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  • From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000
  • Isaac Campos
From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000. Edited by Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. Pp. 378. Figures. Notes. Index. $84.95 cloth; $23.95 paper.

In the last essay of this volume, Paul Gootenberg argues that the "holistic view" of the commodity-chain approach, one that concentrates on "flows rather than objects or sites," is one that "helps us to overcome traditional divides between internal [End Page 298] and external factors and between economic and noneconomic factors in Latin American history, binaries shared by neoclassical and dependency perspectives" (p. 322). Gootenberg's point is echoed, in diverse ways, throughout this twelve-essay volume, as noted by editors Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank. "Indeed, the approach adopted in this book aims to redress the balance which has been lost in the din of battle between dependency scholars and neoliberal research advocates" (p. 353). That balance, in their view, reveals that "[i]nternational demand for commodities did not imply that the Latin American economies and governments did not benefit from export booms" (Ibid.).

The approach certainly has potential for building bridges in Latin American history. In part this derives from its dual ancestry in economic history, especially Immanuel Wallerstein's world systems models, and work by anthropologists on the cultures of economic exchange, most prominently Arjun Appadurai's "social life of things." Many of these essays successfully incorporate both sides of this lineage. Carlos Marichal, for example, illustrates both the economics of the cochineal trade and the role of symbolism in making this dye such a valuable commodity. The deep crimson color furnished by these insects, he argues, was "representative of the preeminence of the upper orders in human society" and thus "prized by crown, church, and nobility in Europe" (pp. 78-9). Similarly, Marcelo Bucheli and Ian Read describe a banana commodity chain that was sustained through labor exploitation, the exigencies of geopolitics, and well placed advertising to mothers in the United States.

Other essays are especially good at sorting out the sometimes multiple chains linked to a particular product. Gootenberg, for example, describes three separate coca/cocaine chains that emerged beginning in the late nineteenth century and which existed, for a time, simultaneously: a "Dutch colonial mercantilist Java-Europe chain," "Japan's state sponsored pan-Asian circuit," and a "United States-Andes nexus" (p. 332). All three of these chains reveal the important role played by state-intervention in determining the ultimate character of these long-distance economic links, a theme echoed throughout much of this volume. Topik and Mario Samper similarly reveal the complexity of commodity flows, arguing provocatively that initial Brazilian domination of the coffee market actually proved advantageous to producers throughout Latin America. "Although in 1906 Brazil produced some 80 percent of the world's coffee, the institutionalization of the market with scheduled large steamers, railroads, warehouses, standards, futures market, and…new convenience coffee products opened North American and European ports to other Latin American producers. Rather than a zero-sum game, this was a situation of mutual gains for coffee producers" (p. 129). Details like these are found throughout this volume which also includes works on silver (Marichal), coffee (Topik and Mario Samper), chocolate (Mary Ann Mahony), guano and nitrates (Rory Miller and Robert Greenhill), indigo (David McCreery), tobacco (Laura Nater), sugar (Horacio Crespo), rubber (Aldo Musacchio and Frank), and henequen (Alan Wells).

While many of these studies reveal the great potential of the commodity-chain approach for illustrating linkages between local and global processes, at times the [End Page 299] essays feel a little too compact for the enormity of some of these issues. Commodity-chain approaches always present the irony that despite an apparently narrow focus on a single substance, coverage of the entire "chain" requires an enormous amount of detail and explanation. Even the best essays here sometimes are forced to leave some aspect of the "chain" less than fully realized, be it labor relations at the production end or the cultures of...


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