The Economic History of Cobija
Rubber, Brazil Nuts, Hard Woods and Poverty
The economic history of Cobija begins long before its founding in 1906. Its location, in the north of the Bolivian Amazon made it an ideal location for early human population and it has served as a home for numerous indigenous groups since before written history. Archaeological records demonstrate that the initial inhabitants subsisted on hunting, fishing and extracting the natural resources embodied in the forest around them. Due to their nomadic existence, it is believed that they maintained neither significant agriculture, nor large dwellings. Ultimately, this proved to be useful, as their lack of attachment to particular regions of their territory allowed them to avoid significant contact with the first Europeans who first entered the area in the mid 19th century.
These Bolivian and Brazilian explorers had come in search of Peruvian tree bark, at the time an important source of quinine (the medicine which is used to treat malarial infection). They soon discovered that the forest was replete with the material needed, and production began in earnest. The discovery in 1880 that many of the trees were rubber producing led to a boom in the region’s development and saw the full integration of the newly created Cobija into both the Bolivian and world economy.
The draw produced by the wealth available from rubber and the subsequent settlement of the area soon led to the subjugation and enslavement of the local indigenous population. Very soon, however, the indigenous alone could not sustain the increasing demand for rubber stock. Tens of thousands of labourers were imported from neighbouring areas and forced into a meagre existence on large rubber estates called barracas. Each barraca was controlled by a patron or landowner who provided his workers with basic goods at inflated prices. These goods were procured through barter with the patron and basic monetary transactions between the workers themselves were forbidden. In this way, the workers found themselves permanently indebted to the landowners.
Within a short time, the wealth produced by Cobija equalled larger cities in Latin America. Cobija and its sponsors became the envy of agriculturalists world wide. Thanks to its profitability, rubber extraction survived through to the 1930’s. However, the development of synthetic rubber during the inter-war period forced the world into a global rubber crisis. In response, the patrons of Cobija were forced to renovate agricultural methods and diversify production, relying more and more on other natural resources in order to offset their growing debt loads. This signified the beginning of a new form of agriculture which blended rubber extraction with low scale farming and the harvesting of Brazil nuts. Many families found themselves occupying the lands of deserted barracas, left barren when their owners fled to escape massive debt.
Production continued with varying degrees of success for the next 50 years. In the mid 1980’s, competition with Bolivian rubber plantations caused the Brazilian government to subsidize their own rubber extraction. With Bolivia’s economy unable to match such a measure, rubber production in Cobija found itself left to the whims of the world market. Unable to compete directly with their neighbours, the last plantations closed their doors in early 1990.
With rubber gone, Cobija’s families set their sights on more obscure and even illicit forms of income. The illegal trade in jaguar pelts and cayman skins (a small member of the alligator family) began to increase and for the first time the cutting of timber began to cause serious environmental degradation. It was into this climate that the first company dedicated to the harvesting and canning of palm hearts was set up near Cobija.
The extraction of palm hearts, unlike that of rubber, requires that the tree be cut down and destroyed. This, since 1994, has reshaped the rainforest around Cobija as more and more remote areas are desecrated in order to feed the region’s newest industry. Factories and roads are cut into the depths of the Amazon as palm hearts are processed within three days of being cut.
This system of resource extraction has been maintained to the present, with rubber existing as only a shadow of its former glory. Currently, low level Brazil nut production sustains many in the areas surrounding Cobija, with tourism becoming more and more of an attractive option. Of course, within the surrounding forest palm heart production continues apace, despite recent efforts by national and international governments to halt its effects on the rainforest.
The old rubber barracas still stand as a testament to the days of glory that made Cobija the envy of Bolivia and South America. These days tourism has gripped the city, renowned for its climate and natural splendour, and the ghost plantations afford foreigners a glimpse of a past, both chequered and noble, which contributes to the richness of Bolivia’s present.