Together with colleague Frederica Barclay we have recently published a book titled Tamed Frontiers. Economy, Society and Civil Rights in Upper Amazonia (Westview Press, 2000) on the transformations in the political economy and civil society of Loreto, the northeastern portion of Peru comprising two thirds of the country’s Amazonian territories. We contend that Loreto’s contemporary economy does not fit the model usually associated with frontier economies, marked by such traits as have been emphasized in the literature on Brazilian Amazonia, namely: 1. prevalence of extractive over productive activities, and the constant impoverishment of the resource base; 2. dependence on external demand and capital, and limited capital accumulation; 3. persistence of non-capitalist systems of production and exchange, and lack of a domestic market; 4. opportunistic and transient elites; 5. unstable demographic frontiers, and low levels of internal articulation; and 6. weak government presence, and generalized violence and lawlessness.
The historical analysis of Loreto’s increasing integration into the national life begins with the opening up of the region to international trade in 1851, and ends with the ascension to power of President AIberto Fujimori in 1990. We argue that differences in the economic agents involved, in types of productive activities, in linkages with the national and international markets, and modes of state intervention, resulted in different degrees of economic, social and political integration during each of three periods in the evolution of Loreto’s political economy: 1. the rubber boom (1851-1914); 2. the agroextractive export business (1915-1962); and 3. the agroextractive industrial economy (1963-1990).
For each of those periods we analyze the modes of state intervention, the structure and functioning of the region’s economy, the organization and strategies of the urban and rural elites, the composition and economic roles played by the rural population, and the conflicts and alliances existing between elites, rural laborers, and the state. The analysis has allowed us to: 1. contest much of what has been written on the Peruvian rubber boom economy; 2. reconstruct the main features of the political economy of Loreto during the poorly-known 1915-1962 period; and 3. reassess the social and political processes that have taken place after 1963.
Our analysis combines the perspectives and methodologies of social anthropology, history and political economy. This allows us to portray macro dimensions in the evolution of Loreto’s economy and society, while at the same time analyzing both the workings of different economic units, and the variations in the relationships of production and exchange. We also present a general picture of relationships among the region’s economic agents, first as abstract social actors then as individual human beings, the agents of history. Thus, we have placed special emphasis on the reconstruction of the trajectories followed by particular merchant houses, by large landholdings, and by riverine peasant settlements, while at the same time recreating the biographies of individual merchants, large landowners, and indigenous leaders. Given the absence, or dispersion, of quantitative economic data, we have also made a special effort to provide reliable statistical data on a variety of economic indicators
In short, this book documents an Amazonian regional economy from Peru that has clearly transcended its character as a violent and contested space to become a “tamed” frontier. The case of Loreto is not unique in Amazonia. The analysis of other similar cases should help identify the factors that have led to their integration. This will facilitate the design of policies that are better adapted to those areas still in the tumultuous stages of frontier expansion.