It is as if one had taken a cutting of Africa and rooted it in Brazilian soil, where it bloomed again.
African oil palms (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.) have thrived in rainforest communities in West and Central Africa for millennia. In biodiverse forests, dense groves, and isolated stands, traditional oil palm landscapes stretch from the Senegambia to Angola and deep into the Congo Basin. Africans began extracting and processing oils from the palm’s fruit at least five thousand years ago, and when transatlantic slave traders began stealing away people for profit and colonization, the African oil palm joined an immense human and botanical diaspora.Footnote 2 The enslaved Africans that survived the brutalities of the Middle Passage arrived in the New World with diverse and sophisticated knowledge systems – including those related to the African oil palm and other tropical plants – which they relied on to survive in, and reshape, colonial environments.Footnote 3 Palm Oil Diaspora describes how partnerships of people and palms transformed an Atlantic World connecting western Africa to South America, from prehistory to the present, and offers insights for building healthier and more viable relationships within and among human societies and earthly environments.
This book tells the story of Benta, a Black woman born into the cruel realities of Brazilian slavery in the eighteenth century. Benta lived and worked on a colonial sugar plantation in the heart of the Bahian Recôncavo – the fertile hinterlands surrounding the vast Bay of All Saints that lent the region its name. We know precious little about Benta’s life, but according to a probate inventory taken in 1790, she sold to her captors goods she produced on the plantation grounds, including beans and palm oil.Footnote 4 Buried in an archived account ledger, that mundane transaction recorded an enslaved “Creole” woman of African descent engaging in cultural creativity, economic accumulation, and environmental change. Woven throughout this book, Benta’s story opens a window into the palm oil cultures, landscapes, and economies that emerged in Bahia, as well as the broader networks and processes of exchange that coalesced to form an Atlantic World. Born in Brazil, Benta descended from ancestors torn from the African continent and trafficked in the transatlantic slave trade – an immense crime against humanity fundamental in the formation and ongoing reproduction of the modern world. By producing and distributing palm oil, a meaningful and nourishing food with deep roots in African cultures and landscapes, Benta actively participated in a global network of people, plants, places, and power to exercise a measure of self-determination and improve her conditions despite the violence and oppression of the colonial slave system. Her story provides a resounding illustration of African contributions to cultural and environmental change in the colonial Americas.
Benta’s legacy endures, and today palm oil remains fundamental in countless Afro-Brazilian cultural-ecological forms.Footnote 5 In Bahia, a centuries-old, biodiverse landscape supplies the region, along with much of Brazil, with distinctive red palm oil for ancestral culinary and religious expressions. Developed in dialogue with Afro-Brazilian cultures, Bahia’s palm oil landscapes stand as living monuments to the African diaspora as well as vital sources for local livelihoods.Footnote 6 Derived of plants and knowledge systems transplanted from Africa and nurtured in the Americas, the oil palm groves that Benta tended in coastal Bahia helped to form an intricate transatlantic economy of cultural-environmental exchange and innovation.
In sharp contrast to the traditional economies enduring in Bahia and their native Africa, palm oil has become a global source and symbol of capitalist extraction and social-environmental degradation.Footnote 7 By the early twenty-first century, oil pressed from the fruit of Elaeis guineensis outpaced soy to become Earth’s most produced, traded, and consumed oilseed.Footnote 8 Agro-industrial oil palm plantations blazed into tropical rainforest biomes supply massive international markets but with devastating costs in deforestation, biodiversity erosion, land grabbing, and greenhouse gas release.Footnote 9 The global industry now centers on Southeast Asia where plantation monocultures in Malaysia and Indonesia produced 84.4 percent of the world’s palm oil in 2019, but production continues to expand in Latin America.Footnote 10 Historically a minor player in international agro-industrial production, Brazil has recently renewed initiatives to subsidize palm oil development in its Amazon region, which according to government figures, has dominated national production since the 1980s.Footnote 11 The remainder of Brazil’s palm oil comes from the northeastern state of Bahia, where it emerges from a complex mix of polycultural family farms, a few agro-industrial plantations, and the region’s distinctive biodiverse palm groves.
Despite its global prominence and its fundamental relationships with Atlantic and Afro-Brazilian histories and cultures, we lack a comprehensive understanding of Bahia’s palm oil economy. A common trope in academic, technical, and popular writing in and on Brazil holds that the oil palm “was brought from Africa,” erasing with passive voice any trace of human-environmental agency and transatlantic exchange.Footnote 12 The details of the palm’s diffusion to the Americas and the political-ecological development of its complex cultural landscapes remain unclear. Drawing on ethnography, landscape interpretation, archives, travelers’ accounts, and geospatial analysis, Palm Oil Diaspora unravels the long and complex development of Bahia’s palm oil landscapes, cultures, and economies in the context of an interconnected Atlantic World – from their prehistoric emergence in western Africa to their establishment in Brazil and their roles in ongoing modernization campaigns of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In so doing, this book reconstructs an environmental history of the African diaspora; connects Afro-Brazilian knowledge and cultural landscapes with ecological-commercial exchange in the Atlantic World; and scrutinizes the long-term politics of race, environmental change, and agricultural development in Brazil.
Fundamentally, Palm Oil Diaspora examines relationships among humans and environments and the communities and economies they nurture across time and space. Centering palm oil as an analytical motif and material agent, this book maps the formation of a complex cultural-ecological-economic system – what I call an Afro-Brazilian economy – within an Atlantic World linking people, plants, places, and power. To conduct this interdisciplinary analysis, I convene a variety of otherwise disparate conversations and concepts. Among them, this study builds on assemblage and complexity thinking to analyze cultural landscapes and economies shaped by relational power and resistance. Bridging interdisciplinary literatures on Black geographies; Afro-Brazilian and Atlantic studies; political ecology; and decolonial theory and praxis, I argue that only by connecting across these concepts and disciplines can we fully appreciate the power, complexity, and knowledges that constitute Bahia’s palm oil economy.
This introductory chapter unpacks and integrates those and other concepts, theories, and fields to situate the analyses laid out in the subsequent chapters. It devotes detailed attention to the inextricable and co-constitutive relationships linking societies, environments, and power. Along the way, this chapter introduces the real and conceptual places involved in the study, and their interrelatedness, especially Bahia, the Atlantic World, and the African diaspora. It then concludes with a discussion of methods and methodology and an outline of the book’s structure.
Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian economy is diasporic. Derived of ancestral ecologies in western Africa, it roots in the Atlantic shores of tropical South America.Footnote 13 Scholars from W. E. B. Du Bois to Paul Gilroy to Katherine McKittrick have long emphasized the multiplicity and simultaneity of the African diaspora – at once commemorative and innovative, connected to both histories and futures, and emerging from relations of power.Footnote 14 As Patricia de Santana Pinho’s study of Blackness in Bahia makes clear, “culture is political.”Footnote 15 Landscapes and economies are political, too; woven from the symbiotic networkings of humans and environments, in and across places.
The Afro-Brazilian cultures, landscapes, and economies analyzed in this book manifest as African-inspired philosophies, ecologies, politics, materials, and ways of life refracted through prisms of Indigenous American and European knowledge and practices, among others. They emerge from (post)colonial power configurations and lived experiences in the transatlantic slavery economy and the construction and reproduction of Brazilian society.Footnote 16 In Bahia, they contribute to what McKittrick deems a “Black sense of place” – African diasporic spaces and ways of life shaped by racial entanglements, anti-Black violences, resistance, and creativity.Footnote 17
The northeastern state of Bahia is the heart of Afro-Brazil.Footnote 18 Popular maxims such as the “Black Rome of the Americas” and “Mecca of Brazilian Blackness” place Bahia at the center of African diasporic creation and manifestation.Footnote 19 Among the more salient materials and symbols of Afro-Brazilian expression is palm oil – known in Bahia and throughout Brazil as dendê, or more precisely azeite de dendê, derived by combining the Arabo-Iberian word for olive oil with a Central African Kimbundu term for the fruit of the African oil palm.Footnote 20 Following the Portuguese convention, the palm that yields the oil became the dendezeiro in Bahia.Footnote 21 Today, locally produced palm oil remains the lifeblood of many Afro-Brazilian culinary and religious traditions. In many parts of Bahia, “azeite” refers only to palm oil, while azeite doce (sweet oil), óleo (oil), or óleo de gallo can connote olive oil.Footnote 22 Palm oil has become a popular symbol of both Afro-Brazilian culture and the state of Bahia as a whole. To say something is “of dendê” is to qualify it as absolutely Bahian and with fundamental connections to Africa and its diaspora.Footnote 23 A recent example is Vale do Dendê, a celebrated startup accelerator and consulting firm supporting entrepreneurs from neglected neighborhoods around Bahia’s capital city, Salvador. Launched in 2016, the firm’s name combines a reference to California’s Silicon Valley with a nod to the distinctive symbol and flavor of Afro-Brazil.
Brazilians refer to traditional foods cooked in dendê simply as Bahian food, or comida baiana. Bahians themselves often celebrate their Creole cuisine as comida de azeite, invoking dendê oil as the definitive component. Like its antecedents in West Africa, the viscous red palm oil produced and enjoyed in Bahia contrasts from the industrially refined, bleached, and deodorized palm oils traded internationally. Locally produced, unrefined dendê oil invigorates many of Bahia’s most revered recipes with E vitamins, antioxidant provitamin A carotenoids, and metabolism-boosting medium-chain fatty acids.Footnote 24 Popular Afro-Brazilian dishes such as carurú, vatapá, farofa de dendê, xinxim de galinha, and especially the ubiquitous seafood and fish moquecas are unimaginable without azeite de dendê.Footnote 25 And yet the relevance of dendê oil transcends food cultures, filtering through many diverse and popular expressions. For example, Afro-Brazilian religions venerate the oil as a sacred sacrament, it is celebrated in many traditional sambas, and the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira recites dendê in many of its corridos – the ritual choruses sung during matches.Footnote 26
Those Afro-Brazilian expressions emerge from the social, economic, and environmental histories and geographies of the African diaspora to reveal creativity and resistance amidst violence and dispossession.Footnote 27 Enslaved Africans began arriving in Brazil by the 1560s, and by the end of that century captive women, men, and children had become central to Bahia’s burgeoning colonial economy and society.Footnote 28 Whether on sugar plantations in the bayside Recôncavo, subsistence farms on the Southern Coast, or as porters in the urban capital, Salvador, enslaved Africans built the region’s export and domestic markets.Footnote 29 Over nearly three hundred years, the transatlantic slave trade abducted and trafficked an estimated 5.5 million Africans to Brazil, and 1.7 million of them, nearly one-third of the total, disembarked in Bahia. That means roughly 14 percent of all enslaved Africans that arrived in the Americas did so in Bahia (Table 1.1).Footnote 30 Along with Indigenous Americans and Europeans, Africans and their descendants transformed the demography, cultures, and landscapes of Bahia – as elsewhere in the Americas – despite the mundane brutality and oppression of the transatlantic slave economy.Footnote 31
|1501–1600||1601–1700||1701–1800||1801–1866||All years||% Brazil Total||% Total|
|Mainland N. America||0||15,147||295,482||78,117||388,746||4|
|Danish West Indies||0||18,146||68,608||22,244||108,998||1|
Transformations began in the first decades of Bahia’s colonization. Already by the 1580s, Portuguese Jesuit Fernão Cardim estimated the population of enslaved Africans in São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos and its rural environs at “three or four thousand,” enough to exceed the approximately three thousand households of Portuguese colonial settlers.Footnote 32 Subsequent visitors to Bahia’s capital were routinely astonished at the prevalence and mobility of Black people, traits that distinguished that city from almost any other in the colonial Americas.Footnote 33 As the transatlantic slave trade to Bahia was finally coming to a close in the second half of the nineteenth century, German physician Robert Avé-Lallemant described Salvador as a Black city. “If one didn’t know the city was in Brazil, one could take it, without much imagination, for an African capital; seat of a powerful Black prince, through which passes practically unnoticed a population of white foreigners. It seems everyone is Black.”Footnote 34 Centuries of population figures corroborate those travelers’ accounts, and people of at least partial African descent have held majorities in Bahia since the first censuses distinguishing race and legal status appeared in 1775 (Table 1.2).Footnote 35
Today Bahia remains the cultural and demographic epicenter of Afro-Brazil.Footnote 36 Combining the official census categories for Black (preta/o) and Brown (parda/o), Brazilians of African descent accounted for 76 and 79 percent of the populations in Bahia and Salvador, respectively, in 2010, and 85 percent of the rural populations at the heart of this study (Table 1.3). According to that inclusive Afro-descendant composite – known in Brazil as população negra or afrodescendente – Brazil as a whole is now home to the largest concentration of Black people outside of the African continent.Footnote 37 Such a uniform accounting of race, however, masks differences across the broad range of phenotypes and experiences encapsulated in the parda/o and preta/o signifiers, reminding us of the “inevitable slipperiness of racial categories,” in Brazil as elsewhere.Footnote 38
Still, Blackness persists as a valid and revealing social category in Brazil where unjust racial hierarchies and anti-Black violences remain deeply entrenched. As Keisha-Khan Perry demonstrates in her study of racial and environmental justice in Bahia, ambiguous framings of race in Brazil risk obscuring the racialized experiences of Brazilians who code or identify as Black or Afro-descendant. “It has not been difficult for poor Black people in Brazil to decipher who is Black in Brazil, since they see and feel race and class structures in their everyday lives na pele (in the skin). Nor do policy makers, development agents, and the police have much difficulty deciding who is Black.”Footnote 39 Contemporary relationships between Bahia and Blackness emerge from the racialized brutality of the transatlantic slave economy, honed and reproduced in (post)colonial structures and struggles unfolding since its abolition in the late nineteenth century.Footnote 40 Understanding how anti-Black racism shapes and constrains modern politics even in Brazil’s “Black Rome” reveals the transnational pervasiveness of white supremacy and how its deep-seated ideologies and mechanisms continue to obscure and disregard the contributions and wisdom of Black people, including the human-environmental relationships and landscapes analyzed in this book.
|Enslaved Blacks & Mulattos||14,696||42||27,500||42|
|Total free Afro-descendants||7,837||22||19,500||30|
|Salvador & 13 rural parishesc||249,314||100|
|Free Blacks & Mulattos||104,285||42|
|Enslaved Blacks & Mulattos||93,115||37|
b Represents “parda.” In the 1940 Census, Brazil’s Census Agency (IBGE) began collecting and classifying ethno-racial data using a series of “color” (côr) types: branca (white), parda (brown or mestiço), amarelo (East Asian), and indígena (Indigenous). As of 2010, that system has remained the standard; see IBGE, Censo demográfico 2010. Despite those rigid categories, relationships among skin color, race, and identity remain highly complex and contingent in Brazil; see for example IBGE, “What Color Are You?”; Pinho, Mama Africa, introduction.
c Excludes Cachoeira, Santo Amaro, and all of southern Bahia, districts with relatively large enslaved populations during that period.
|2010 Total Population||White branca||Black preta||Asian amarela||Brown parda||Indigenous indígena||Total Afro-descendantsa||% Afro-descendants|
|São Francisco do Conde||33,183||2,239||13,278||711||16,878||77||30,156||91|
|Madre de Deus||17,376||2,063||2,757||225||12,302||29||15,059||87|
|Salinas da Margarida||13,456||760||5,396||232||7,003||65||12,399||92|
|Santo Antônio de Jesus||90,985||20,256||21,010||700||48,788||108||69,798||77|
a Here and throughout, census racial categories designating preta (Black) and parda (Brown) are combined to form an “Afro-descendant” composite; see also Da Costa, Reimagining Black Difference. Other studies refer to those composites as “Black” and “Afro-Brazilian”; see Kraay, “Introduction”; Piza and Rosemberg, “Color in the Brazilian Census”; Sansone, Blackness Without Ethnicity.
Brazil finally abolished slavery in 1888, and the next year a military coup ushered in a nominally democratic government. Under the official motto “order and progress,” elites sought to reorganize Brazilian society in ways that prioritized economic development while maintaining the hierarchies of race and class established under colonial rule and the transatlantic slave economy.Footnote 41 Within this framework the Afro-Brazilian social, political, and intellectual projects of the twentieth century began to emerge. Following abolition, scholars in Bahia began to turn their attention to Afro-Brazilian histories and cultures.Footnote 42 Academic Afro-Brazilian studies coalesced over the subsequent decades, culminating in a series of academic conferences chaired by Brazilian social scientists. The second Congresso Afro-Brasileiro, held in Salvador in 1937, launched several noteworthy studies of Afro-Brazilian identities and expressions.Footnote 43 Edison Carneiro, Aydano do Couto Ferraz, and other scholars joined forces with popular religious leaders such as Mãe Aninha to lay the intellectual groundwork for Afro-Brazilian cultural and political movements. The 1930s and 1940s saw an explosion of interest in Afro-Brazilian expressions, led by the now iconic prose of Jorge Amado, the music of Dorival Caymmi, the sculpture and public art of Carybé, and the photographs, ethnographies, and historical scholarship of Pierre Verger.Footnote 44 While those movements and the perspectives they advanced remain deeply influential in Bahian and broader Brazilian societies, national political projects managed to limit their progress toward social and racial justice.
Ruling from 1930 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1954, the authoritarian regime of Getúlio Vargas enforced a myth of “racial democracy” to consolidate power and control under a facade of national Brazilian unity.Footnote 45 Vargas’s propaganda ministry promoted the ideas of Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre – who framed Brazil as a “racial paradise” inhabited by a single mixed race – in attempts to construct a “tropical mulatto republic” based on disingenuous myths of racial equality.Footnote 46 The regime outlawed political parties and movements that spoke out against racial inequities and ordered that all reference to race be removed from textbooks, censuses, and official discourse. By sterilizing and promoting certain forms of Afro-Brazilian culture, the state and its powerful social and corporate interests moved to appropriate and commodify the innovative expressions of Black Brazilians while falsely proclaiming its society free of racial bias.Footnote 47 Two decades later, the United Nations commissioned an ambitious study of race relations in Brazil that found widespread discrimination and inequities at all levels of society.Footnote 48 Then, just as discussions of race-based inequities began finally to filter into mainstream debates and movements, a military dictatorship seized control of the country in 1964, squashing dissent and organization and forcing many of the most prominent academics and activists into exile. Only in the late 1970s, as the military regime began to crumble, did the Afro-Brazilian movement begin to regain its momentum.Footnote 49
Since then, social movements in defense of Afro-Brazilian lives, contributions, and communities have emerged in Bahia and elsewhere in Brazil. Yet despite increased racial solidarity and some hard-won successes, anti-Black racism remains deeply embedded in all levels of Brazilian society, obstructing substantial socioeconomic or electoral gains among Bahia’s “Afro-Mestiço working class majority.”Footnote 50 Following Christen A. Smith, Bahia has maintained its version of racial democracy through a performative myth of “Afro-paradise.”Footnote 51 In Bahia’s Afro-paradise, the state simultaneously appropriates and commodifies Afro-Brazilian expressions while using terror to discipline Black bodies and communities. Smith demonstrates how Bahia’s racialized structures of power both derive from and reproduce the simultaneous celebration and oppression of Blackness and Black people – how “Bahia as a space of Black fantasy and Bahia as a space of death for Black people are two sides of the same coin.”Footnote 52 The state-sponsored promotion of cultural-historical connections to Africa therefore serves to (re)enforce a socioeconomic and political hierarchy of race and class that violently subordinates people of African descent, even as they provide creative outlets for Afro-Brazilian expression.Footnote 53
Black communities in Bahia resist this official exploitation in myriad ways, from the mundane to the spectacular. For instance, popular street festivals including the annual pre-Lenten Carnival, São João and the festas juninas, the Lavagem do Bonfim, and the Dois de Julho independence celebration have become prominent platforms for the public recognition and performance of Afro-Brazilian contributions to Bahian cultures, histories, and identities.Footnote 54 Many Afro-Brazilian carnival groups, known as afoxés and blocos afros, now convene throughout the year and often operate as mutual aid organizations with ambitious cultural and sociopolitical objectives.Footnote 55 Everyday manifestations of Afro-Brazilian creativity and resistance include the religions Candomblé and Umbanda and their various sects and denominations, several musical forms including Samba and Axé, the martial art Capoeira, and of course Afro-Brazilian foodways – and their distinctive dendê oil.Footnote 56 Derided and prohibited in the early twentieth century, these popular cultural forms celebrate African-Bahian expressions and practices developed over the preceding centuries, and together help to shape and foment a Bahian regional identity – baianidade.Footnote 57 Still, the myths of racial democracy and Afro-paradise endure, and relatively few Afro-descendants themselves benefit socially or economically from the national and regional commemorations and commodification of Afro-Brazilian culture. Black movements and communities nevertheless continue to leverage Afro-Brazilian creative expressions to construct powerful political symbols and hold space in the ongoing struggles for social, racial, and environmental justice.Footnote 58
Among the more prominent purveyors of Afro-Brazilian culture are the Baianas de acarajé spread throughout Salvador, elsewhere in Bahia, and many other states – notably Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Pernambuco (Figure 1.1).Footnote 59 These traditional, mostly Black women vendors of acarajé and other delicacies sell their wares from stands placed strategically about town, and in Salvador the dendê oil sizzling in their pans wafts through practically every gathering place, square, bus stop, and crossing to dominate the urban smellscape. Their signature dish is a dumpling made from peeled and mashed black-eyed peas deep fried in azeite de dendê and garnished with dried shrimp, okra-based carurú, creamy vatapá, and fiery pepper sauce.Footnote 60 Gastronomic roots of acarajé lie with akará, the original Yoruba version of the fritter still popular across West and Central Africa and the diaspora.Footnote 61 The Afro-Brazilian name for the fritter comes from a Portuguese portmanteau of the Yoruba phrase “akará je,” meaning “akará to eat.”Footnote 62 Its Brazilian name therefore memorializes not only the foodways of western Africa but also the many generations of Baianas who kept its traditions alive in the diaspora. In Bahia acarajé became a ubiquitous material and symbolic anchor of Afro-Brazil, and Brazil’s Ministry of Culture officially declared Baianas de acarajé and their crafts among the country’s “intangible cultural heritage” in 2004.Footnote 63
Acarajé represents much more than just a traditional street food. Along with other Creole dishes cooked or seasoned in dendê oil it endures as a consecrated sacrament of Afro-Brazilian religions linking food, spirituality, ancestors, and landscapes in Bahia.Footnote 64 Devotees of Candomblé, Bahia’s central Afro-Brazilian faith, revere dendê as a vital ritual and symbolic element. Fronds cut from young palms (màrìwò) adorn the entrances to places of worship known as terreiros, and many religious communities continue to cultivate dendezeiros on their grounds as living vessels and symbols of Afro-Brazilian spirituality.Footnote 65 Azeite de dendê remains an essential liturgical material, especially as an offering to the temperamental deity Exú.Footnote 66 Dendê oil distinguishes ritual foods prepared for many deities including carurú for Xangô, Iansã, Obá, and Ibêji; ipeté (oiled yams) for Ogum; and acarajé for Xangô and Iansã.Footnote 67 On a fundamental philosophical level, followers of Afro-Brazilian religions revere dendê as a materialization and proponent of axé – the vital force of existence, “the life giving nutrient of the material and spiritual realms.”Footnote 68 Indeed, the very word itself, dendê, now serves as a metonym for Afro-Brazilian spirituality, its devotees known interchangeably as povo do santo (people of the saints) and povo do dendê.Footnote 69
In Brazil, dendê oil represents a complex variety of social meanings and functions. As such, it refuses to fall neatly into reductive theoretical categories such as “African survivals” or wholly independent “Creole” innovations.Footnote 70 Instead, dendê has become a material and symbolic essence of Afro-Brazilian identity and expression, simultaneously providing a direct connection to Africa and a fundamental component of Bahianess, or baianidade.Footnote 71 As Brazilian anthropologist Raul Lody explains, “for the Afro-Brazilian cultural world, dendê is a distinct symbol and an attestation of the memory, action, production, creation, and re-creation of a heritage based in Africa, absorbed and reinvented in Brazilian space.”Footnote 72 Thus to comprehend this absorption and reinvention, Palm Oil Diaspora analyzes the transatlantic human-environmental relationships that produce and embody dendê in Bahia.
To supply the dendê oil demanded by Afro-Brazilian gastronomic, religious, and popular expressions, Brazilians rely on dendezeiros rooted in Bahia’s Atlantic Rainforest – known there as the Mata Atlântica. African oil palms dot landscapes of coastal Brazil from Amazonia to Rio de Janeiro, but nowhere outside of their native continent do they grow as dense or productive as along Bahia’s Southern Coast. Stretching south approximately 150 kilometers from the Island of Itaparica in the Bay of All Saints to the base of the Maraú Peninsula that frames the Bay of Camamu, dendezeiros dominate local ecosystems and economies as the region’s most symbolic and prolific cultural-economic species.Footnote 73 There dendê palms flourish in a variety of agroecological settings including family farms, backyards, pastures, and a few plantation monocultures. Most pervasive and characteristic, however, are the vast biodiverse groves and secondary forests distinguished by unplanted or “semi-wild” African oil palms – conditions botanists refer to as “subspontaneous,” Bahian farmers term “native,” and what Anthropologist Thiago Cardoso describes as “feral, brought about by human engineering but not obeying the dictates of its human landlord.”Footnote 74
In a formal nod to those ancestral groves of African palms, Bahia’s state government designated the eight municipalities at the heart of Bahia’s palm oil economy as the Costa do Dendê, or Dendê Coast, in 1993.Footnote 75 That official designation nevertheless came with little recognition and no material support for local dendê producers and the landscapes they nurture; rather it serves merely to attract tourists to the region’s picturesque beaches. The government’s official branding therefore represents yet another commodification of Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous creativity with little benefit for local communities or environments. Considering this an unjust appropriation of intellectual innovations and agrarian labor, I work to valorize the diasporic communities, landscapes, cultures, and economies at work on Bahia’s Dendê Coast.
Drawing on more than a century of geographical scholarship, this book frames the Dendê Coast as a cultural landscape formed and reproduced through transatlantic interactions of people and places. Developed, critiqued, and adapted by generations of geographers and other scholars, versatile concepts of cultural landscapes contribute to the production of knowledge in multiple ways – among them scales of analysis, methodologies of fieldwork, and social-territorial meaning and material. Here I view cultural landscapes as material and discursive embodiments of the physical-biological-cultural processes that we simultaneously analyze and inhabit. Rather than sterile bio-physical environments, or static renderings of commodified expressions, cultural landscapes provide us a way of seeing and relating to places and environments as both opportunities for and reflections of social-ecological creativity.Footnote 76
Sarah Whatmore points out how core concepts developed in early studies of cultural landscapes mesh with current “more-than-human” and “multispecies” approaches placing humans in lively networks of social-bio-physical interaction.Footnote 77 The interactive cultures, landscapes, and economies examined in this book therefore coalesce as assemblages, which is to say “processes through which different entities come together, form relations, and operate as provisional ‘wholes.’”Footnote 78 This focus on processes of human-environmental interaction draws on the concepts and analyses of political ecology – an interdisciplinary field and community of scholarship that examines the co-constitutive relations of politics, power, and environmental change.Footnote 79 Building on the interconnected approaches and traditions of cultural landscapes, assemblage thinking, and political ecology, I use the term socioecological to invoke relations, inter/intra-actions, and assemblages among the social, cultural, political, physical, chemical, and biological constituents and processes that coalesce as landscapes and economies in fluid states of becoming.Footnote 80 The socioecological analyses in this book examine how multiple beings and species (including humans) collaborate in and with environments to create and reproduce Bahia’s Dendê Coast. Distinguished by a palm and socioecological relations of African origin, Bahia’s dendê landscapes help to form an Afro-Brazilian economy – at once a source of nutrition and livelihoods in Northeast Brazil, an ecological base for Afro-Brazilian cultural forms, and a living monument to innovation and perseverance in the African diaspora (Figure 1.2).Footnote 81
While rooted in South America, the socioecological processes that shape Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian economy emerge from transatlantic histories and geographies. Those processes interact at multiple and overlapping scales, from the households and landscapes of coastal Bahia to the global networks that enmeshed the Atlantic Ocean following the European encounter with the New World.Footnote 82 This book therefore joins the growing community of scholarship broadening colonial and diasporic analyses beyond state borders to analyze an interactive, transnational Atlantic World.Footnote 83 Combining transatlantic conceptions of African-American history conceived by W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson with Fernand Braudel’s transnational interpretations of social, ecological, and economic relations, an Atlantic framework integrates western Africa, the Americas, and much of Europe into a single, networked unit of analysis.Footnote 84
Beginning in 1492, transatlantic circulations of flora, fauna, and knowledge coalesced to radically reshape demographics, cultures, politics, and environments across the Old and New Worlds – processes Alfred Crosby dubbed the Columbian Exchange.Footnote 85 While his initial studies focused on European influence in the transformation of Atlantic landscapes and communities, more recent environmental histories and geographies present more thorough and inclusive interpretations of those Atlantic circulations.Footnote 86 These interdisciplinary Atlantic studies combine decades of discerning postcolonial analyses with conceptual tools and methodological innovations developed in cultural geography, political ecology, environmental history, and other fields to clarify the myriad contributions of Afro-descendants, Indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups to Atlantic landscapes, cultures, and economies.Footnote 87
Rather than isolating individual people, events, or places, scholars such as Andrew Sluyter are analyzing networks of interactive processes to “reconceptualize the Atlantic from a dead space of separation into a living space of flows.”Footnote 88 This relational approach seeks to understand how interactions of diverse peoples, environments, and knowledge coalesce to transform landscapes and societies. The Black geographies emerging from Bahia’s Dendê Coast therefore represent fundamental “spaces of encounter” that, following McKittrick and Woods, “[bring] into focus networks and relations of power, resistance, histories, and the everyday.”Footnote 89 I argue that any analysis of socioecological interaction and change must account for the fundamental workings of power – how power flows through interactive, multiscalar networks to energize landscapes, cultures, and economies, Atlantic and otherwise. To that end the following multipart section connects various theoretical conversations related to landscapes and power to frame the socioecological and economic analyses taken up in this book.
The recovery of African contributions in the (trans)formation of the Atlantic World connects to long-running academic debates related to agency – that is, the extent to which enslaved and otherwise marginalized peoples could exercise power or self-determine their own lives and conditions. While early debates tended to polarize into distinct academic camps, more recent treatments are dissolving theoretical binaries to recognize enslaved peoples as “both agent and subject; persons and property; and people who resisted and accommodated – sometimes in one and the same act.”Footnote 90 Scholars from across the disciplines now frame enslaved peoples as complicated beings involved to varying degrees in the creative and intellectual networks and processes that transformed cultures, economies, and environments in the Atlantic World. While colonizers often co-opted African knowledge and practices in service of their own objectives, many New World transformations reflected the preferences and ingenuity of Afro-descendants, despite the disorienting and brutal atrocities of the Middle Passage and prolonged colonial oppression. People enslaved and otherwise oppressed in the Americas countervailed and redirected colonial power on a regular basis and as part of their everyday lives.Footnote 91 They determined many of their own experiences, and contributed to the development of novel creations in the Americas – among them foodways, arts, religions, communities, and landscapes.Footnote 92 Theories of historical agency and resistance must therefore account for power in ways that transcend rigid binaries.
Network or assemblage thinking maps power through diverse webs of relationships rather than oppositional binaries. Such relational approaches to power follow the dynamic flows and fluctuations of influence that coalesce to generate agency and change.Footnote 93 We might then, following Dianne Rocheleau, comprehend landscapes, communities, and economies as interlinked socioecological assemblages, rooted in and across particular places and “all shot through with power.”Footnote 94 Yet even as relational power reveals a diffusive range of political possibilities, Eden Kinkaid reminds us how colonized social hierarchies always already condition these assemblages, guiding particular flows of power to activate and reinforce racialized processes of social difference.Footnote 95
To elucidate these entanglements of race and place, Katherine McKittrick grounds the African diaspora in “interlocking workings of dispossession and resistance” forged on the colonial plantation.Footnote 96 Building on the work of George Beckford and Sylvia Wynter, she insists that the violence and oppression of slave plantations demanded resistance through innovative acts of survival and fulfillment.Footnote 97 Afro-descendants and others resisted the brutalities and ostensible restrictions of colonialism and transatlantic slavery by participating in socioecological collectives of agency, power, knowledge, and environments. Theorizing the complexities of agency within Brazilian slavery, João José Reis and Eduardo da Silva have articulated resistance along a spectrum of “negotiation and conflict.”Footnote 98 They juxtapose armed insurrection and flight with more routine forms of bargaining and subterfuge to recognize enslaved humans as calculating and inventive actors. Resistance was not always direct or violent, more often it was subtle, patient, and mundane. Treatments that recognize the complexities of power circulating within colonialism and the transatlantic slave economy in no way reduce the magnitude of their atrocities. On the contrary, such works reveal the myriad ways that enslaved people, despite deadly oppression, proclaimed their humanity and participated in cultural, economic, and environmental change. Recognizing the potential for resistance in routine acts of daily life reconfigures the historical and geographical agency of enslaved people, allowing us to recover their innumerable contributions to societies and environments.
More inclusive framings of resistance also expose the gendered contours of power in the Atlantic World, as well as its histories and geographies. Any implication that resistance occurred only through physicality or direct confrontation reinforces masculinist tropes of subjugation while diminishing everyday strategies of subversion and survival common among all enslaved people, including women. If enslaved women were less likely than men to engage in violent confrontations, treatments that disregard more subtle and mundane forms of resistance disproportionately elide the agency of women.Footnote 99 From Benta’s eighteenth-century dendê enterprise to the sacred wares sold by today’s Baianas de acarajé, the everyday forms of resistance enacted by socioecological collectives of Black women and landscapes in Bahia and beyond have long helped to shape the cultures and environments of the Atlantic World.Footnote 100 Drawing on a relational framing of power in the African diaspora, this study follows agency as it flows through complex socioecological assemblages to form and intertwine cultures, landscapes, and economies. Applying this frame of everyday resistance, we can recognize how even mundane human-environmental interactions such as gardening and foodways breached the ostensible domination of colonization and enslavement.
Cooking and eating were core areas of cultural resistance and persistence, as well as foci of ongoing creativity and dynamism. Wherever slaves and, especially, maroons [fugitives] had the physical and psychological space to cultivate their own gardens without external interference, subsistence activities (and the beliefs and values associated with them) became central not only to the physical well being of these Afro-Americans but to their spiritual and moral life as well.Footnote 105
By virtue of feeding and sustaining themselves and their communities, Afro-descendants and Indigenous peoples, both separately and in collaboration, adapted ancestral knowledge and practices to transform and create productive landscapes throughout the New World.Footnote 106
Judith Carney and Richard Rosomoff show how subsistence plots became “botanical gardens of the Atlantic World’s dispossessed.”Footnote 107 In these ostensibly humble plots enslaved people experimented with “subaltern archipelagos of agrobiodiversity” that combined plants and techniques from around the world to help sustain and transform colonial societies and environments.Footnote 108 Sylvia Wynter explains how folk cultures cultivated in the plot “recreated traditional [African] values” to become “a source of cultural guerilla resistance to the plantation system.”Footnote 109
Much more than a site of historical agency, the plot endures as a powerful analytic and model with broad transformative potential. Janae Davis and her collaborators locate within the plot “relational modes of being, multiple forms of kinship, and non‐binary ways of engaging the world that foster ethics of care, equity, resilience, creativity, and sustainability […] forged in and articulated through grounded racial–political struggles.” By steadying our focus on Black ecological knowledges and practices, they excavate not merely the differentiated and multifaceted violence inherent to plantation societies, but the aspirational concepts and methods of “socioecological justice and multispecies kinship” that Black communities and thinkers have long mobilized to unravel and neutralize them.Footnote 110 Their work therefore situates burgeoning concepts of the Plantationocene – that is, “the historical and socio-ecological residues of plantation capitalism that contemporary patterns of conflict, racism, land concentration, and species extinctions make visible” – within a politics of social difference informed by Black geographies.Footnote 111 Thus in the landscapes of the African diaspora, we find embedded the collaborative tensions of violence and resistance.
As intellectual-ecological legacies of the plot, landscapes such as Bahia’s Dendê Coast reveal and situate “terrains of political struggle,” rather than domination or submission.Footnote 112 This book demonstrates how biodiverse palm groves, as legacies of African knowledge and practice, came to distinguish Bahia’s dendê landscapes despite centuries of colonial mandates and modern development schemes that sought to impose and enforce austere monocultures. Recognizing the interactions of multiple species (including humans) in and with environments and mediated by colonial power relations, I use the phrase socioecological resistance to invoke the networked agency of Afro-descendants and other marginalized peoples in driving or participating in cultural-environmental change. Here the efforts of Benta and millions of other enslaved and otherwise marginalized people come to life. The formative contributions of enslaved people ensured that the socioecological compositions and consequences of plantation life remained more complex and multiple than the colonizers had designed. Toiling in their plots and other such landscapes of resistance, they combined biological, material, and intellectual resources to resist the monotonous, inadequate, or unsuitable diets and cuisines of the colonizers; realize some of their own culinary, spiritual, and medicinal preferences; and help to transform the Americas with knowledge and ecologies descended from Africa. The Black geographies they developed both derived of and resisted the socio-spatial order enforced on colonial plantations.
Monoculture represents just one among infinite possibilities for productive landscapes. In contrast to the settler colonial plantation, Indigenous and other ancestral communities have long constructed complex polycultures of diverse plants, livestock, insects, and microorganisms – production systems scholars and practitioners now generally describe as agroecological.Footnote 113 Relying on ecological processes and knowledges to manage and sustain production, traditional agroecosystems emerge from iterations of intimate human-environmental relationships developed and adapted across generations. They facilitate multispecies interactions to amplify and maintain yields; manage pests, soil fertility, and water availability; and when integrated within local cultures, politics, and markets, agroecology can support and sustain regional food sovereignty. The resulting landscapes are typically more abundant, resilient, and over the long-term, more productive than monocultures, especially in the tropics where fragile soils and fluctuating weather conditions routinely threaten yields.Footnote 114
Recognizing traditional agrarian landscapes and economies as intricate, interactive assemblages invites insights from multi- and interdisciplinary complexity thinking.Footnote 115 The sciences and theories of complexity afford us a theoretical framework and functional lexicon for comprehending systems of interactive components. Complexity analyzes relationships – those among individual components and those created by a system as a whole.Footnote 116 In this book, I use complexity thinking to theorize how power and agency flow through the interactions of people, plants, and places to co-constitute landscapes and other socioecological assemblages at multiple scales – from smallholder agroecosystems, to Bahia’s dendê economy, to the Atlantic World.
Classic examples of complex systems include ecosystems, stock markets, ant colonies, and the human brain. Complex systems exhibit a distinctive property known as emergence, a type of synergistic relationship often described with the familiar adage “the whole is different from the sum of its parts.”Footnote 117 Instead of a centralized, hierarchical command structure, the individual agents (i.e., organisms, traders, ants, and neurons, respectively) self-organize and adapt to the flows and patterns of power that filter through their networks.Footnote 118 Together, constituents of complex systems co-produce emergent properties – collective effects, meaning, or direction.Footnote 119 As the “unexpected results of particular patterns of interaction between components in complex systems,” emergent properties emanate not from the a priori attributes of the individual agents, but rather their collective interactivity.Footnote 120
Complexity thinking therefore provides us the material mechanisms through which power and agency relate, flow, and interact. Yet we must proceed cautiously here, as Kinkaid warns, because preoccupation with the non-hierarchical “flatness” of complex assemblages can lead us to overlook the social inequities embedded in them. Feminist analyses of power and race reveal how socioecological assemblages both reflect and reproduce modernist / colonial hierarchies of social difference. “The racializing operations of assemblages – how they sort and differentiate human bodies and ascribe symbolic / material value accordingly – is thus a critical element in understanding the formation of any socio-spatial order and the manner in which its elements gather, relate, cohere, disperse, and endure.”Footnote 121 In this way, race and processes of racialization become, rather than strictly outcomes of a given assemblage, fundamental in the ways that complex socioecological systems coalesce (i.e., self-organize) in the world. In conversation with feminist theories and commitments, complexity thinking allows us to comprehend and analyze the relations, interactions, and synergies of agroecosystems and agrarian economies such as those comprising Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian dendê economy as well as the broader networks of transatlantic and global exchange they connect out to.
Ancestral production systems such as Bahia’s dendê landscapes represent longstanding “emergent ecologies.”Footnote 122 Within such complex agroecosystems, diverse components – including plants, animals, insects, soil, microorganisms, climates, and ancestral knowledge – self-organize in power-laden networks to create agency and socioecological change. Their interactions coalesce to generate emergent properties such as diversified yields, food security, biodiversity, and cultural meaning. As such, these complex agrarian-ecological systems build on synergies of interactions to sustain multispecies collectives of humans and other beings while mitigating social and environmental risk. These multiscalar complex systems are at once rooted in discrete territories and embedded in broader, more complex systems. Palm Oil Diaspora analyzes how complex mosaics of agrobiodiverse landscapes emerge and interact to synergize a regional dendê economy, which in turn connects out to the vast cosmopolitan systems of the Atlantic World. In sharp contrast, the reduction of biologically and socially diverse landscapes to plantation monocultures works to disarticulate complex interactions, thereby precluding synergism and emergence while exacerbating agroecological, socioeconomic, and public health vulnerabilities.Footnote 123 Yet despite centuries of devastating consequences for laborers, farmers, biodiversity, and agrarian communities, monocultures – the kind developed on colonial plantations – remain the prevailing model for modern agricultural development.Footnote 124
Despite their demonstrated efficacy, complex agroecological landscapes remain mostly illegible to public development authorities prioritizing short-term revenue and extraction over livelihoods and justice. James C. Scott shows how modern states maintain the extractivist logic of the plantation to systematically reduce and homogenize the complex and diverse landscapes and societies in their charge, rendering them legible to hierarchical bureaucracies of regulation and revenue.Footnote 125 Encountering vibrant polycultures in West Africa, Latin America, Asia, and beyond, colonial managers generally dismissed such traditional landscapes as irrational, despite their demonstrated productivity, resilience, and multivalence. This ideological project gained momentum in the mid-twentieth century as states pushed to “modernize” their agricultural sectors. Early critics including Carl Sauer warned of stark “ecological unbalances” and erosions of biodiversity and cultural knowledge that would follow widespread conversion to monocultures.Footnote 126 “We present and recommend to the world a blueprint for what works well with us at the moment,” he cautioned, “heedless that we may be destroying wise and durable native ways of living with the land.”Footnote 127 Prescient in its time, Sauer’s rebuke denounced not only the ecological devastation of plantation monocultures, but also the unjust social relations they continue to reproduce.Footnote 128
Plantation monocultures are just one of the countless social, economic, and ecological legacies of colonialism.Footnote 129 Just as monocultures of a single crop disintegrate biodiverse landscapes, the singular promotion of colonial / Western ways of life forecloses any potential for social and epistemological complexity. The forms of knowledge, values, social order, and environmental ethics developed and enforced by European imperialism – what Anibal Quijano and other scholars have dubbed coloniality – continue to contour and constrain global politics, economies, and environments long after the decline of colonial governance.Footnote 130 For Alexandre Da Costa, coloniality “orders peoples, worldviews, and cultures to legitimate, include, and institutionalize certain histories, forms of thought, and ways of being as ideal, superior, and universal, while colonizing, devaluing, unequally incorporating, and / or excluding others.”Footnote 131 Key to this now globalized pattern of “Euro-centered colonial / modern world power” is, according to Quijano, “the idea of race, a mental construct that expresses colonial experience and that pervades the most important dimensions of world power, including its specific rationality: Eurocentrism.”Footnote 132 Enforcing unjust hierarchies of social difference, mythical ethno-racial constructions, and violent human-environmental relationships, coloniality privileges Western assumptions and practices – for example, plantation monocultures and associated logics of extraction – at the expense of infinite other possibilities for reproducing worlds.
An interdisciplinary project of decolonization, or decoloniality, has emerged to disassemble Eurocentrism, white supremacy, and other colonized patterns of power within scholarship, development, and everyday life.Footnote 133 A “decolonial and critical cosmopolitanism” promotes complex and multiple ways of knowing and being.Footnote 134 Decolonial scholarship allies with more than a century of Black studies, and more recently, Black geographies to “locate and speak back to the geographies of modernity, transatlantic slavery, and colonialism.”Footnote 135 Those and other critical theories and analyses work to disrupt the casual violence of modernity by restoring nuance, resistance, and hybridity to social and environmental narratives and representations. They mesh with theories of environmental justice that seek to enact a genuine “recognition” of social difference – based in the universal rights of “cultural respect and self-determination, […] and to alternative ways of thinking and doing.”Footnote 136 These decolonial efforts remain crucial not only as correctives to colonized, Eurocentric accounts of our past, but for what they stand to contribute to more just and abundant socioecological futures.Footnote 137
In reconstructing the emergence of an Afro-Brazilian economy and analyzing its fundamental roles in the networked formation of the Atlantic World, Palm Oil Diaspora offers an array of empirical and theoretical contributions. It examines human-environmental relations too often overlooked in the histories and geographies of the African diaspora, and uncovers the formative influence of people and ecologies of African descent in the societies and environments of the (post)colonial Americas. This book remembers Benta, who like millions of other enslaved Afro-descendants, helped to transform cultures, landscapes, and economies with their intellect and labor but whose stories remain far too often unknown or ignored. Recognizing the value and wisdom of an Afro-Brazilian economy, this book demonstrates how people of African descent, enslaved and free, collaborated in and with their environments to resist colonial violence and white supremacy and create new ways of living and thriving in Bahia. It reveals and appreciates the complex landscapes and ecological knowledge systems behind so many Afro-Brazilian cultural and economic expressions renowned throughout the world but under constant threat of appropriation.
This analysis of Bahia’s dendê economy builds on pathbreaking studies of African agency and environmental change to theorize cultural landscapes as complex socioecological networks shaped by resistance to the political-epistemological forces and legacies of colonialism.Footnote 138 It maps power as a process of diffusion through transatlantic cultural, ecological, and economic interactions. This relational approach facilitates deeper and more nuanced understandings of historical-geographical change by recognizing the ubiquity and lasting influence of everyday resistance within a colonial society defined by slavery and racial violence. Thus this book identifies and examines landscapes of resistance as environments shaped by mundane strategies of survival and fulfillment, and often steeped in transatlantic environmental knowledge and multispecies collaborations. Palm Oil Diaspora presents Bahia’s dendê economy as a vibrant socioecological achievement of the African diaspora and a model of decolonial agricultures, environments, and communities with much to teach us. Accordingly, to assemble and analyze the iterative, transatlantic politics and ecologies that coalesced on Bahia’s Dendê Coast, this project relied on a plural and inclusive approach to methods and methodology.
Analysis of colonized, socioecological networks such as those rooted in Bahia provokes methodological challenges and opportunities.Footnote 139 As Kim Butler makes clear, “the many voices of Afro-Brazilians are rarely found in documents. Instead, it is necessary to turn to their actions.”Footnote 140 Eurocentric documentation, modernist discourse, and other legacies of colonialism join forces to obscure the contributions of enslaved, subaltern, or otherwise marginalized people. The caste system imposed by European imperialism and the transatlantic slave economy permeates the documents locked away in colonial archives, and therefore contours the studies emerging from them.Footnote 141 And while Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian economy represents a remarkable human achievement, comprehending the cultural-environmental interactions at its core requires systematic attention to relational networks of people, plants, places, and power.Footnote 142 So to analyze the socioecological agency of marginalized people and their relationships with environments, we must amplify sources and methods beyond text and beyond humans. This study of Bahia’s dendê economy therefore called for a plural, agile, and decolonial methodology benefiting from diverse voices and techniques – “a generosity toward methods” that allows us to comprehend and address “our self-evidently more-than-human, more-than-textual, multisensual worlds.”Footnote 143
Methods and sources included archives and other texts, various forms of ethnographic inquiry, landscape interpretations, and geospatial analysis iterated across urban, rural, and digital contexts. Textual analysis interrogated archived documents, travelers’ accounts, historical periodicals, rare secondary historical and scientific works, and government reports held at archives and libraries in Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon, and the United States. Online repositories including Memória Estatística do Brasil, the Brazilian Digital Library at memoria.bn.br, Google Books, archive.org, and others provided access to troves of searchable texts. Ethnography and landscape interpretation concentrated mainly in the towns, fields, and forests of Bahia’s Dendê Coast, the Recôncavo, and the capital Salvador. Ethnographic methods included semi-structured and unstructured interviews, life and oral histories, informal focus groups, participant observations, and landscape interpretations.Footnote 144 From 2009 to 2019 I conducted 371 interviews with 453 different people. I sat down and walked with dendê producers, processors, and harvesters; officials with rural workers’ unions and cooperatives; industry executives; public and private agronomists; Baianas de acarajé; local academics; and a host of others.Footnote 145 I accompanied farmers, agronomists, wageworkers, and others through a variety of interlinked landscapes – from plantation monocultures and publicly subsidized nurseries to unplanted, biodiverse groves and complex agroecosystems. Of those interviews, most focused at least in part on life or oral histories, and nineteen became impromptu focus groups of three to six people.Footnote 146 Interviews were transcribed, coded, and otherwise analyzed by hand and using qualitative analysis software.
Conducted off and on from 2009–2019 – including the full year of 2012, ethnographic and other fieldwork moved through forests, farms, mangroves, villages, homes, markets, libraries, government offices, public institutes, Candomblé terreiros, churches, beaches, buses, restaurants, and bars, mainly but not always in Bahia’s coastal Atlantic Forest biome. While Salvador hosted the great bulk of archival research, it also served as a setting for interviews and landscape interpretations (Figure 1.3). Fieldwork and observations outside of the main study area, on Bahia’s northern, southern, and extreme southern coasts and in the states of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Sergipe, Alagoas, Pernambuco, Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte, Ceará, Piauí, Maranhão, Pará, Minas Gerais, and Goiás, along with the Federal District around Brasília, also informed the analysis.Footnote 147
Bahia’s dendê landscapes represent living documents of cultural-ecological relationships and power relations over vast expanses of time and space. Landscape interpretation and other fieldwork were therefore fundamental for this book, especially since colonial documentation of those landscapes is sparse and often indirect. Drawing on a rich tradition among geographers, landscape interpretation refers to mixed-method fieldwork that analyzes the long-term human-environmental collaborations that shape landscapes and places. “Landscapes [can be] seen as palimpsests (documents partially erased and overlain with newer forms and patterns) holding a wealth of information and clues to their histories.”Footnote 148 Rather than a single method, I see landscape interpretation as a broader methodological approach. Effective interpretations rely on a variety of methods and perspectives – as many as possible – to craft solid and heterogeneous understandings of research sites and subjects.Footnote 149 The landscape interpretations informing this book derived from iterations of ethnographic, archival, and geospatial methods – each of them helping to shape each other.Footnote 150
Observations and interpretations of landscapes and ethnographic sites were recorded in field notes and georeferenced using a handheld GPS (Figure 1.4). Those 314 locations and related qualitative data were overlaid on satellite imagery from China Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) and the US Landsat program using geographic information systems (GIS) based on Google Earth and ArcGIS software platforms.Footnote 151 Geospatial techniques included map overlay geoprocessing, field mapping, “grounded visualizations,” and digital cartography.Footnote 152 Grounded visualizations combined field notes and location data with remotely sensed imagery to compile a mixed-method geospatial database. Loaded in a GIS on a laptop computer, those data situated oil palm fields and groves, mangrove ecosystems, palm oil processing facilities, transport routes, maroon communities, and other agrarian and rural environments and communities. Conducting these geospatial analyses in the field broadened perspectives and understandings of land use, vegetation patterns, and other human-environmental relationships, and helped to identify new sites for subsequent fieldwork and interpretation.Footnote 153
For me, fieldwork means mixing, moving between, and interacting with multiple methods and beings in situ. Data and analysis derived from the different methods variously supplemented, superseded, honed, contradicted, and corroborated findings and ideas. I find it helpful to think of the various methods as self-organizing into a complex system. The result was an interactive and iterative research strategy that placed observations from various sources into dialogue, generating new insights that could then be tested and challenged with subsequent fieldwork and analysis. This is what I have elsewhere referred to as a “hybrid approach to fieldwork.”Footnote 154
Ethnographic and other fieldwork nourished the study with place-based knowledge and ecological evidence, yielding insights often useful in subsequent archival queries. At the archives, probate inventories, customs records, ship manifests, and republican agricultural documents offered historical context, which I could discuss and examine in returns to the field. Geospatial analysis provided a wide-aperture aerial perspective that framed the specific socioecological relationships of Bahia’s dendê economy as a cohesive whole. This allowed me to analyze the constituent parts while never losing site of the broader assemblage. Mixed in the field, these iterative exchanges of ethnographic fieldwork, landscape interpretation, archives, and geospatial analysis eventually revealed how the contemporary economy emerged from a culmination of centuries of historical-geographical processes.
Finally, the uneven flows of power that co-constitute and link places with fieldwork invite political and ethical considerations. In Bahia, stark socioeconomic inequities provide persistent reminders of its colonial past and neoliberal present, and any attempt to ignore these unjust conditions serves only to endorse the status quo.Footnote 155 It is therefore crucial to recognize my own identity and positionality as a particular researcher embedded in a particular field.Footnote 156 Within the swirling sociopolitical contexts of (post)colonial South America, I the researcher am an invasive species – a “gringo ethnographer.”Footnote 157 As a married, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white male gringo I wandered through mangroves, farms, and fields without much concern for confrontation or hostility. My light complexion, blue eyes, thinning blonde hair, and foreign accent, along with my notebook, camera, and GPS, represent and convey significant social meaning and privilege. Most people I encountered assumed I was a sanctioned professional, rather than a meddlesome interloper. I benefit from coloniality, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and racial privilege in the United States, Brazil, and everywhere else. These layers of privilege must be acknowledged from the outset.Footnote 158
Even as I work to undo social privileges and their destructive infrastructures in academic and personal practice, I benefit from them constantly. During fieldwork, my privileged identities granted me essentially unfettered access to government agronomists, union leaders, and other powerful people. I set up meetings generally without fear of dismissal, (excessive) condescension, or harassment. My work seeks to dismantle these colonized caste systems through generosity, deep listening and learning, and commitments to justice and empowerment. I remain careful to fully disclose my intentions as a researcher and person, empathizing with my collaborators and their communities.Footnote 159 Informed consent is an ethical code fundamental to this project, both as individual agreements to participate and as a collective accord of cultural learning and sharing wisdom – “sabedoria da roça.”Footnote 160 Thus in my fieldwork I commit to walking with collaborators / informants. As a reflection of positionality and reflexivity, walking with incorporates solidarity and activism into research designs and practices to support local struggles for democracy, autonomy, and justice.Footnote 161 Maintaining a “listener’s framework,” I stand in solidarity with the social, political, and environmental objectives of small-scale farmers, dendê oil processors, and their agrarian communities, and work to amplify their voices in everything I write.Footnote 162 Rather than a bias to be overcome, those commitments guide the project and its products as endeavors toward social and environmental justice.Footnote 163
The chapters that follow detail and analyze the many and messy socioecological relations and interactions comprising Bahia’s dendê economy from the early colonial period to the turn of the twenty-first century and in the broader contexts of the Atlantic World. They mobilize relational and complexity thinking to comprehend the inner workings and interconnections of cultural landscapes, trans-oceanic commerce, and agro-environmental development.
Chapter 2 connects primary accounts with ecological analyses to construct an environmental history of the African oil palm on its native continent and through the early modern Atlantic World. Detailing the emergence of African oil palm ecologies and economies across western Africa, the chapter demonstrates how complex multispecies assemblages coalesced to form palm oil landscapes and cultures, setting the stage for their subsequent diffusion across the continent and later through the Atlantic World.Footnote 164 It discusses the early and prominent roles of palm oil and related African knowledge systems in the transatlantic slave trade and the palm’s initial dispersal through the Neotropics. Each subsequent chapter builds on the previous to elaborate the development of Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian economy.
Chapter 3 charts the diffusion of the African oil palm to Bahia in the contexts of South Atlantic exchange and creolization.Footnote 165 Through a close reading of rare and primary sources, it analyzes how Afro-descendants adapted environmental and botanical knowledges to new species and landscapes despite the brutalities of the transatlantic slave economy. It reinterprets the Columbian Exchange to demonstrate how the Luso-Brazilian colonial endeavor relied on biota and environmental knowledge from throughout the Atlantic World, with an emphasis on those from Africa. The chapter culminates by contextualizing the arrival and establishment of the African oil palm in Bahia.
Once in Bahia, the dendezeiro proliferated within local environments and agroecologies. Chapter 4 reconstructs the development of Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian landscape. Iterating colonial archives and travelers’ accounts with ethnography, landscape interpretations, and geospatial analysis, the chapter maps the emergence of Bahia’s dendê landscapes. It follows flows of power through complex assemblages of people, biota, and environments as they collaborated to transform the New World. It demonstrates how resistance and resilience have enabled and enacted vibrant Black geographies on the margins of the colonial plantation economy since the earliest days of American colonization.
The development of interdependent Afro-Brazilian cultures and landscapes emerged from networks of transatlantic exchange between Bahia and several West and Central African societies. Drawing on rare customs records, ship manifests, travelers’ accounts, periodicals, and other primary documents, Chapter 5 details and analyzes historical commerce in the South Atlantic. Situating African palm oil within the “legitimate” and “clandestine” trades to Bahia, the chapter demonstrates how transatlantic exchanges helped to construct a cultural economy for authentically African palm oil in Brazil, how Afro-descendants leveraged that trade to achieve social and economic mobility, and finally, how Bahia became an Atlantic entrepôt for stocks and transshipments of palm oil in the South Atlantic.
Aside from their social and economic effects, those transatlantic exchanges amplified demand for domestic dendê, which in turn contributed to the socioecological development of palm oil production in and around Salvador, on the Bay Island of Itaparica, and down the Dendê Coast. Chapter 6 examines probate inventories and other archived documents to chart the development of landscapes and markets for domestically produced dendê in nineteenth-century Bahia. The chapter elaborates the transition from enslaved to free labor in Bahia’s dendê economy. It connects traditional dendê landscapes with the early development and integration of Afro-Brazilian religions and the first efforts at industrial palm oil processing in post-abolition Bahia.
After centuries of colonial landscape transformations set the socioecological foundations for Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian economy, an official campaign of agricultural modernization moved in to appropriate and direct its development. Chapter 7 details and analyzes international public-private development efforts imposed on the Dendê Coast beginning in the early twentieth century. The chapter combines evidence from archives and other primary documents with ethnography and landscape interpretations to demonstrate how top-down interventions continue to fall short of their goals and produce effects unforeseen by the elite agronomists and industrialists behind them. It uses complexity thinking to comprehend how successive modernization campaigns have worked to amplify Bahia’s traditional dendê landscapes, rather than reduce them to agro-industrial monocultures, as intended.
Finally, the book concludes with a forward-looking epilogue that summarizes the multiscalar complexity and potentials of Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian dendê economy. It argues for the power of inclusive histories and geographies to enact more equitable, viable, and decolonial futures, and highlights current efforts toward social and environmental justice emanating from the region.