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, travellers' 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 literature 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.
1. Assembling an Afro-Brazilian economy
2. African and Atlantic Worlds
4. An Afro-Brazilian landscape
5. South Atlantic exchange
6. Landscapes, religions, transitions
Epilogue: decolonizing dendê
Case Watkins is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Justice Studies at James Madison University. He co-authored Hispanic and Latino New Orleans (2015), winner of the John Brinckerhoff Jackson Prize in 2015.
"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