Landscape of Migration: Mobility and Environmental Change on Bolivia's Tropical Frontier, 1952 to the Present (UNC Press, 2020), traces the entwined histories of Andean, Mennonite, and Okinawan migrants to Amazonian Bolivia during the twentieth century, exploring how each of these communities forged and contested the landscape of agrarian citizenship in the country.
The lowlands around Santa Cruz became a focal point for high modernist development projects in Bolivia, and as Ben Nobbs-Thiessen argues, such a vision of development was appealing to a broad range of actors: both the left(ish) Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, in power from 1952-1964, as well as the (often) right wing military governments that succeeded it, were deeply concerned with developing Bolivia through colonization of of the lowlands. Starting in the 1970s, however, as the state started to pull back from the day to day operations of such projects, it opened up space for NGOs and what Nobbs-Thiessen calls, "faith-based development practitioners," many of whom were connected to settler projects. Nobbs-Thiessen shows how each of these different communities came together after World War II, and each, for a time, came to play an important role in the development of Santa Cruz and the lowlands as a regional powerhouse in Bolivia and the Amazon region.
By situating Andean migrants and development practitioners alongside other subnational migratory communities, Nobbs-Thiessen offers an exciting contribution to Latin American Studies, Migration History, and Environmental History. Nobbs-Thiessen’s wide-ranging work is attuned to the dynamics of both settler colonialism and internal colonialism as forms of migration, and contributes to a body of literature that refuses to provincialize Bolivian history. Several chapters would work well as standalone, teachable articles: The book begins with a chapter exploring the imagined frontier, through pamphlets and films and ends with the growth of the Mennonite-dominated soy industry in the transborder Amazonian region some have called the United Republic of Soybeans. Nobbs-Thiessen’s Landscape of Migration offers important background for both the devastating wildfires of 2019 and the Santa Cruz-led uprising that overthrew president Evo Morales in the months that followed.
Ben Nobbs-Thiessen is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Winnipeg.
Elena McGrath is an Assistant Professor of History at Union College in Schenectady, NY.