Jungle Laboratories

Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill

Jungle Laboratories

Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 26 illustrations, 1 figure Published: December 2009

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, History > Latin American History, Science and Technology Studies

In the 1940s chemists discovered that barbasco, a wild yam indigenous to Mexico, could be used to mass-produce synthetic steroid hormones. Barbasco spurred the development of new drugs, including cortisone and the first viable oral contraceptives, and positioned Mexico as a major player in the global pharmaceutical industry. Yet few people today are aware of Mexico’s role in achieving these advances in modern medicine. In Jungle Laboratories, Gabriela Soto Laveaga reconstructs the story of how rural yam pickers, international pharmaceutical companies, and the Mexican state collaborated and collided over the barbasco. By so doing, she sheds important light on a crucial period in Mexican history and challenges us to reconsider who can produce science.

Soto Laveaga traces the political, economic, and scientific development of the global barbasco industry from its emergence in the 1940s, through its appropriation by a populist Mexican state in 1970, to its obsolescence in the mid-1990s. She focuses primarily on the rural southern region of Tuxtepec, Oaxaca, where the yam grew most freely and where scientists relied on local, indigenous knowledge to cultivate and harvest the plant. Rural Mexicans, at first unaware of the pharmaceutical and financial value of barbasco, later acquired and deployed scientific knowledge to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, lobby the Mexican government, and ultimately transform how urban Mexicans perceived them. By illuminating how the yam made its way from the jungles of Mexico, to domestic and foreign scientific laboratories where it was transformed into pills, to the medicine cabinets of millions of women across the globe, Jungle Laboratories urges us to recognize the ways that Mexican peasants attained social and political legitimacy in the twentieth century, and positions Latin America as a major producer of scientific knowledge.


“[A] fine book that vividly re-creates the labor, production, processing, and political economy of one of the twentieth century’s most important medical advances. . . . Soto Laveaga’s book is a must read for anyone interested in modern Mexico—from rural society and identity to populism to economic development—as well as for the broader history of transnational business and the twentieth-century revolution in pharmaceuticals.” — Edward Beatty, Technology and Culture

Jungle Laboratories is a compelling and well documented study of the relationship between the transnational pharmaceutical industry and Mexican peasants in the 20th century.” — Fernando Armstrong-Fumero, American Journal of Sociology

Jungle Laboratories unites rigorous archival research with a compelling ethnographic sensibility. . . . For those wondering what jungle laboratories have to do with the making of the pill, look closer. Soto-Laveaga challenges readers to reconsider which histories and whose contributions count. Jungle Laboratories will be enjoyed by students of varying interests, from science studies to Mexican politics, economics, and movements to women’s health.” — Risa Cromer, Journal of Latin American Anthropology

“Gabriela Soto Laveaga’s excellent Jungle Laboratories reconstructs the history of a poorly known but important crop—the barbasco plant (Dioscorea mexicana), a root native to southern Mexico—to complicate some of these standard narratives about bioprospecting, science, and power, especially in the twentieth century….Jungle Laboratories is an original and compelling case study of science and power in a global context. It complicates standard narratives of exploitation and extraction, showing how historically disempowered groups (and even nations) could carve out a space for themselves and use the practice and discourses of global science to their own ends.” — Stuart McCook, Isis

“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.” — Maya N. Vaughan-Smith, Feminist Review blog

“The story [Soto Laveaga] tells regarding the barbasco trade, the negotiation of barbasco’s meanings among diverse stakeholders and participants, and efforts to use state control of natural resources to advance a political agenda, resonates with ongoing discussions regarding who has sovereignty over native products that may have medicinal properties and sheds light on important facets of science, society, and economic development in mid-twentieth-century Mexico.” — Katherine Bliss, The Americas

“Valuable for anyone interested in economic botany or the history of contraceptives and steroids; useful for historians of modern Mexico. Recommended.” — E. N. Anderson, Choice

"This extraordinarily strong debut by Gabriela Soto Laveaga unfolds a tale as unknown as it is important…. The writing is crisp, accessible, and to the point throughout…. It is not every day that a fundamentally new story comes along, and the barbasco saga is one such case." — Terry Rugeley, Ethnohistory

“[A]nyone would be moved by the campesiño stories Soto Laveaga ably sows through her book and harvests at its conclusion. . . . Soto Laveaga’s sympathetic but entirely unpatronizing inclusion of campesiño voices validates her claim that battles over the knowledge of barbasco briefly transformed some worker identities, though many today are still unsure why anyone wanted what to them was little more than a weed.” — Andrew Benedict-Nelson, TLS

“[T]his is an interesting and important book. For Mexicanists, it makes a much-needed contribution to studies of post-1940 rural Mexico and of Echeverría’s era in particular. It will earn attention from regional scholars interested in the history of science and the history of state formation, political organization, and transnational business, in addition to a commodity studies audience. Finally, historians, anthropologists, and geographers interested in the ebb and flow of local knowledge will also find much use in this careful study.” — Emily Wakild, Hispanic American Historical Review

“Based on archival sources and more than fifty interviews with former barbasco pickers, processing plant owners and state officials, Jungle Laboratories yields fascinating insights into the social, political and economic consequences of the global search for medicinal plants at a local level within the rural regions of southeast and southwest Mexico. . . . Soto Laveaga’s book is a powerful reminder of the complex local and international relationships involved in the production of medicinal drugs and the intricate social, economic and political impact this can have on individuals’ lives.” — Lara Marks, Medical History

“Soto Laveaga has produced an important work on the political economy of barbasco that brings to the fore a little-known chapter in the creation of the contraceptive pill and analyses the way in which scientific issues go beyond metropolitan academic scientific communities and filter down to apparently remote pockets of rural societies engaged in the exportation of primary products. This splendid work suggests that social Latin American historians can make a significant contribution to understanding the recent political development of medicinal plants and human reproductive programmes. “ — Marcos Cueto, Journal of Latin American Studies

In this thoroughly researched and rewarding interdisciplinary book, Gabriela Soto Laveaga examines the social, local, and international consequences of the global search for medicinal plants between the 1940s and the late 1980s. . . . This work is an important contribution to the history of science, state formation, post-1940s Mexico, and to the study of Echevarría’s presidency.” — CLAUDIA AGOSTONI, American Historical Review

“In this innovative and compelling book, Gabriela Soto Laveaga links together a host of phenomena crying out for attachment. Jungle Laboratories brings bioprospecting into conversation with Mexican nationalism; makes pharmaceutical development connect with campesinos striving for recognition as citizens and experts; locates the conjunction of contemporary bioscience and Latin American modernity; and finds the overgrown intersection of steroids and magical thinking—thereby giving us a ground-breaking postcolonial study of the roots of global biomedicine.” — Warwick Anderson, author of Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Gabriela Soto Laveaga is Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1. The Papaloapan, Poverty, and a Wild Yam 23

2. Mexican Peasants, a Foreign Chemist, and the Mexican Father of the Pill 39

3. Discovering and Gathering the New "Green Gold" 71

4. Patents, Compounds, and Steroid-Making Peasants 91

5. A Yam, Students, and a Populist Project 113

6. The State Takes Control of Barbasco: The Emergence of Proquivemex (1974–1976) 133

7. Proquivemex and Transnational Steroid Laboratories 151

8. Barbasqueros into Mexicans 169

9. Roots of Discord 197

Epilogue 223

Appendix. General Questionnaire for Former Barbasco Pickers 237

Notes 239

Bibliography 287

Index 319
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, 2010 Robert K. Merton Award (presented by Science, Knowledge, and Technology (SKAT) section of the American Sociological Association)

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4605-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4587-9
Publicity material