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Environment and History

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Environment and History

African Oil Palms, Colonial Socioecological Transformation and the Making of an Afro-Brazilian Landscape in Bahia, Brazil

Case Watkins

Environment and History 21 (2015): 13-42. doi: 10.3197/096734015X14183179969700

Environmental histories of the African diaspora challenge Eurocentric interpretations of the Columbian Exchange by identifying African antecedents in New World landscapes and cultures. This paper joins that effort by tracing the formation of African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.) landscapes in Bahia, Brazil. Long essential in many West African societies, the African oil palm and its products diffused to Bahia early in the colonial period. Palm oil became an integral component of Afro-Brazilian culture and cuisine, and the palm groves that yield the oil represent an Afro-Brazilian landscape. Although the palm's West African origins are well known, and despite its importance in local cultures and global economies, studies of Bahia's African oil palm landscapes remain rare and generally ahistorical. This paper marshals evidence from colonial archives, traveller's accounts, ethnographies, fieldwork and digital geographic data to analyse the formation of Bahia's Dendê Coast (Costa do Dendê, or Palm Oil Coast). While Africans and Afro-Brazilians emerge as principal actors, the analysis places humans within a broader socioecological framework to demonstrate how historical processes, geographies, agroecologies and human agency all coalesced to establish and sustain Bahia's Afro-Brazilian landscape.

KEYWORDS: African oil palm, Afro-Brazilian, resistance, African diaspora, Columbian Exchange


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