most successful anti-imperialist left movements in contemporary Latin American history, culminating in the election of lowland migrant Evo Morales as president in 2005. Morales’s strongholds included not only his home coca-growing region in the Cochabamba tropics but also the USAID-funded Santa Cruz colonies whose settlement by Andean migrants forms a significant part of this book’s coverage. Meanwhile, as Nobbs-Thiessen chronicles, the simultaneous influx of apolitical Mennonite migrants, just down the road from the radical Andean colonies, economically facilitated the rise of a handful of white and mestizo soy-processing barons who later worked to besiege the Morales government with rightist reaction from start to finish.

In producing a work embracing the transnational spirit of agrarian migration, Nobbs-Thiessen’s lack of interest in international high politics is coupled by a lack of national political context. Elite newspapers like El Diario and El Deber are cited as if they represented general public opinion, despite the fact that their criticism of the March to the East reflected their sympathy for Bolivia’s large urban opposition whose incessant plotting is briefly mentioned. Similarly, the book reveals little about the civilian and military leaders who sponsored the resettlement programs, not even Bolivia’s most powerful advocate for rural development, Air Force General René Barrientos, a charismatic country boy who rapidly reorganized the MNR-affiliated peasant movement in 1965. Contrary to the book’s claim on page 240, Barrientos did not “violently” suppress these peasant organizations but rather employed them against other sectors of the labor movement. Perhaps more important, he shared the presidency during these years with an important army officer who is barely discussed, General Alfredo Ovando. The two governed together starting in May 1965, and later Ovando took over as sole president for the first seven months of 1966. These crucial shifts in national leadership and policy should have been considered when Nobbs-Thiessen identifies in migrant letters a sense of having been “abandoned,” especially during Barrientos’s 1966 absence and then after his death in 1969 (not 1968 as the book mistakenly claims on pages 137 and 162).

Nobbs-Thiessen occasionally concedes the role played by shifting imperial structures in catalyzing migrant flows. In the obvious case of the Okinawans displaced to Bolivia, “US geopolitical concerns in East Asia had led to the conversion of island farmland into military bases.... Meanwhile, US fears of Communist influence in Bolivia resulted in massive support for the MNR and its plans to convert its lowland frontier into productive farmlands” (p. 77). He recognizes that Andean resettlement could be similarly interpreted as a parallel development strategy by liberal anti-Communists in Washington and authoritarian nationalists in La Paz: while the military cracked down on highland troublemakers, USAID was employed to ensure that “landless Bolivians and radicalized ex-miners were sent off to the periphery” (p. 244). Yet Landscape of Migration shies away from structural factors beyond the migrants’ direct control, preferring to interpret the postwar flows of Andeans, Mennonites, and Okinawans as having originated from their own historical agency. Describing strategic analysis approaches as too “cynical,” Nobbs-Thiessen concludes his book by again embracing the frontier mythology of the nationalist MNR. The March to the East was motivated by the noble belief that “sending impoverished migrants to settle and cultivate Bolivia’s neglected frontiers could transform the nation.” Meanwhile, in a heroic coda that could have been written by an MNR official, Nobbs-Thiessen concludes that his book reveals “the ongoing work of migrants to lay claims to a contested landscape produced through long and ongoing history of mobility in Bolivia’s March to the East” (p. 255).


[1]. Lansdale, quoted in Thomas Field, From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 85-86.

Citation: Thomas Field. Review of Nobbs-Thiessen, Ben, Landscape of Migration: Mobility and Environmental Change on Bolivia's Tropical Frontier, 1952 to the Present. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. October, 2021. URL:

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