The Hollow Frontier and the Logistic Travails of Fieldwork

June 9, 2008

Much to my surprise, I am still in Lima, still waiting to head off to the field. The logistical complications that have led to my prolonged stay in Lima have gotten me thinking about the concept of the ‘hollow frontier’ in Amazonia — for reasons that will become clear. The notion of the hollow frontier is an old one in Brazilian historiography, but I first came across it several years ago while reading William Fisher’s Rainforest Exchanges, a work on the interaction between extractive industry and community politics among the Xikrin Kayapo of central Brazil.

In this work, Fisher invokes the notion of the ‘hollow frontier’ as way of understanding important aspects of the history of Amazonia from the 18th century on. In particular, Fisher uses the concept to talk about the waves of extractive industry — among them the sarsparilla, rubber, and timber industries — that have swept through Amazonia. In North America, extractive industries frequently formed the leading edge of long-term colonization of areas previously inhabited and controlled by indigenous peoples. In much of Amazonia, in contrast, the successive waves of extractive activity have not served as the leading edge of substantial permanent settlement by non-indigenous peoples. Rather, as soon as the extractivist boom collapses, non-indigenous population in the extractive zones drops back off, as does the interest of the nation state, and most of the temporary infrastructure that supported the extractive industry evaporates. In Amazonia, then, the waves of extractive industry are not so much the leading edge of permanent non-indigenous colonization as short term extractivist booms that leave relatively little state influence or infrastructure in their wake.

My recent reflections on the hollow frontier have been triggered by the fact that my delay in Lima are in large part the consequence of the ongoing collapse of one of these hollow frontiers near one of my fieldsites, the town of Sepahua.

Sepahua is a small town on the banks of the lower Urubamba River, near the southern border of the departmento of Ucayali, that has for several decades effectively marked the edge of mestizo society in its area of the selva. The town began as a Dominican mission that was founded in 1948 to missionize the Amahuaca, Yine (Piro), and Asháninka living in the area, and a small mestizo settlement of traders and minor extractivists began to grow at the side of the mission not long after its foundation. At this time Sepahua was very difficult to get to from the main mestizo jungle urban centers like Pucallpa, requiring a river journey of roughly two weeks. One can get a sense of how remote mestizos and the Peruvian state considered Sepahua by the fact that Sepahua was a day’s travel beyond a penal colony founded in 1951 at the mouth of the Sepa River, a tributary of the Urubamba.

The town grew very slowly until the early 1980s, when rising prices for tropical hardwoods, especially mahogany, made logging in this remote region quite profitable. Another extractivist boom hit the region at about the same time: Shell began petrochemical exploration in the region. Shell built a significant airstrip in Sepahua and a variety of commercial businesses sprang up to supply the company and its workers — from bars and brothels to dry goods merchants. Shell left the region in the late 1980s, but many of the people drawn to Sepahua by Shell stayed and turned to logging to support themselves. Rising prices for mahogany and cedar drew even more people, and by the early 1990s, huge amounts of timber were being harvested from an ever-widening area around Sepahua.

The growth of Sepahua received some unusual help in 1991/2 when the town was attacked by a small group of Sendero Luminoso. The attack did little more than frighten the townsfolk, but the Fujimori government took no chances. To protect the airstrip and prevent the expansion of the SL into this new area, the government built a base and sent in a detachment of marines, which further stimulated commercial growth in Sepahua.

I first visited Sepahua in 1993, and even between then and the late 1990s, the town grew by leaps and bounds, reaching a population of about 4000. Sepahua was a real boom town. By the late 1990s, however, accessible timber was getting noticeably scarcer. The economic collapse of the region was fended off for a few more years by a modest amount of local economic activity linked to the Camisea natural gas project, but by the time this income dried up, logging in the region was in serious decline.

Airplane flights, which were weekly in the early 1990s and almost daily in the late 1990s and early 2000s, became monthly and then ceased altogether when the airstrip could no longer be maintained. Symptomatic of Sepahua’s decline, the military presence in the town was reduced to almost zero a few years ago. As of 2007, when I was last there, the only reliable way to get to Sepahua was by boat, a return to the early 1980s. But even here, things were no longer the same: the collapse of the hollow frontier in Sepahua meant that even river transport became relatively scarce.

Which bring us to me, sitting in Lima. If it were just a question of getting myself to Sepahua, there would not be much of an issue. The trip would be more circuitous and time-consuming than in years past, but I would be able to get from Lima to Sepahua in 4-5 days. The problem is that I also need to transport a sizable quantity of medical supplies to Sepahua, as part of an agreement with several indigenous communities in the region. And here the impact of the collapse of the hollow frontier in the Sepahua region is strongest: previously, there was a regular overland-and-river route from Lima to Sepahua run by numerous traders in Sepahua to supply manufactured goods to the town. However, with the collapse of logging in the Sepahua region, demand for goods has largely dried up, and now there is only one person doing the route — and very irregularly at that! The economic activity and infrastructure that I came to rely on over the course of the last decade has largely evaporated, a victim of the hollow frontier.

It has been close to two years since I was last in Sepahua, so it will be interesting to see how the town has fared. In the go-go early 2000s, Sepahua even had internet service, but when I was last there, it seemed to be on its last legs. If the internet connection is still working when I eventually get there, I will be sure to write a short post. The hollow frontier being what it is, though, I’m not counting on it.


Fisher, William. 2000. Rainforest Exchanges: Industry and Community on an Amazonian Frontier. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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