Rubber and the Making of Vietnam: An Ecological History, 1897-1975

Rubber and the Making of Vietnam: An Ecological History, 1897-1975

Rubber and the Making of Vietnam: An Ecological History, 1897-1975

Rubber and the Making of Vietnam: An Ecological History, 1897-1975


Dating back to the nineteenth-century transplantation of a latex-producing tree from the Amazon to Southeast Asia, rubber production has wrought monumental changes worldwide. During a turbulent Vietnamese past, rubber transcended capitalism and socialism, colonization and decolonization, becoming a key commodity around which life and history have revolved. In this pathbreaking study, Michitake Aso narrates how rubber plantations came to dominate the material and symbolic landscape of Vietnam and its neighbors, structuring the region's environment of conflict and violence. Tracing the stories of agronomists, medical doctors, laborers, and leaders of independence movements, Aso demonstrates how postcolonial socialist visions of agriculture and medicine were informed by their colonial and capitalist predecessors in important ways. As rubber cultivation funded infrastructural improvements and the creation of a skilled labor force, private and state-run plantations became landscapes of oppression, resistance, and modernity.
Synthesizing archival material in English, French, and Vietnamese, Aso uses rubber plantations as a lens to examine the entanglements of nature, culture, and politics and demonstrates how the demand for rubber has impacted nearly a century of war and, at best, uneasy peace in Vietnam.


It was like being in a wilderness, but yet not. Dolly had visited Huay Zedi several
times and had come to love the electric stillness of the jungle. But this was like
neither city nor farm nor forest: there was something eerie about its uniformity;
about the fact that such sameness could be imposed upon a landscape of such
natural exuberance. She remembered how startled she’d been when the automobile
crossed from the heady profusion of the jungle into the ordered geometry of the
plantation. “It’s like stepping into a labyrinth,” she said to Elsa.

— Amitav Ghosh, The Glass Palace

The contribution of Dr. A. Yersin to Vietnamese agriculture at the beginning of
this century is really great. Through this contribution, one can see a Yersin who
opens the way, a Yersin who always goes in the lead. We admire Yersin not only
for his contribution but moreover for his resolute audacity to be oriented always
toward new horizons.

— Đặng Văn Vinh

The story of Alexandre Yersin (1863–1943) is an unlikely place to start a story about rubber. Born in Switzerland, Yersin trained as a medical researcher in Paris before heading to the French colonies in Asia in 1890, where he gained fame for his role in the discovery of the plague bacillus in Hong Kong. in 1895, he established a laboratory in the coastal town of Nha Trang, which became one of the three branches of the Pasteur Institute in French Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina). He also explored the hinterlands around Nha Trang and played an important role in establishing the colonial hill station of Đà Lạt.

Although Yersin is more celebrated for his medical and veterinary discoveries, he also had a keen interest in agriculture. Yersin established a farm outside Nha Trang at a place called Suối Dầu, meaning “the spring of the Dipterocarps” (a genus of tropical trees). Yersin wanted this agricultural plot to serve as a testing ground to demonstrate the types of plants that could be grown in Indochina and to show how they could be acclimatized to the local soil and climate. He had many crops planted, including Eloeis guineensis (palm oil), Liberian coffee, cacao, cinnamon, manioc, and medicinal plants, but the most agriculturally successful turned out to be hevea brasiliensis, a latex-secreting . . .

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