An Afro-Brazilian landscape: African oil palms and socioecological change in Bahia, Brazil

Current book project based on a PhD dissertation in geography & anthropology

Winner of the 2017 J. Warren Nystrom Prize, awarded by the American Association of Geographers.

My dissertation provides the first comprehensive study of palm oil landscapes, cultures, and economies in Bahia, Brazil, from the early colonial period through the present. The study reconstructs the complex transatlantic emergence of Bahia’s oil palm landscapes and subsequently scrutinizes the modern development initiatives seeking to develop them.

Currently the world’s most produced vegetable oil, palm oil commands a roughly 50 billion dollar global industry. While agro-industrial monocultures in Southeast Asia produce the vast majority of the global commodity, a complex biodiverse landscape in Bahia supplies Brazilian culinary, spiritual, and industrial markets for palm oil, known there by its Bantu-derived moniker — dendê. How did Bahia’s Dendê Coast emerge? What insights do those landscapes hold and how can they enhance our understanding of colonial environmental transformation and modern development?  Blending ethnography, landscape interpretation, archives, quantitative analysis, GIScience, and travelers’, rare, and secondary accounts, the study connects cultural-historical geographies of the African diaspora with grounded analyses of agrarian economies and multi-level environmental governance to examine how complex biodiverse landscapes continue to proliferate along Bahia’s Dendê Coast despite decades of modernist interventions.

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An Afro-Brazilian landscape distinguished by African oil palms, manioc fields, and coastal mangrove ecosystems in the maroon community of Guaí in Maragogipe, Bahia (2012).

Native to West Africa, African oil palms have supported cultures and economies on that continent for millennia. During colonial overseas expansion, Elaeis guineensis Jacq. and its products traversed the Atlantic as early African contributions to the Columbian Exchange of beings, biota, and ideas. The palm’s subsequent diffusion in Bahia combined African traditions of palm oil production and consumption with European and Indigenous knowledges in the Americas to found and sustain diasporic Afro-Brazilian cultures and economies. The study therefore restores and explicates long-obscured but enduring Afro-Brazilian contributions to the ecological and cultural transformation of the Americas, and connects those historical landscape changes to modern development interventions.

Building on its historical analyses, the study culminates with an ethnography of Bahia’s contemporary palm oil economy, mapping and relating the simultaneously social, ecological, and economic networks that comprise the complex system. It demonstrates how agroindustrialists continue to benefit disproportionately from palm oil development in Brazil—most recently through the national biofuel program—despite policies intended to bolster small-scale family farming. Integrating theories of development, resistance, and complexity, the study intervenes in debates involving transatlantic historical agency, socio-environmental networks, maroon communities, agrobiodiversity, environmental governance, and public policy. Contributing to both social theory and development practice, this work demonstrates how ecological knowledge developed in the African diaspora complements indigenous and other knowledges and carries potential to enact more just and viable forms of development in the global palm oil economy and beyond.

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Interviewing a family farmer and small-scale palm oil processor in Taperoá, Bahia, on Brazil’s Dendê Coast (2012).

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An African oil palm emerges from the banks of Salvador’s Dique do Tororó near a statue honoring the Afro-Brazilian diety Oxumarê, emphasizing transatlantic cultural-ecological links (2012).

The study makes three interrelated contributions: 1) It revises and explicates the historical development of the Americas with a historical geography of African oil palms and their transatlantic diffusion and expansion in colonial Latin America over seven centuries. It connects interdisciplinary Atlantic studies with hybrid geographies and political ecologies to expound on the cognitive and socioecological contributions of Afro-descendants in the transformation and development of New World landscapes and cultures. While filling gaps in the academic literature, the project works to amplify social awareness by stimulating increased reflection and instruction on the obscured diversity of the greater American experience.

2) Building on insights from the natural sciences and humanities, the study contributes to social science literatures with advancements in relational political ecology and networked theoretical and methodological approaches. Its hybrid approach to research design advances an interactive and adaptive methodological philosophy. It links people, palms, discourses, and multiscalar power relationships to analyze the convergence of localized human-environmental interactions with international politics and economics in the construction and reproduction of Bahia’s oil palm landscapes and networked commodities markets. Rather than simply alluding to abstract network models, the study maps — in conceptual, narrative, and graphical forms— the complex assemblages of actors and processes that comprise a local socioecological economy; and links them through real flows of power. The study roots human-environmental interactions and cultural-ecological-economic production simultaneously within the real and conceptual territories of Bahia’s Dendê Coast, the African diaspora, and the global palm oil economy.

3) Finally, the project contributes to theories and practices of development by challenging top-down models and offering viable alternatives within the contentious and rapidly expanding global palm oil industry. The study demonstrates how traditional diasporic knowledges co-constitute and collaborate with modern development initiatives rather than succumb to their designs, as authorities intended. Bahia’s smallholders and maroon communities have long resisted the imposition of monocultures, relying instead on complex agroecologies to produce, process, and distribute palm oil and other goods. Those small-scale producers and processors continue to resist mounting development pressures from agroindustry and public development agencies seeking to modernize landscapes and expand the use of palm oil in Brazil’s national biofuel programs. The study integrates agroecological principles with theories of development and complexity to underscore the urgent need for more diverse sources of development knowledges and practices. It contextualizes failings of current development interventions within an uncritical acceptance of Western agroindustrial models beginning in the mid-twentieth century and highlights traditional, place-based agroecologies as potential paths forward. The project thus contributes to the decolonization of modern development by advancing diasporic epistemes as sources of just and viable production.

A Fulbright-Hays DDRA (funded in 2012 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as an IIE Graduate Fellowship for International Study) supported fieldwork in Brazil.

For a copy of the dissertation, please email me at casewatkins [at] gmail.com. A Portuguese-language research report based on the dissertation is available on my project website.

Besides the dissertation, that project has produced ten conference papers, a book chapter, two peer-reviewed journal articles, and several others currently in development. I continue to share research and solicit feedback at regional, national, and international meetings, and I am expanding the project in various directions through new collaborations with colleagues in Brazil and the US.

 

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