A Black Environmental History of Palms

Palm Tree in Brazil (Shutter stock)

Read this essay’s Portuguese translation here.

[A brief palm reading of Landscapes of Freedom by Claudia Leal (2018), Raspando Coco by Pilar Egüez Guevara (2018), Palmares by Gayl Jones (2021), and Palm Oil Diaspora by Case Watkins (2021).]

Coconuts (Cocos nucifera) helped welcome Almeyda into Palmares, a famous quilombo or community of formerly enslaved runaway Africans and Afro-Brazilians. As an enslaved young woman in Northeast Brazil in the late seventeenth century, Almeyda grew up hearing about Palmares and longing to experience something unfamiliar: freedom. Almeyda is the fictional main protagonist in Gayl Jones’s beautiful and timely novel Palmares. Her character also represents countless enslaved young women of African descent who struggled toward freedom in the Americas. Given the option of cow’s milk or coconut milk upon entering the quilombo, she picked both because she was thirsty. She, however, spat out the cow’s milk and drank the coconut milk, which ushered in the second section of the novel in Palmares, where she was [more] free.

Given Jones’s placement of coconuts in this crucial moment, can we imagine coconuts holding broader significance in Black efforts to survive and become more free? Do the coconut palms stand for plantations or freedom? Jones generally used “palms” in non-descript ways that likely referred to the pindoba palm (Attalea humilis) that dominated the forests sheltering Palmares. But when she mentions coconuts (on at least thirty-one pages), they create scenes as conduits of action: oil for cooking and healing, milk for drinking and making stews, and sometimes dried into flakes for eating. Many of these coconut moments were also instances of hiding, rebellion, and care. At times, the plant seemed to support the possibilities of slavery and freedom simultaneously.

A few other recent works show the Black environmental histories of palms in the Americas. Geographers Claudia Leal and Case Watkins focus on the ivory palm (Phytelephas) and oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), respectively, and filmmaker and anthropologist Pilar Egüez Guevara looks at coconuts. Of the about 2,500 species in the Palmaceae family, these four varieties—pindoba, coconut, ivory, and oil—share a botanical history of the African Diaspora being explored by scholars and actively lived by so many of us.

Claudia Leal’s book Landscapes of Freedom tracks the environmental history of the Black peasant formation before and after emancipation in the Pacific coastal lowlands of Colombia. Investigating a similar period as Leal but in a region close to Palmares, Case Watkins’s book Palm Oil Diaspora highlights that oil palm was “an analytical motif and material agent in telling the environmental history of the African Diaspora” in dendê landscapes of Bahia, Brazil. Finally just south of the Black lowlands of Colombia, Pilar Egüez’s film Raspando Coco depicts the modern-day trials of Afro-Ecuadorian coconut farmers and caretakers on the Pacific coast of Esmeraldas, Ecuador. To paraphrase Leal, these works use palms to analyze Black freedom transitions as part of modern state building in Latin America.

For Watkins, the oil palm landscapes in Bahia are living monuments to the African Diaspora. Oil palm has at least 5,000 years of history in West Africa, from Senegambia to Angola and into the Congo Basin, where the domesticate followed human settlement patterns along savanna ecotones. Countless indigenous West African cultures co-evolved with oil palm, integrating into culinary, sanitary, and spiritual practices. In the context of the transatlantic slave trade, Watkins shows how many slaving ports were historical trading posts for oil palm products, such as soap and lantern oil. Portuguese slave traders used oil palm during the Middle Passage to feed the enslaved and oil them up before the auction. The colonial state encouraged planting oil palms to satisfy the colony’s need for vegetable fuel, and some manipulative planters even allowed enslaved people to continue practicing rituals with oil palms. But, as Watkins argues, oil palm helped facilitate colonial power just as much as it helped formerly enslaved people create and wield their power. That Bahians called oil palm “dendê” after the Kimbundu word “ndende” is a reminder of the influence Africans and Afro-Brazilians had in defining the landscape.

The dendê landscapes of Bahia are multispecies affairs that have historically resisted monoculture. They do not resemble sugar or cacao plantations but take the form of semi-wild or emergent groves that rely on other species like vultures and mangroves. As in West Africa, vultures are vital dendê seed disseminators in Bahia’s mangal commons. Rather than adhere to colonial logics and goals, emergent dendê groves are “cultural landscapes” that are “expressions of diasporic, social-ecological creativity.” Using Sylvia Wynter and Stephanie Camp to frame dendê landscapes as small everyday acts of resistance, Watkins shows how dendê commons represent “ancestral and ecotonal” subsistence and spiritual strategies. Colonialism and racism could not set the stage for extractive violence without sowing the conditions for Black environmental freedom. “Roça” was once the term for “slave plots” but now refers to any small, Black-owned fields or gardens in Bahia.

Claudia Leal’s exploration of vegetable ivory palms also follows diasporic environmental histories from enslavement to emancipation. For Leal, the rainforest helps explain why the Pacific lowlands became the “largest area in the Americas inhabited primarily by black people.” Starting with gold mining, which inspired Spanish colonists to wage war on Indigenous communities and displace Africans from theirs, Leal insists that practices of gold extraction directly fostered Black community formation. Since gold mining was a distinctly riverine activity and gold-bearing rivers were few and far between, colonists organized enslaved gold miners into gangs called cuadrillas. These isolated cuadrillas managed a degree of autonomy, which ultimately “evolved into the basic social unit in the lowlands” and center of self-purchase. The cuadrillas’ association with a particular river and basin informed their identity and place-making.

The colonial thirst for gold brought many enslaved Africans to the region. However, the biogeography of palms explains internal Black migration. As mining gave way to agriculture in the nineteenth century, Colombia became one of the largest exporters of vegetable ivory palm to make buttons, umbrella handles, and chess pieces. Since ivory palm only grows in a few places in the lowlands, formerly enslaved Black peasant formation and migration maps nicely onto palm ecologies. Like dendê collectors on the other side of the Amazon Basin, ivory palm gatherers maintain small plots and gardens and forest management practices. More than transforming settler landscapes of extraction into more affirming and abundant worlds for themselves, Leal demonstrates that marginality offered Black peasants the freedom to change “racialized landscapes” into territories of cultural meaning and Black property rights. The 1886 constitution of the Colombian Republic did not recognize Black peasant rights, but by occupying ivory palm landscapes, “[Black peasants] were written in the landscape.”

Even after the wave of constitutions that recognized the territorial rights of Afro-descendants in the 1990s, Black palm-growing communities still face many challenges in the Americas.1 Pilar Egüez’s Raspando Coco details the centrality of coconuts in local Afro-Ecuadorian livelihoods, the national economy, global capitalism, and the tensions between all three. Egüez first introduces the abundant knowledge, history, and life reflected and generated by relations between coconut and Afro-Ecuadorians in Esmeraldas. Coconuts constitute an essential part of the region’s cultural tradition and political economy. Afro-Ecuardorians work as coconut farmers, coconut scrapers, and producers of numerous coconut products. Dishes like coconut stew inspire grandmothers to keep gardens full of herbs, complementing and accentuating the flavors of coconuts and the coast. Coconut palms grow alongside mangroves, and together, they support micro-ecologies teeming with a diversity of wildlife and cultivated crops like cacao, avocado, and rice.

Coconuts do not guarantee coconut farmers’ market access or industrial support. 2 Raspando Coco, which translates into scraping coconuts, shows the difficulties of living off coconuts. Few producers have the resources or support to manufacture the finished goods that urban consumers have come to prefer. Some of these preferred coconut oils aren’t even coconut oil but mineral oils with coconut fragrance. International food-processing companies make billions from the popularity of coconuts. However, only some of those profits ever reach producers in Esmeraldas. Ironically, growers are more likely to feel the burden of profit losses when coconut popularity wanes, as in 2017, when medical authorities in the United States began to wonder if the high quantity of saturated fats in coconut oil causes heart disease. Coconuts have since reclaimed market space as a global superfood, yet the burden of production and risk rest squarely on heritage producers like those in Esmeraldas.

To paraphrase paleoclimatologist Lina Pérez-Ángel, we need new natural archives to tell the environmental histories of the tropics. In tropical lowlands, most trees do not grow tree rings because they don’t experience a wintering period where the growth tissue in the trunk goes dormant and leaves behind a ring. Pindoba, coconut, oil, and ivory palms might not have tree rings to help us understand the environmental histories of the tropics, but their proximity to the African Diaspora offers a glimpse into the history of racialized and diasporic landscapes.


  1. For more, read Kiran Asher, Arturo Escobar, Eduardo Restrepo, Karl Offen, Ulrich Oslender, and Paula Satizábal.
  2. My dissertation also shows a similar pattern through coconuts and agrarian reform in coastal Guerrero, Mexico in the twentieth century. For more, see “Making the Coast Pacific: Oilseeds and Environmental Violence and Justice in Guerrero and Sinaloa, 1900-1960” (PhD, Northwestern University, 2022).
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Jayson Maurice Porter

Jayson Maurice Porter is an environmental historian of race, violence, and justice in Mexico, the United States, and the Americas. His dissertation focused on the environmental violence caused by oilseed-based agriculture, agribusiness, and agrochemicals in Guerrero and Sinaloa, Mexico. Porter is a Voss Postdoctoral at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES), a research fellow at Noria Research's Mexico and Central America Program, and an editorial board member of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). He likes to write curricula and stories that make people want to go outside and think critically and carefully about their environments.