Bradford Barham, an agricultural economist at the University of Wisconsin, and Oliver Coomes, a geographer at McGill University, have produced an intriguing economic history of the rubber boom in the Peruvian and Brazilian Amazon. Based exclusively on secondary, published sources, but not newspapers of the period under study (1860-1910), the book revisits the economic boom of the Iquitos-Manaus-Belem axis and its basin. Testing the existing analyses against the theory of industrial organization and the Dutch disease model, Barham and Coomes reject the current interpretations of why the Amazon Valley failed to create plantations and remained underdeveloped.

They quickly dismiss earlier works on the Amazon rubber boom as too “descriptive.” The vulcanization process invented by Charles Goodyear in 1839 paved the way for the rubber boom some two decades later. In the Brazilian Amazon basin, the hevea type of rubber grew wildly, while in the upper valley of the river in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, the caucho predominated (pp. 35-37). The Brazilian hevea can be tapped and harvested year after year, while the Peruvian castilloa tree must be cut down to extract rubber. The authors argue that extracting rubber from the hevea was a sustainable activity, while collecting rubber from the caucho was not.

Thus emerged two contrasting social relations. In Brazil, a rubber tapper relied on credit (supplies and provisions) from a trader, often via a patron, and worked as an independent economic agent. By law, the rubber estate belonged to the patron, but raw rubber collected belonged to the tapper. The “pyramid pricing” system victimized the tapper more often than not; but Barham and Coomes question whether debt peonage existed, given the vast territory, which made monitoring tappers inherently difficult to impossible. The indebted simply could “exit” without fear. In Peru, the tapper, often an Indian who had his own food supplies and materials, worked for the “credit plus share” system (pp. 67-68).

The rubber industry suffered from the chronic price instability caused by international market volatility, scarce labor, inelastic production, rickety and risky modes of riverine transportation, costly supplies, and even debt peonage, not to mention the high death rate among rubber gatherers. In 1903, a U.S. consul in Pará reported that five thousand people left for the rubber fields in a single week. The boom mentality was so pervasive that the allure of profit siphoned off people from families and work to the “green hell.” One recurring concern among tappers, patrons, and traders, including export houses, however, was how to rationalize the production system, or build a modern plantation system. During the 50-year boom, the industry failed to transform itself into a plantation system similar to the Asian systems the British built in Ceylon and Malaya.

The book cites three principal explanations for this failure. The Marxist school has attributed the failure to an involuntary alliance of the tapper and the trader. The former sought to guard autonomy, while the latter sought to monopolize trading opportunities. Thus, together, they resisted the “proletarianization” of the “precapitalist” rubber tappers and preempted capital accumulation, thereby forestalling the emergence of the modern capitalist institution (pp. 18-20). The dependency school blames the unequal exchange relationship for draining surplus rent out of the Amazon to the pockets of foreign capitalists in the center. The periphery never had a chance to develop. And the “political ecologist” school argues that the extractive economy inherently precipitated “a net outflow of value and energy,” equally preempting all future development and exacerbating the environmental degradation from mass poverty and perpetual underdevelopment (pp. 106-7).

The problem with this book is that although the arguments advanced by Barham and Coomes against the existing interpretations are cogent, they offer little or no empirical data to back them up. In countering the dependency and Marxist theses of underdevelopment, the authors state that “substantial surplus was available locally for investment” (p, 80). As to the ecologist argument, Barham and Coomes cite Martin Katzman’s argument that exploiting natural resources in itself is not “self-limiting” and that the Amazon’s “carrying capacity can be increased” (p. 107), Finally, introducing their “macroeconomic theory of distorted development,” Barham and Coomes adroitly explain how the Dutch disease model can be applied to the Amazon but again offer little or no empirical data to test the model (pp. 109-10).

Barham and Coomes could have produced a better and more readable book, and therefore a more credible piece of scholarship, had they relied on hard empirical data from fieldwork in Brazil and Peru. Their good intentions notwithstanding, the book could have used solid primary historical data and a bit more familiarity with the Portuguese language.