- Indigenous Agency in the Amazon: The Mojos in Liberal and Rubber-Boom Bolivia, 1842–1932 by Gary Van Valen
The vast Amazon region of South America has not received enough attention from historians. Nowhere is that more demonstrable than in the Amazon of the [End Page 162] Spanish-speaking countries that border Brazil. With this book, the author fills an important gap by focusing on nineteenth-century Beni province, in eastern Bolivia. In addition to covering significant historical issues such as liberalism in the lowlands and a large but virtually unknown Indian rebellion, Van Valen argues that during the nineteenth century the indigenous peoples of the Beni—he focuses on the Mojo—were active agents rather than victims. It was not until the early twentieth century, with the decline of the rubber boom, that natives lost the space in which they could negotiate their roles in the nation.
The book offers many new views of Bolivian history, discerned through a vantage point within the tropical grasslands that were bifurcated by the rivers that flowed into the Amazon. Liberalism encroached upon the eastern region beginning in 1842, when President José Ballivián used liberal measures to try to incorporate the lowlands into the Bolivian nation. The Ballivián reforms abolished obligatory cotton production and favored private property among the indigenous population over the communal living arrangements mandated for their ancestors under the colonial Jesuit missionary system. These liberal reforms, however, were reversed in the 1850s.
A chapter on the rubber boom questions some of the predominant views of indigenous labor. Van Valen asserts that it was not rubber tapping, but rather rowing the boats that carried the rubber that was the most strenuous and abusive form of labor during this period. Conditions worsened significantly after 1880, when a second wave of liberalism swept over government institutions. In 1883 authorities abolished Indian tribute in Beni and created in its place a rubber tax, which meant that the state now favored the rubber interests over the indigenous population. Communal institutions disappeared and caciques began to look out for their individual interests, buying up land as did the whites who migrated to the area, especially around Trinidad, the capital of Beni province.
The second half of the book is dedicated to the Guayochería, a little-known indigenous millenarian movement that began when in 1886 Andrés Guayocho founded San Lorenzo, a village away from regular settlements on the western side of the Mamoré River. Here the Indians migrated to opt out of the system dominated by the carayana, as the dominant whites and mestizos were called. The carayana, concerned with indigenous families living outside of their sway, sent a hastily organized expedition, which was defeated by the San Lorenzans. A second expedition in 1887 destroyed the village, killing many indigenous men and women, as well as Guayocho. Survivors were whipped in the main plaza of Trinidad to prevent another such movement.
The Mojo adapted to the repression. Soon thereafter another indigenous leader, Andrés Noco, returned to San Lorenzo and rebuilt the village. Unlike Guayocho, Noco maintained relations with the carayana. However, he counterbalanced the white landed elite’s power by requesting and receiving a Franciscan mission. Noco became the regional caudillo. As elsewhere, the missionaries had little power and the native town remained relatively autonomous until Noco’s death in 1926. [End Page 163]
The last chapter, rather brief, is dedicated to conditions for natives in the towns of San Ignacio and Trinidad after the Guayochería. It shows the effects typical of liberal dominance, where whites took over land in the surrounding countryside and indigenous labor served the carayana on ranches and sugarcane estates. Schools for the Mojo in the countryside withered away. Even the urban areas, previously run by the Indians of the ex-mission towns, ended up increasingly in the hands of the carayana. The Mojo at times integrated liberal customs in...