Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Geography and Anthropology

Document Type



Palm oil extracted from the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.) is the world’s most produced vegetable oil, commanding a roughly 50 billion dollar global industry. In contrast to the agroindustrial firms and monocultures that dominate global production, a biodiverse cultural landscape of African oil palms in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia has for centuries supplied local alimentary and spiritual demands for palm oil—an essential resource in Afro-Brazilian cultures. Drawing on fieldwork, ethnography, archives, GIScience, quantitative analysis, and travelers’, rare, and secondary accounts, this dissertation provides the first comprehensive study of Bahia’s palm oil landscapes, cultures, and economies. Analyzing seven centuries of social and ecological change, the study contributes to environmental histories of colonialism and the African diaspora, and advances theories and practices of agricultural development, environmental governance, and the politics of knowledge. Native to West Africa, African oil palms have supported cultures and economies on that continent for millennia. During colonial overseas expansion, Elaeis guineensis 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 examines the early and ongoing development of Bahia’s African oil palm cultures and landscapes, connecting transatlantic cultural, ecological, and economic circulations to reconstruct the emergence of an Afro-Brazilian landscape. Building on its historical analyses, the study culminates with an ethnography of Bahia’s contemporary palm oil economy. Integrating theories of resistance, development, and complexity, the final chapter maps the constituents of, and flows of power through, Bahia’s palm oil economy to scrutinize the modern policies and interventions that seek to redirect and control the network. The dissertation concludes by juxtaposing Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian landscape with the epistemological constraints of modern development. It argues that diasporic knowledges, such as those underpinning Bahia’s palm oil economy, represent potent but generally untapped fonts of place-based development practice with potential to transform global palm oil production and enact more viable and abundant forms of development.



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Committee Chair

Sluyter, Andrew