Palm Oil Diaspora:

Afro-Brazilian Landscapes and Economies on Bahia’s Dendê Coast

Available from Cambridge UP

Palm Oil Diaspora Behind the social and environmental destruction of modern palm oil production lies a long and complex history of landscapes, cultures, and economies linking Africa and its diaspora in the Atlantic World. Case Watkins traces palm oil from its prehistoric emergence in western Africa to biodiverse groves and cultures in Northeast Brazil, and finally the plantation monocultures plundering contemporary rainforest communities. Drawing on ethnography, landscape interpretation, archives, travelers’ accounts, and geospatial analysis, Watkins examines human-environmental relations too often overlooked in histories and geographies of the African diaspora, and uncovers a range of formative contributions of people and ecologies of African descent to the societies and environments of the (post)colonial Americas. Bridging literatures on Black geographies, Afro-Brazilian and Atlantic studies, political ecology, and decolonial theory and praxis, this study connects diverse concepts and disciplines to analyze and appreciate the power, complexity, and potentials of Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian palm oil economy.

‘A luminous narrative of the African oil palm in Brazil, where enslaved Africans applied their ancestral knowledges of dendê to create not only Bahia’s distinctive cuisine, but agroecologies of resistance. An indispensable history for anyone interested in the movement of plants, peoples, and African knowledge systems in the Atlantic World.’

Judith Carney – University of California, Los Angeles

‘Case Watkins magisterially narrates the entanglements of geography, history, and socio-environments among Afro-Brazilians whose extraordinary palm oil continues its illuminating journey not only as a local and global commodity but also in and across their diverse cultures, foodways, and sustainable agroforest landscapes.’

Karl Zimmerer – author of Agrobiodiversity: Integrating Knowledge for a Sustainable Future

‘The most comprehensive account of palm oil’s ecology, economy, and culture in Brazil so far. Watkins’ superb history and ethnography of this potent icon of Afro-Brazilian Diaspora is a perceptive analysis of the complexities underlying the relationships between Black communities, environments and power.’

Luis Nicolau Parés – Universidade Federal da Bahia

‘Case Watkins interprets Brazilian landscapes to unearth very human stories of Afro Diasporic ingenuity and resilience. A methodologically innovative combination of archival records, geospatial mapping, and ethnography animates this sweeping portrait of enslaved and free people of African descent as influential but unrecognized environmental agents in the Americas.’

Mary Hicks – University of Chicago

Palm Oil Diaspora provides the first comprehensive study of palm oil landscapes, cultures, and economies in Bahia, Brazil, from the early colonial period through the present. The book 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 the Kimbundu Bantu-derived name, dendê. How did Bahia’s Dendê Coast emerge? What insights do those landscapes hold and how can they enhance our understanding of both colonial environmental transformation and modern development? Blending ethnography, landscape interpretation, archives, quantitative analysis, GIScience, and travelers’, rare, and secondary accounts, Palm Oil Diaspora 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.

An Afro-Brazilian landscape

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. This 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 book 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, Palm Oil Diaspora 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).
Dendezeiros and Oxumarê on the banks of Salvador’s Dique do Tororó
An African oil palm grows on the banks of Salvador’s Dique do Tororó near a statue honoring the Afro-Brazilian diety Oxumarê, emphasizing cultural-ecological links (2012).

Palm Oil Diaspora 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 book 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. Palm Oil Diaspora 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 book 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. It 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. Palm Oil Diaspora 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.

A Portuguese-language research report based on the project is available on the project website.