Elastic Allegiances

Prevailing narratives of global capitalism and environmental change too often situate African commodity producers as hapless victims of exploitative world systems or recipients of knowledge and aid, without relating how producers themselves make sense of their own circumstances. Alternatively, my research democratizes and complicates the history of a past outwardly dominated by imperialists, nationalist elites, corporations, and development agencies.

Elastic Allegiances: Producing Rubber and Belonging in Ghana, 1880-2017 prioritizes an Afrocentric frame of reference to show how farmers and laborers understood their involvement in Ghana’s rubber industry and concomitant development projects. The book pries open a striking tension: beginning in the 1880s, the production of rubber in Ghana – formerly the colonial Gold Coast – exacerbated economic instability and motivated the coercion of agrarian societies, yet to many people, the commodity also represented a source of livelihood and hope. My research thus explores the multivalence of rubber in Ghana’s past by revealing how Ghanaians harnessed the power of extractive markets, natural resources, and hegemonic institutions for their own purposes from the early colonial period to the neoliberal era.

In charting the production of rubber in Ghana, this book also spotlights the national and local social worlds in which global commodity production in Africa has historically been embedded. Ghana’s forests, farms, and factories, I argue, were sites of worldmaking where people forged social networks and claimed key political memberships that were undergirded by the circulation and exchange of environmental knowledge and ecotechnologies. Whereas colonial and national governments sought to manufacture artificial communities by, for example, demarcating borders, categorizing ethnic groups, and launching nation-building projects, in fact the incidental communities wrought and reinforced by the rubber industry were the ones to which people more substantively felt they belonged. These included workforces, villages united in the face of state violence, and families weathering the vagaries of global markets and droughts. This study thus challenges conventional notions of nationhood by exploring how Ghanaians’ ideas of belonging have historically been influenced by the entangled institutional and interpersonal relations animating African political economies. Moreover, it meticulously lays bare the environmental, gendered, and racial factors influencing the development of Ghana’s rubber industry.

The book manuscript, which I’m currently revising, builds its argument over eight chapters organized into three parts. Part I, “Sowing Improvidence, 1880-1939,” begins during the Second Industrial Revolution, when European nations began to take interest in tropical areas where raw rubber could be extracted from wild trees and vines. Beginning in the 1880s, West African entrepreneurs in the hinterland of the Gulf of Guinea responded to rising demand for rubber by cultivating botanical expertise and a vibrant regional trade network across the region’s forests. Part II, “Cultivating Subjectivities, 1939-81,” charts the rapid revival of Ghana’s rubber industry during the Second World War, and reveals how Ghanaians involved therein resourcefully fostered an array of affiliations as a means of sheltering themselves from postcolonial instability during the Cold War. Part III, “Producing Inequalities, 1982-2017,” explores how communities and kinship relations were affected by changes in the rubber industry during the neoliberal era. Elastic Allegiances concludes that from the age of empire to the neoliberal era, rubber was a byproduct of Ghanaians’ enduring efforts to garner social capital and status, cultivate sovereignty and belonging, and support kin, which the neoliberal era has made more difficult than ever before.

In sum, Elastic Allegiances draws on fifteen months of archival, oral historical, and ethnographic research in Ghana and three months of archival research in the United States and United Kingdom conducted between 2013 and 2017. It contributes to literature on the politics of belonging in Africa, environmental scholarship on commodities and global capitalism, and historical accounts of the Cold War and its legacies.