Hines on Nobbs-Thiessen, 'Landscape of Migration: Mobility and Environmental Change on Bolivia's Tropical Frontier, 1952 to the Present (Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges)'

Ben Nobbs-Thiessen
Sarah T. Hines

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

Reviewed by Sarah T. Hines (University of Oklahoma) Published on H-Borderlands (February, 2021) Commissioned by Maria de los Angeles Picone (Boston College)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55961

Ben Nobbs-Thiessen’s Landscape of Migration explores an enduring political, economic, and environmental project: colonization and development of Bolivia’s eastern lowlands. Bolivia’s March to the East began in earnest after the 1952 Bolivian Revolution and continued under the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s through the neoliberal turn of the 1980s and 1990s and into the twenty-first century. The book is a regional, national, and transnational history of projects to settle the east and their consequences over the second half of the twentieth century. It explores the role of a wide array of actors, including Andean, Mexican Mennonite, and Okinawan migrants; Bolivian policymakers, experts, and filmmakers; foreign missionaries, financiers, and military personnel; and perhaps the most novel migrant of all, the soybean. 

As the author demonstrates, the March to the East was a central component of the program of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), the party that led the 1952 Revolution. The MNR developed an internal colonization program to encourage Bolivians from the country’s highlands and valleys to migrate to the tropical lowlands, both to take pressure off agricultural land in the west as well as to develop modern export agriculture in the east. The MNR simultaneously worked with the US military to bring migrants from Okinawa and accepted Mexican Mennonite migrants as well. Nobbs-Thiessen not only shows how national and international dynamics shaped a region; he also powerfully lays out the ways that this region impacted national history. In so doing, the study sheds new light on familiar topics such as agrarian reform and contests over citizenship while foregrounding subjects that have received less attention, including migration and environmental change. Nobbs-Thiessen convincingly argues that migrant groups mobilized a concept of agrarian citizenship to claim land and appeal to state institutions for support. In highlighting their contributions—or potential contributions—to the nation through making vacant lands productive and feeding the nation, migrants appealed to state ambitions while making development projects their own.

The book’s first three chapters deal with the revolutionary period from 1952 to 1964. Chapter 1 explores the role of film and filmmakers in promoting and depicting migration and mediating the relationship between the revolutionary state and the region. It focuses on the work of Bolivian filmmaker Jorge Ruíz, who was contracted by the Instituto Cinematográfico Boliviano (ICB) to make a series of films promoting the March to the East. The ICB was founded in 1953 and in the 1960s gained funding from the Alliance for Progress that along with USAID and the Inter-American Development Bank financed settlement of the Bolivian Amazon. Nobbs-Thiessen skillfully analyzes the making of these films, their intended audiences and uses in different settings, and viewers’ experiences to explore planners’ visions of environmental transformation and the development of regional identity. The chapter makes clear that the MNR’s cultural, economic, and environmental projects were closely bound up and reveals some cruceños’ ambivalence toward national development projects that sought to modernize their region by populating it with outsiders.

Chapters 2 and 3 follow the paths of three groups of migrants to the Bolivian Oriente and their early experiences there. Chapter 2 discusses the experiences of Okinawans and Mexican Mennonites. The author contends that both of these groups portrayed themselves as model farmers in their struggles over land, first in their places of origin and later in Bolivia. But while Okinawans left US-occupied Okinawa at the behest of US officials attempting to curb Okinawan opposition to occupation, Mennonites left Mexico for Bolivia (via Canada) in the face of prolonged drought. Here and throughout the book, Nobbs-Thiessen is attentive to both what united and what divided migrant communities. One of the most fascinating aspects of the study is the disjuncture between Mennonites’ self-presentation as “horse-and-buggy” farmers tied to the land, on the one hand, and the “highly mobile nature of Mennonite life” (p. 95) and their use of modern farming techniques, on the other, a tension reflected in conflicts within Mennonite society over the temptations of innovations like rubber tires. Both Okinawans and Mennonites were in many ways stateless but also mobilized different national (and religious) identities in different ways at different moments. 

Chapter 3 employs thousands of letters from highland communities and lowland colonies settled by Andean migrants to explore how Andean migrants embraced and contested colonization schemes. While the first chapter depicted state visions of the March to the East in line with James Scott’s contention that states envision projects before enacting them, this one highlights the ways that Andean migrants drew on agrarian nationalism to speak to and make claims on the national state. It starts with highland Andeans’ petitions to be included in colonization schemes before moving to letters from colonists denouncing state abandonment. In line with other recent scholarship on the revolutionary period, the author finds that migrants drew on the language of revolutionary nationalism to put make their cases for inclusion in colonization programs and appealed to its promises to demand that the state provide technical support, property titles, and infrastructure after settlement. 

Chapters 4 and 5 study migration under the dictatorships of René Barrientos (1964-69) and Hugo Banzer (1971-78) with forays into the 1980s and 1990s. Rather than scuttle the MNR’s March to the East, Barrientos and Barrientos embraced it. Chapter 4 considers the role of Protestant faith-based workers who administered colonies that were technically the responsibility of national state institutions and, in so doing, “regularly transgressed the boundary between ministering and administering” (p. 140). Like other migrant groups, Protestant missionaries presented “their work in a decidedly modern light that harmonized with nationalist aims” (p. 145). In some ways this is a familiar story of state projects to modernize the Bolivian economy and population. But the actors here, missionaries and migrants, are less familiar, and they act in surprising ways. Methodist missionaries not only provided health care and education and taught hygiene, land clearing, and nutrition courses. They also assisted migrants organizing the Union of Poor Campesinos and participated in radical actions, including land occupations and road blockades. Neither migrants nor missionaries were immune to the political radicalization of the times. As Nobbs-Thiessen writes insightfully, “A compelling aspect of faith-based development was its ability to contain both these qualities: a technical package of service provision and planning that appealed to authoritarian leaders like Banzer and a form of rural mobilization that meshed with the needs of campesinos” (p. 182). This chapter also reveals, as other scholars such as Amy Offner are doing for other areas of Latin America, that the shift from state-led centralized development to NGO-led decentralized development occurred earlier than scholars previously recognized. 

Chapter 5 charts the linked migrations of Mennonites and soybeans to explore tensions present throughout the book. One was “the impressive and varied forms of mobility that were often invisible” that made Mennonite settlement possible (p. 189). Another was the expectation, both on the part of state officials and migrants themselves, that people deemed traditional—whether Andeans, Okinawans, or Mennonites—could play a central role in modernizing the nation’s economy, and perhaps become modern themselves in the process. Indeed, supposedly traditional Mennonite colonies practiced highly mechanized agriculture and developed sophisticated approaches to crop diversification and marketing. The chapter also follows the transnational migration of soybean varieties, the bean’s rise from the shadows of sugar and cotton (not to mention tin) to “star export crop” status (p. 211), and the social and environmental impacts of the expansion of the eastern agricultural frontier. 

The conclusion and epilogue bring the story into the early twenty-first century. Through accounts of his experiences conducting research, the author offers thoughtful remarks on the ways that the past and the present are “entangled” (p. 232) that in turn help to explain how earlier calls for national state support gave way to demands for regional autonomy during Evo Morales’s presidency. While accounts of Morales’s rise ordinarily narrate his personal history as a migrant from the country’s highlands to its tropics, Nobbs-Thiessen’s account brings home the significance of this biography. Morales was not only Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, but he was also its first migrant colonist president. The opposition to him that arose in the eastern “media luna” departments and threats of secession there were rooted in migrants’ transnational connections that allowed Santa Cruz to forge direct relationships with other parts of the world and thereby “skip the nation entirely” (p. 246). It also built on anti-Andean racism with roots in the mid-twentieth century. Yet we should not lose sight of the connections between east and west rooted in this history that Morales’s story points to and that this book so admirably narrates. 

The book makes significant contributions to Bolivian historiography, Latin American environmental history, histories of the late twentieth-century Protestant boom in Latin America, and transnational migration and borderlands history. The author’s multi-scalar approach, rich source base, and long time period allow him to trace both change and continuity across different moments and regimes. One intriguing insight that this approach yields is that national integration and state-building in Bolivia’s tropics ironically depended on a series of foreign actors, from US military personnel to migrants to missionaries to soybeans. This deep history helps to explain how Santa Cruz became the nation’s second-largest metropolitan center and the national center of agroindustry. Yet this account inverts traditional narratives of elites and planners imposing their plans on prostrate populations and environments. Instead, it highlights the ways that settlers interacted with, mobilized, and confronted state projects for their own ends, if not fully on their own terms. Migrants neither completely embraced nor totally rejected state intervention. Rather, they worked to mold it to their own visions for economic improvement and environmental transformation. Nobbs-Thiessen thus implicitly challenges James Scott, who argued in Seeing Like a State that states usually push development projects through against the will of a “prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.”[1]

It is difficult to make critiques of this excellent study and I hesitate to ask for more from a book that already goes far beyond the call of duty. Yet the book could have benefited from more background on the longer history of plans and efforts to settle the east, more consistent treatment of how colonization involved and impacted Indigenous groups native to Santa Cruz, and greater discussion of Eastern European immigration. But these are small quibbles.

Landscape of Migration is a pleasure to read. The author masterfully interweaves individual stories with broader histories and scholarly analysis, thereby imparting a rich sense of migrants and other actors’ lived experiences and how they reflected and contributed to broader histories and dynamics. Nobbs-Thiessen takes migrant communities and other actors seriously on their own terms without either romanticizing or villainizing them and disaggregates both state institutions and migrant communities by exploring differences and relationships within them. References to sources and the research process throughout the book help to demystify the historical method. The book will be a valuable source for students, scholars, and instructors of twentieth-century Latin American, environmental, and transnational migration/borderlands history and a model for future scholarship on these subjects.


[1]. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 5.

Citation: Sarah T. Hines. Review of Nobbs-Thiessen, Ben, Landscape of Migration: Mobility and Environmental Change on Bolivia's Tropical Frontier, 1952 to the Present (Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges). H-Borderlands, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55961

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