In the Shadows of State and Capital:
The United Fruit Company, Popular Struggle, and Agrarian
Restructuring in Ecuador, 1900-1995
Steve Striffler, Duke University Press, 2002. ISBN
0822328361; 242 pp; $18.95
July 26, 2004:
In the Shadows of State and Capital examines the shift
in agricultural production on the Tenguel hacienda on the southern
Ecuadorian coast, from cacao in the early twentieth century to banana
production under the United Fruit Company (UFCo) during mid-century
to contract farming in the last part of the century. This is an
excellent example of the emerging field of "new peasant studies"
which, rather than emphasizing class struggles and political organizations,
provides a historical and ethnographic analysis of agrarian restructuring
focusing instead on "politically engaged human actors"
(p. 5). Based largely on oral life histories, local "popular"
archives, and company records, Striffler examines how subaltern
struggles contributed to capitalist transformations and historical
changes that brought an isolated part of Ecuador from the margins
to the center of a global economy. The result is a fascinating and
compelling study of how local struggles shape global economies,
and vice versa.
The book is divided into two parts, with the first part analyzing
the emergence of the United Fruit Company banana plantations in
the aftermath of the cacao economy during the 1920s and the second
part focusing on the evolution of contract farming after agrarian
reform in the 1960s. Rather than discounting the United Fruit Company
as a negative force in Ecuador, Striffler (as well as the subjects
of this study) recognize the advantages that the company brought--including
better wages, better benefits, and improvements to the area's infrastructure
(p. 47). In fact, Striffler argues that "the 'penetration'
of foreign capital was never as smooth and one-sided as the metaphor
often seems to imply" (p. 29). In popular memory, the period
of economic growth in the 1950s, which resulted from a banana boom
when Ecuador became the world's major producer, is contrasted with
the previous cacao period in the 1920s, which was a "time of
slavery," and the subsequent modernizing agrarian reform programs
in the 1960s which, for the peasants, led to debt, disorganization,
and the loss of land to local capitalists (p. 138).
Striffler explains how in Ecuador the UFCo employed both paternalism
and such traditional forms of control as pro-management unions to
limit peasant dissent at the same time peasants negotiated fragmented
state structures to their eventual benefit. Specifically, rural
communities took advantage of a 1937 Ley de Comunas to organize
themselves in such a way that would eventually allow them to wrestle
control of land away from the UFCo. Although Ecuadorian state structures
were weak, Striffler argues that it is their presence, and not their
absence, that is significant (p. 79). Far from being victims, these
subalterns negotiated state structures to their own benefit.
Part 1 of the book ends with a 1962 strike that rocked UFCo's control
over the plantations, but Striffler refuses to stop the history
at this point. "To stop the historical narrative at just the
moment when subordinate groups have achieved some long-sought-after
goal," Striffler writes, "is not only populist, and dangerously
so, but bad history. It is to replace processes with events"
(p. 110). With this, he sets the stage for the emergence of contract
farming in the banana zones from the 1960s through the 1990s. This
is not a triumphalist history of oppressed peasants overcoming the
odds of government and capitalist repression to emerge victorious
at the end. Peasant invasions of United Fruit Company land in the
1960s led to the multi-national corporation's departure from Ecuador,
but the subsequent failure of cooperatives and the emergence of
contract farming actually left the workers worse off than before.
Yet Striffler insists that "we must, in short, begin to understand
how the failed (yet conscious and organized) struggles of subordinate
groups shape historical processes" (p. 17).
Part 2 of the book begins with an analysis of the 1964 agrarian
reform program which resulted in a misapplication of highland models
and assumptions regarding land tenure to banana plantations on the
coast with disastrous results. Government-formed cooperatives collapsed,
resulting in a series of problems including debt, disorganization,
and corruption, and leaving the workers in a worse position than
previously under the UFCo. In addition, changes in the mode of production
began to alter forms of peasant consciousness and organization,
including moving from a reliance on national labor to peasant federations
(p. 168). "If the first half of the book demonstrated how popular
organizations transformed a particular system of production,"
Striffler writes, "the second half outlines the opposite: namely,
how a new system of production, backed by the state, transformed
popular organizations and struggles" (p. 127).
In the final chapter, Striffler reflects on why in the 1990s this
region on the Ecuadorian coast, which has such a rich history of
popular organizing, has almost no popular organizations. He notes
how difficult it is to organize contract farmers against distant
corporations such as Dole Fruit that own no land and are only a
vague presence in the region. Furthermore, the lack of a permanent
labor force excludes workers from forming unions under Ecuador's
labor law, something that has also seriously hindered labor organization
on flower plantations in the highlands. This hinders the development
of worker consciousness, which also has influenced the nature of
their goals and desires.
Striffler's sophisticated interpretations of the interactions between
government officials, international corporations, local capitalists,
and subaltern actors make this a landmark book which will earn it
a place in leading studies of a new peasant history. This well-written
and compelling book crosses many borders between history, anthropology,
sociology, and political science. It will be of value to anyone
interested in ethnographic, labor, economic, and international relations
issues during the twentieth century not only in Ecuador, but throughout
Marc Becker, Division of Social Science, Truman State University