It’s no secret that since the 1970s cocaine export booms have fundamentally altered Andean states, social relations, and peasantries. Still, there is little research that traces the historical origins of Latin American drug trades, though much is known (or speculated) about their dramatic repercussions. In measurable ways, Bolivia was swiftly transformed into the Andean nation most economically “addicted to” (i.e., dependent on) international cocaine, in part due to the frailty of its alternative national economies. Bolivia also remains home to the most widespread (and culturally respected) traditions of indigenous coca use, though their relation to cocaine cultures is small. Harry Sanabria’s compelling ethnography follows a group of peasants from highland Cochabamba’s modest hamlet of Pampa as it increasingly became part of criminalized and globalizing drug trades in the lowland Chapare region—thus shedding light on the murky historical space between coca and cocaine.

Sanabria’s study is largely ethnographic, influenced by the peasant studies and political economy wings of anthropology, with an added effort by the author to “link varied levels of analysis,” from the most local to the most global. Lucidly researched and written, the book wrestles with the emergence of migration into the Chapare coca-producing region and how this has affected peasant household economies, land tenure, mobility, income, and social mores, particularly in the migrants’ impoverished home village of Pampa, where peasants have turned away from their traditional mainstay of potatoes. Rigorous, the book is thus more akin to Edmundo Morales’s Peruvian case study Cocaine: White Gold Rush in the Andes (Tuscon, 1989) than to cultural, romantic, or Andeanist perspectives on coca. Indeed, one of Sanabria’s methodological virtues is to frame moves to illicit cocaine as a non-normative product (quite literally) of peasant actions and initiative, albeit activities simulated, organized, and exploited by forces—market and otherwise—far from the Cochabamba highlands.

For historians in particular, the third chapter, “Coca and the Politics of Development,” is the eye-opener. It unveils how national development policies (aided by a worrisome United States), designed to open up lowland “jungles” to land-hungry and restless campesinos, led ineluctably to the commercialization of coca on an unprecendented scale. Traditionally, Bolivia’s licit national coca (for customary “chewing”) hailed from the lands of the Yungas (near La Paz), not from the tropics of Cochabamba, though schemes to profitably people these latter zones date to at least colonial times. Post-1952 modernization campaigns, sponsored and spontaneous colonization, and the Alliance for Progress brought this dream to fruition, while the “shock” treatments of the world economy in the 1980s conclusively speeded desperate peasants into the concentric cocaine networks of Santa Cruz, Medellín, and Miami. This hidden process, then, was rife with paradox. It may also indicate a general pattern, for researcher Jo Ann Kawell (see, for example, NACLA 22:6) has found a similar historical dynamic in Peru’s infamous Huallaga valley, source of most of the world’s traded coca paste. The policy implications, as Sanabria suggests toward the end of his book, are complex, since in the face of such historically-embedded agrarian survival movements, U.S.-prompted crusades to repress the trade (of the late 1980s) or drives to implant “alternative” development (as in Macadamia nuts) are destabilizing, illogical, futile, or injust. Historians may also be drawn to Sanabria’s portrayal of intensifying “capitalist development” around coca (mindful of our earlier debates) or just to knowing the futures (here, not promising) of Andean subjects so often pursued.

Most of the text, however, minutely follows household, village, and migratory strategies and allied social science concerns, tempered by human voices. Sanabria tends to pessimistically judge the impact of illicit coca growing on peasant well-being, and not surprisingly blames coca for the deterioration of potato cultures. Yet in other ways commodification and drugs are not necessarily read as solvents of time-honored Andean lifestyles. Many counterintuitional ideas get launched here, though some will seem overly complex; for commercial bonanzas, legal or not, always generate a multiplicity of winners, losers, and in-betweens. An epilogue (post-1985) and theoretical conclusion bring the study up-to-date, though neither is strictly linked to the historical issues raised. In short, this is a fine contribution to peasant studies, recent Bolivian history, and to serious analyses of the drug trades. Now drug history in earnest can cultivate this compelling field.