Case Watkins, LSU Ph.D. in geography (2015) and an assistant professor at James Madison University, received the AAG’s Nystrom Award at the recent AAG conference in Boston. The annual award is presented to the author of a paper presented at the conference based on a recent dissertation. The abstract for his paper is below.
Complex landscapes in the African diaspora: Five centuries of palm oil development on Bahia’s Dendê Coast
This paper analyzes the long-term development of palm oil landscapes in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. In contrast to the agroindustrial monocultures that dominate global production, palm oil in Bahia emerges from a biodiverse cultural landscape constructed through five centuries of transatlantic socio-ecological exchange. Native to West Africa, African oil palms (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.) diffused to the New World with colonial overseas expansion, becoming established in Bahia by the seventeenth century. There the palms helped form what became the Dendê Coast (Costa do Dendê)—named after the Kimbundu Bantu-inspired term for palm oil, an essential ingredient in various Afro-Brazilian culinary and religious expressions. The Dendê Coast thus represents an Afro-Brazilian landscape, operating as the ecological base for Afro-Brazilian cultures practiced and revered throughout the country. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, a series of modern development interventions sought to reduce the complex landscapes of the Dendê Coast to oil palm monocultures of an improved hybrid variety. Yet despite those recurrent efforts, complex polycultural landscapes continue to dominate land use in the region. Drawing on ethnography, landscape interpretations, archives, and geospatial analysis, this paper analyzes the historical development of Bahia’s palm oil economy, recounting a longue durée of socio-ecological changes on the Dendê Coast. The paper integrates recent geographical treatments of the African diaspora with theories of legibility and complexity thinking to comprehend the ongoing proliferation of Bahia’s traditional palm oil landscapes despite top-down promotion of modern monocultures.