Michitake Aso – Rubber and the Making of Vietnam

23 August, 2021 - examPrep

Michitake Aso’s Rubber and the Making of Vietnam: An Ecological History, 1897-1975 traces the development of Vietnamese rubber plantations from French colonialism, through decolonization, to the end of the Vietnam-American War. Aso treats rubber plantations as laboratories, not only of agricultural and medical (really, public health) knowledge production, but also and mainly as laboratories “for the testing and implementation of dif­ferent arrangements of power.” In this framework, Aso is interested in three main arrangements of power that map onto the three periods outlined above: colonial power, anti-colonial resistance, and nation-building. The rubber plantation prefigured and was reconfigured by each of these periods’ power arrangements. As the subtitle suggests, Aso’s book is very much an environmental history. Not only does it deploy the environmental history methodology par excellence of non-human agency, it seeks to demonstrate “how humans and nature formed, and were formed by, plantation agriculture” that does not view “transformations in environments and bodies as separate.” In fact, Rubber and the Making of Vietnam reads much more as an environmental history and a history of environmental public health than as a history of technology. It is much more a history of rubber plantations than rubber per se, and while plantations are certainly technological systems, I cannot help but feel that, caught up in all the work Aso wants Vietnam’s rubber plantations to do to tell a political, economic, labor, and environmental history, those plantations do not end up telling much of a technological history. They appear, perhaps only in my reading, for much of the book to be passive scenery to the main action of the story.

There are, of course, exceptions in the narrative where the plantation plays an agentive role, as when various Vietnamese anti-colonial armies tactically used the plantations as the perfect combination of forest canopy aerial cover and underbrushless foot-traffic highway. Most often, though, the rubber plantation and rubber itself recede into the narrative background to give way to higher-order dialogue among elites about peasant welfare, public health initiatives, the late- and de-colonial political quagmire of Southeast Asia, or the constantly thorny imbalance between everyone’s wages and the cost of everything (in sometimes excruciating detail: I now know the cost of everything in 1930s piasters and 1960s dong). The absence of technology in Aso’s history of rubber and rubber plantations is a serious missed opportunity, I think. Early on, in the first chapter, Aso establishes the significant material and symbolic linkages between modernity (via mobility) and rubber — through the shoe, the bicycle, the automobile, and the airplane. Yet the technological modernities explored in Aso’s book seem mostly to do with architectural improvements to plantation facilities and the infrastructural improvements of roads connecting rubber plantations to population centers.

The negative space where technology history should be makes the presence of its absence felt throughout Aso’s story. This present absence is felt not only in the lack of discussion of rubber consumer and military technologies, which seem to be obvious candidates for inclusion, but, for example, when Aso mentions as an aside that the plant growth hormones 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, which agronomists were testing on hevea trees, also happen to be chemical components of Agent Orange: a non-human actor that played an alarmingly consequential role in the history of Vietnam under consideration and one which intersected with the agency of rubber plantations as Viet Minh superhighways (for which Agent Orange was used to defoliate and expose troop movements). Or, to take another example that comes to mind, “Red Earth, Gray Earth” is set up as an organizing framework for the first chapter but the significance of this distinction is never made clear. The reader is left with the impression, after a while, that terre rouge was better for rubber trees and that it was found in rural areas, but it does not enter the story as an agent until the final chapter when Aso, in another aside, remarks that it held its shape and therefore made the tunnels of the Viet Minh army possible. The same clay-rich property of the soil that was relevant to rubber plantations and deforestation (that it could become impermeable hardpan if exposed to water erosion) made it a significant factor in the wars for Vietnamese anti-colonial independence as a means of mobility and safety.

In the context of deforestation, clayish terre rouge became a conduit for the flow of water runoff; in the context of guerilla warfare it became a conduit for the flow of soldiers and materiel. Rubber and the Making of Vietnam is part of a series titled “Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges” and its section titles — “Fluid Borders”, “Circulation”, and “Bleeding the Colonial Economy”, for example — vividly metaphorize the kinds of flows of latex, soldiers, war materiel, malaria, migrant laborers, and knowledge that characterize Aso’s book. Aso compellingly depicts how “plantations promoted certain forms of mobility while inhibiting others within a broader imperial framework” and how this physical mobility of people and things connects to a modernity of mobility. Aso also conjures a rubber- and rubber arboriculture-based metaphorical lexicon in other section titles — “Stamped by Rubber”, “Sapped Strength”, “Planting a Resistance Economy”, “Growing a National Economy”, “Tapping Independence”, “Overstretched” — but I think, missed an opportunity to connect these two sets of metaphors, or to make them do much analytic work, by highlighting the flow of latex from hevea root to trunk to collection bucket to boiler to truck to factory to [insert consumer/industrial/military goods]. This flow of latex, and the viscosity of its flow (altered by ecological, epidemiological, labor, logistical, and geopolitical forces) was a primary historical force in Aso’s 20th century Viet Nam, just not explicitly enough in his narrative to elevate it to the level of conscious historiographic framework.

One more thing I would like to discuss: Aso does an excellent job of making explicit the different chronological patterns of rubber cultivation, from the diurnal cycles of plantation labor, the seasonal cycles of aridity and mosquito demography (and therefore the malaria reproductive cycle), to the generational lifecycles of hevea trees. The seven years of pre-production hevea maturation and the 30 or so years of hevea productivity come to shape the logics of labor and capital. Whereas other industries might responsively react to rapidly changing geopolitical landscapes with timely investments and divestments, a rubber plantation might plant a grove under a French colonial regime, wait for hevea to mature while the Third French Republic falls, morphs into a collaborationist Vichy allowed to exist by the Japanese, the Japanese takeover and expelling of the French, the Japanese abandon Southeast Asia, then the hevea begins to produce latex while successive American-backed “democratic” South Vietnamese regimes wrest control from one another while America, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and China fight a war for ten years, then, by the time the hevea grove is becoming exhausted it’s inside the boundaries of and operating within the economic system of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. There is, put simply, a disjuncture between the tempo of rubber growing and the tempo of economic and political activity, but, on the other hand, a conjunction of the temporal pattern of a rubber plantation’s birth, growth, and maturation, and the birth, growth, and maturation of post-colonial Vietnamese political and economic independence. Aso captures both this disjuncture and this conjunction. 










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