Elevate Difference

Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill

Professor Gabriela Soto Laveaga’s newest monograph, Jungle Laboratories, is a telling history that unravels the transnational political economy of barbasco yam production in Mexico from its discovery to its use in the early medicalization of synthetic hormonal steroids that created the birth control pill. According to Laveaga, the developing country context of the Pill’s history was so successfully erased from history that even the “peasant” culture in Oaxaca has allegedly forgotten its own crucial role in one of the past century’s most important scientific breakthroughs. Part of what Marxist theorists would call the “false consciousness” of history is revealed in this book.

Although production of synthetic hormones in Mexico predated World War I, controlling the barbasco trade in the the early to mid-1970s became a national project for the Mexican government. After reading Jungle Laboratories, I got the sense that “making the pill” was part of a larger initiative of “making a nation” consisting of “biocitizens” who were not just part of elite scientific knowledge production but were also expected to self-regulate their own population growth as part of President Luis Echeverría’s vision of a new Mexico.

While women were targeted for birth control campaigns, “male campesinos were encouraged to read agrarian law and technical manuals to become better and more productive citizens.” It is clear from these examples that women were positioned as part of the "population problem" to be acted upon by policies, whereas men were seen as the future policymakers and the population empowered by educational campaigns. Although the author could have written a feminist analysis of the nationalist projects, she did not; this is my own feminist reading taken from separate examples in the text that were separated by almost a hundred pages in Laveaga's book.

In general, Laveaga could have drawn out more of a critical analysis. The introduction gave an anthropologist like me high hopes for the inclusion of social theories ranging from Nikolas Rose’s biocitizenship to Michael Taussig’s theories on the layering of history and the magic of the state. However, with the exception of a couple of mentions, the theoretical underpinnings to this story were almost invisible. Given its gripping narrative, and implications for social theories pulled from elsewhere, Laveaga’s book is a good buy for an undergraduate curriculum such as reproductive health and medical anthropology. It is also an engaging read for women who are curious about the political economy of the pills they are popping on a daily basis.

Written by: Maya N. Vaughan-Smith, May 1st 2010

What an interesting story! Does Laveaga's book have any information on how its use in the Pill changed the way Mexican campesinos consumed barbasco as a food?

Esther -- The book has some information on how the campesinos sometimes used barbasco medicinally, but says that they did not use it as a food source unless extremely desperate. Harvesting it for the synthesis of hormones didn't deprive them of a food source, since they generally didn't eat it and it grew in the wild.