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Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 210–213 

Book Review

Landscape of Migration: Mobility and Environmental Change on Bolivia’s Tropical Frontier, 1952 to the Present

Ben Nobbs-Thiessen. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 324 pages.

Reviewed by Patricia Harms

Academic studies do not often include Mennonites, Okinawans, and Indigenous Bolivians within the same book. However, the intersection of these three seemingly disparate migrant groups drawn to the eastern lowlands of Bolivia is precisely what we find in Ben Nobbs-Thiessen’s new book Landscape of Migration. Spanning the years from the 1952 Bolivian Revolution into the twenty-first century, the book is a regional, national, and transnational history of efforts to settle the eastern lowlands. At its core, five distinct case studies ask one central question: “What happens when people, ideals and technologies are transplanted from one location to the next?” (234). The city of Santa Cruz sits at the center of the story as various tendrils connect it to global political processes of colonization, modernization, development, and transnational migration. This intriguing book defies simple categorization; it is at once a local migration study and an exploration of the paradoxes of colonization and transnationalism.

The book is organized into five chapters along with an introduction, conclusion, and an epilogue which brings the story into the twenty-first century. The author uses a wide array of sources including films, letters, sources, pamphlets, diaries, newspapers, oral histories, and the archives of migration and agricultural ministries, sources that reflect a transnationalism approach across Bolivia, Mexico, and the United States. The work is enriched by personal collections and oral histories, including more than thirty interviews with Mennonite settlers.

Chapter 1 sets the ideological stage for the multilayered migrations in the next chapters by tracing the development of a national and international rhetoric surrounding the March to the East (the Bolivian lowlands) following the 1952 Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) revolution. Framed in romantic terms, this message resonated with state-making projects across the globe, attracting the diverse groups that would come to inhabit the lowlands. Arguing that Bolivians need to first imagine the migration before it could be enacted, this rhetoric facilitated a debate over just what kind of migrant would be acceptable.

Chapters 2 and 3 explore the arrivals of Okinawan, Mennonite, and Andean Indigenous groups to the eastern lowlands, migrations that were both “forced and enabled by imperial and national expansion” (67). Bound together through their shared lack of citizenship, all three {212} groups navigated their claim to the land through what the author refers to as agrarian citizenship (81). Bolivians welcomed Mennonites because they were coded white and fit well into the modernist whitening project, while considerable ambiguity remained over the Okinawans who were displaced from their lands by the post-World War II militarization and the establishment of US bases on Okinawa. The Indigenous Andeans adopted state rhetoric and employed it for their own purposes using “the language of empty, abandoned lands, a frigid altiplano, rational scientific production, territorial integrity, food sovereignty and the state’s obligations to its own revolutionary legacy” to support their migration efforts (105). Within the lowlands, Indigenous highlanders reasserted their ethnic identity even as it was ignored by the MNR revolutionary state. Within these overlapping processes, the author identifies a central paradox: the Bolivian state welcomed highly visible foreigners such as the Okinawan and Mennonite migrants, bringing with them capital and a reputation as market-driven modernizing producers, while Indigenous highlanders’ deep extensive agricultural knowledge was not valued. The arrival of these newcomers created tensions with Indigenous Bolivians, creating what the author refers to as “racial islands.”

The political context shifts dramatically in chapter 4 as a revolutionary government was replaced by dictatorships under René Barrientos (1964–69) and Hugo Banzer (1971–78). Both kinds of states continued to embrace the conviction that nationalist development lay within eastern expansion. Here, the author highlights the growing trend among Latin American states to transfer development responsibility to NGOs. He does this by examining foreign Protestant institutions, including Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), in the administration of the migrant colonies. For the Bolivian state, missionaries and laypeople who were able to “present their work in a decidedly modern light that harmonized with nationalist aims” (145) were the perfect intermediaries with religious migrants such as the Mennonites. The shift from state development to NGO-led development serves to highlight the early stages of processes that have come to shape contemporary Latin America, namely, the reallocation of state responsibilities to third parties and the rise of neoliberalism.

The final chapter juxtaposes two revolutionary movements: Che Guevara’s efforts in Bolivia and the arrival of the soybean. Here, the author proposes that the logic that brought Guevara to the Bolivian frontier in the late 1960s was in a sense shared by the small Mennonite exploratory commission from the state of Chihuahua. “Both groups were guided by an underlying environmental rationale that viewed the region’s dense undeveloped bush as a fugitive landscape rife with opportunity just as {213} they had once viewed Cuba’s Sierra Maestra and the valley of Chihuahua” (188). However, it was the Mennonites’ agro-guerrilla vision of the soybean and not Guevara’s vision of an equitable society that ultimately prospered in Bolivia. The Mennonite innovation of the soybean as a critical export product confirmed their identity of agrarian citizenship and, in return, the Bolivian state granted them military exemption.

The significance of this work is brought full circle in its conclusion which discusses Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, Evo Morales, a migrant from the highlands. The author traces opposition to his presidency from the eastern lowlands to the migrants surrounding Santa Cruz who forged relationships with other parts of the world, thereby “skipping the nation entirely” (246).

This book makes significant contributions to Bolivian history, environmental history, the history of Protestantism in Latin America, the history of transnational migrations, and the history of Mennonite diaspora. As with all great books, the innovative research and conclusions raise significant questions. The role of MCC as a state intermediary and promoter of modernization rests uneasily here, and further interrogation is warranted. It also raises critical questions concerning the role of religious NGOs and the state, and the political implications of that role for institutions such as MCC. This work also highlights concerns over the impact of settlers on fragile jungle ecosystems and the environmental damage from aggressive agrarian development along with the implications of extractive export agriculture for the development of food security methods. In short, its research, analysis, and conclusions make this work a model for future scholarship.

Patricia Harms
Associate Professor of History
Brandon University, Brandon, Manitoba

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