How Rubber Plantations Reshaped Vietnam: A Conversation with Michitake Aso

A blue bucket attached to a rubber tree
Rubber plantation in Vietnam.

This is the seventh piece in a series on the Plantationocene—a proposed alternate name for the epoch often called the Anthropocene. The Plantationocene Series aims to create a conversation about multiple forms of plantations, both past and present, as well as the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, and social relations.

Rubber and the sprawling plantations necessary for its mass production have profoundly reshaped ecologies and economies around the world, feeding demand for the material in imperial metropoles and serving as a nexus of extractive and exploitative practices in what is often called the Global South. In his new book, Rubber and the Making of Vietnam: An Ecological History, 1897-1975, Michitake Aso (Associate Professor of the Global Environment, University of Albany, SUNY) details how rubber plantations made the French colony of Indochina and post-independence Vietnam a nexus of capitalism, scientific knowledge, exploitation, resistance, and (post)colonial restructuring of economy and society. Far from ending along with formal colonialism, rubber plantations continued to dominate the landscape of Vietnam through years of war, first with France and then with the United States after 1945.

In May, I sat down with Aso to discuss his new book, as well as the constellation of meanings that emerged around rubber plantations in French Indochina from the 1890s through the end of the U.S.-Vietnam War in 1975.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Jeffrey Guarneri: Could you give our listeners the elevator-pitch version of your book and share what brought you to the project?

The cover of Michitake Aso's book, Rubber and the Making of VietnamMichitake Aso: Sure. The book is about rubber, Vietnamese society, and Vietnamese environment from the end of the 19th century to 1975. I argue that rubber is a key global commodity, but also a key local product that reshapes the environment and the society of Vietnam in its border region with Cambodia. It affects the way Vietnam is thought of and the way the Vietnamese economy works. My interest in rubber also stems from the history of science and the history of medicine and the ways in which knowledge creation around this product informed the ways that people in Vietnam think about the environment.

Rubber right now is an esoteric product, but in the 19th century it was very visible and new. I got interested in rubber when I was teaching English in Vietnam right after college back in 1998. I was at a teacher’s training college in the city of Bien Hoa, which was one of the centers of rubber production during the colonial era. There I saw my first rubber plantation and grew curious about rubber and its effects. Then in graduate school I became interested in colonial medicine and colonial science and the ways in which those projects were informed by production and commodities. So rubber seemed to be a good way to combine the environmental history of Vietnam in the 20th century and the history of global commodities.

JG: I’m interested in the symbolic importance as “revolutionary spaces” and parts of a “resistance economy” that plantations took on for many Vietnamese people during the First Indochina War (1946-1954). Could you elaborate on that?

MA: The question of economy and symbols is complicated. What I tried to focus in on the book was the particular role that plantations played in the conception of an economy. Plantations were seen as providing revenue for the French imperial state and rubber for the French nation—especially for companies like Michelin. But that tie between Vietnamese and Cambodian rubber and France is pretty weak. Most rubber went to Singapore and was sold off to different places.

During the First Indochina War, there’s a resistance economy being built: the national economy of southern Vietnam. Different groups are trying to envision a post-colonial Vietnamese economy. It could work largely within the global economy and cooperate with the French but still be a national economy in some sense—with, say, a federated states model. But the French are either resistant to, or completely dismissive of, these calls to make plantations into Vietnamese-controlled spaces. So in some ways the resistance economy fails.

The specifics matter: the species of crop, the geographic location, what diseases there are, the climate, the society, the forms of labor organization.

During the First Indochina War the plantation is, for the Viet Minh, a hated colonial symbol. Rubber workers, especially, think of plantations as the source of misery and exploitation. So up until the late 1940s most of the revolutionary work is aimed destruction, whether it’s killing the trees by stripping their bark, or burning the trees, or burning rubber.

But by the late 1940s revolutionary leaders start to see plantations as valuable resources in the fight against the French and, looking past the war, in establishing the Vietnamese state, whether it will have a socialist or capitalist economy. Resistance leaders start to call for rubber laborers to redirect the plantation resources—to take rubber and sell it on the market themselves, for example, or to take medicines that are stockpiled on plantations and use them to aid resistance fighters. There’s even one example of some Viet Minh taking an airplane that is part of the plantation and using it to go up and survey where French soldiers are.

JG: I love that image. Another aspect of your book that grabbed me was that, during the Vietnam War, rubber plantations were seldom the tightly controlled spaces we might expect. We instead see plantations-as-borderlands, right?

MA: That’s a great insight. Here, geographical specificity matters. These plantations are, in a lot of ways, defined by their position on the Vietnam-Cambodia border. There’s no natural feature that defines the border, whether you are in the rolling foothills of the plantations or further south in the rice-growing country of the Mekong Delta. In the colonial era and still today, the border is weakly defined politically and people cross it pretty easily. During the Vietnam War, the border hardens. The plantations are affected by this hardening and contribute to it. Neither the U.S. and South Vietnamese nor the North Vietnamese are supposed to be in Cambodia or Laos, but of course they all are. So the plantations become key spots of contestation and entry.

If you ever walk around a plantation, it’s very destabilizing—a vast maze where it’s hard to see that far into the distance.

The specificity of the rubber tree itself makes a difference, too. Rubber could have been produced in a patchwork by Vietnamese smallholders, but it is instead produced on large plantations, most owned by the French but some owned by Vietnamese elites. French agricultural science encouraged a homogeneous landscape, with trees planted in very neat, equally spaced rows, with the brush cleared between them. It turns out, ecologically, leaving the brush would have better for the health of the rubber trees, providing fertilizer and protection. But planters judged each other and their production on aesthetic standards.

These vast, neatly spaced plantings gave key advantages to resistance forces, providing great mobility for fighters who were often moving on foot. By contrast, American and South Vietnamese tanks and trucks didn’t have great mobility in the landscape, eliminating their mechanized advantage. Resistance forces also benefited from the limited horizontal visibility. If you ever walk around a plantation, it’s very destabilizing—a vast maze where it’s hard to see that far into the distance. So North Vietnamese soldiers could move quite undetected.

Several people dressed in military uniforms walk through neat rows on rubber trees on a plantation in Vietnam

Members of the Royal Australian Regiment patrol a rubber plantation during an operation in Vietnam in 1968. Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

The vertical visibility is reduced, too. So the absolute dominance of French, South Vietnamese, and U.S. airpower had in rice paddies did not extend to rubber plantations when the trees were in full leaf. So within a few years of the arrival of U.S. forces, American policy calls for cutting down trees and spraying herbicides. But even these attempts to control the plantation space was restricted because these areas were often still owned by the French, who in the late 1960s sued the U.S. government for destroying some of its plantations.

JG: The Plantationocene is a variation on the concept of the Anthropocene. It contends that human agency as the dominant force in global geological and ecological change really began with the plantation form in the Atlantic under European colonial domination. Under this system, natures (including people, other fauna, and flora) are disciplined and, to borrow Raj Patel and Jason Moore’s term, “cheapened” in ways that maximize profit but peripheralize the environmental and social risk of plantations to colonies and the Global South. Do you see your work as part of this discussion? You show throughout your book that rubber plantations in Vietnam often failed to discipline people and nature, despite being created as tools for precisely that purpose.

MA: I think it’s interesting to pull back to the question of global plantation production during the Cold War. In the 1990s historian Phil Curtin came up with a list of characteristics of the global plantation, which was very useful as I started my research. But as I got further into the project, I started wanting to push back onto this idea of the global form of the plantation and generalizations about how plantations work. The specifics really matter: the species of crop, the geographic location, what diseases there are, the climate, the society, the forms of labor organization. All of these specify plantations. And, thinking like a historian, time matters. We don’t want to fall into the idea of a timeless global plantation, or at least a timelessness within the era of capitalism.

Vietnamese currency depicting laborers working at a rubber plantation

At some points, Vietnamese currency has recognized the contributions of laborers working at rubber plantations. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

If we talk about plantations cheapening and being dependent on cheap non-human nature, like the rubber tree, we have to take into account that this exploitation of flora continued under socialism after 1975. I guess you could call that a global truth of plantations. But what I do think happened under socialism, at least for a brief time, was a pushback again the cheapening of humans, of labor. You can see this in images and symbolism. Plantations appear on Vietnamese money and rubber workers are celebrated on propaganda posters.

But, unfortunately, the adoption of certain market forces, starting in the mid-1980s—maybe you call it neoliberalism—threatened the return to the cheapening of human labor, along with the continued cheapening of non-human nature. Rubber plantations are an interesting case because they remain under state control, so rubber workers are caught between the socialism and capitalism. In the 2000s there’s an attempt to remind the Vietnamese society and the Vietnamese leaders of the Communist Party that Vietnamese workers rubber workers did a lot to establish the current political regime. Recent struggles over labor echo in some ways colonial struggles over labor rights. So that’s a disturbing development, to say the least.

We are also seeing the Vietnamese state using the rubber industry to extend control over Cambodia and Laos. State-owned rubber companies are a spearhead to go in and either extract timber resources or gain control of land, in ways that are reminiscent of colonial-era strategies.

Featured image: A rubber tree on a plantation near Kon Tum, Vietnam. Photo by Gavin White, 2011.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Michitake Aso is Associate Professor of the Global Environment at the University of Albany, SUNY. He is the author of Rubber and the Making of Vietnam: An Ecological History, 1897–1975 (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), winner of the 2019 Henry A. Wallace Award from the Agricultural History Society. The book is based on his dissertation, which was awarded 2013 Young Scholars Prize from the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Jeffrey Guarneri is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an historian of twentieth century Japan, with an emphasis on Japan’s urban and maritime histories in the interwar period (1918-1941). He is especially interested in the intersections of Japanese and global histories, and his work explores how urban communities in Japan and the Japanese empire operated and saw themselves within inter- and transnational cultural, economic, and political networks. Website. Contact.