The impact of the rubber boom on the indigenous peoples of the Bolivian lowlands (1850-1920)

Frederic Vallve
Dept. of History, Georgetown University
July, 2010


One of the most pressing issues in the world is how to reconcile the capitalist world order with Third World labor systems, environmental concerns, and the struggle for indigenous autonomy. Northeastern Bolivia during the rubber boom period is the perfect laboratory for examining these important issues. The demand for rubber inserted this region into the Atlantic economy and started a cycle of profound transformations. These transformations created patterns in labor relations that critically affected the Amazonian environment and societies and eventually led to the organization of indigenous groups in a way that have had significant effects to the present. There has been a considerable amount of scholarly publication on the Amazonian rubber boom. Most of it has concentrated either on the Brazilian rubber boom or on the Upper Amazon, particularly around the Putumayo area, which is shared by Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. However, the impact of the rubber boom was felt throughout Amazonia and it revolutionized the economies, societies and environment of every Amazonian country. Although Bolivia has traditionally been viewed as an Andean country, sixty per cent of its territory is in the lowlands and it was perhaps more affected by the rubber boom than any other South American country. Thanks to the rubber boom, Bolivia started to pay attention to its vast eastern regions, there was an increase in colonization and exploration of Bolivia's Amazonian territories and the political and cultural identities of the eastern half of the country were shaped. My dissertation explores how the rubber boom altered the demography and ecology of the Bolivian lowlands. It analyzes which indigenous groups existed before the boom and how it affected them. It demonstrates that the rubber boom was responsible for altering the ethnic map of the area. It also looks at the role of Creole immigrants in the rubber boom, the creation of local elites and their interactions with the Bolivian state. In other words, it examines the culture of both the dominant and the dominated. By using a multidisciplinary approach, it explores the complexity of the rubber boom and it demystifies the strictly economic history that has been written about the area to date. This integrated approach sheds light on how the local, the national and the international interacted in one of South America's most isolated areas during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Amazonian rubber boom in Bolivia was very different from it neighbors' boom. Because Bolivia's Amazonian areas were very isolated, the rubber boom was very self-contained and there was little outside interference. Rubber production and navigation was mostly in the hands of local rubber barons. In addition, the weakness of the Bolivian state during most of the rubber boom meant that it had minimal influence in the area. In most cases, it delegated many of its functions to local rubber barons such as the powerful Casa Suez.