The Multispecies Life of Feral Dendezeiros: Ethnography in Motion

By Thiago Cardoso, Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil §

The dendezeiro (African oil palm) makes worlds. While most people know the dendezeiro as a tree fully subordinated to human design in palm oil plantations across South America and beyond, in many parts of the world these palms transform the lives of those with which they “intra-act” (Barad 2010). In important ways, dendezeiros shape the precarious places on the shores of tropical forests in Brazil, even as colonial and capitalist processes enroll them in their empires of production.

The Dendezeiro (Photo by Thiago Cardoso, 2014)
The Dendezeiro (Photo by Thiago Cardoso, 2014)

The dendezeiro is something different for different people. For the Pataxó Indians who live in the south of Bahia, it is a quality of coconut, while for botanists it a species in the palm family (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.). Its robust trunks are covered with colored pinnate leaves and its strong, orange fruit, which has a slight sandy and saline taste on account of its proximity to the sea. The botanical literature describes it as a solitary plant, but the Pataxó insist that the dendezeiro does not act alone–it collaborates in a multispecies community in coordination with other creatures and animacies. The dendezeiro is a “vulture plant,” according to the Pataxo. In contrast to Western/Northern associations, being a vulture plant means that it offers up its food for other animals—for birds like the parrot or animals such as the paca (agouti). To humans, it offers up its oil, as well as its stories. In its offerings, the palm helps to produce relations, texturing its world, its way of coordinated intra-action. In these collaborative relationships, the dendezeiro not only challenges the boundaries of the species or individual—it teaches us that making worlds is not a practice limited to humans.

In doing the hard work of developing an anthropology beyond the human, one that can account for the dendezeiro way of life, an important practice is walking. Walking is a neglected anthropological method with great potential for storying human and non-human journeys, coordinations and politics (Ingold and Vergnust 2008; Tuck-Po 2008). I drew heavily on this method during my doctoral research on the knowing and making of landscapes in Monte Pascoal, Brazil, south of Bahia, walking with Pataxó Indians through forest, secondary forests, agriculture fields, savannas (locally, mussunungas) and islands of palm forests to learn how landscapes emerge there from the entanglement of humans and non-humans.

Walking is a means of taking notice, as Anna Tsing (2015) describes: a critical way of understanding the human condition in multispecies worlds. Walking as a method is fundamentally about learning how to move through the landscape. But, when repeated or when in conversation with those who move or grow through the same landscape over time it is also a practice of learning the movement of the landscape itself: its fluxes, its growing and developments. It is a similar kind of walking practiced by natural historians—but this is not the distanced observer with a positivist research proposal that this expert figure calls to mind. Instead, it is more akin to walking with our companions while learning and describing relations, practices, encounters, and histories. What Tsing calls the “arts of noticing” in motion is a way to look for the dynamism and rhythms of collaborative encounters in the making and unmaking of livable worlds.

Consider the dendezeiro, a good partner to walk with through patchy landscapes marked by human and non-human disturbance.

Walking under an ancient place occupied by the dendezeiros (Photo by Thiago Cardoso, 2014)
Walking under an ancient place occupied by the dendezeiros (Photo by Thiago Cardoso, 2014)

I met and walked with Joel Braz many times during my fieldwork. Joel is a famous Pataxó who fought in the indigenous movement to recover the “traditional territory” now in the hands of farmers and the environmental agencies for protected areas (Monte Pascoal and Descrobrimento National Parks). In our journeys Joel made me see that his land is full of affect and memory. Accompanying him on a walk through places charged with his history, I was educated to the connection between life and death and the precarious conditions of life and his people’s struggles—a world marked by forest devastation and eucalyptus agro-forestry plantations. Walking and making places, for Joel, are political acts of crossing limits imposed by bounded landscapes, like the fences of private property and National Parks. But such practices involve nonhumans who do not act through humans but through the trajectories of their lives.

The dendezeiro in southern Bahia is one good example of this boundary crossing. Originally from Africa, it crossed the ocean with the transatlantic slave-trade circuits of colonial times and then thrived in community with humans and animals to make a huge anthropogenic forest in the south of Bahia (Watkins 2015). With a spontaneous and opportunistic way of life, it came to occupy patches of Atlantic tropical forest that were burned for the sake of extractivist agriculture and cattle production—a companion of human destruction.

In Monte Pascoal, the Pataxó home, the dendezeiro proliferated in association with birds, rodents, reptiles and domestic animals that use it for food or shelter, as well as other non-humans who assist in its pollination and propagation, including the African oil palm weevil (Elaeidobius subvittatus (Curculionidae)) and the vulture (Cathartes aura rulicollis (Lichtenstein)).

The dendezeiro is feral, brought about by human engineering but not obeying the dictates of its human landlord when in intra-coordinated action with these creatures. The dendezeiro attracts the birds when ripe with its juicy oleaginous coconuts. The vultures visit the high tops of the palm, snuggling on the base of its leaves, eating its fruits and dispersing their seeds in areas abandoned by agricultural use: the palm proliferates.

For many environmentalists in Brazil, dendezeiro is an exotic species—a bioinvader (GIASP 2015) without rights to exist in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (Dransfield et al 1988). The exoticism of the dendezeiro makes it an enemy to be fought by state forces when it lies within a protected area, as in the case of National Parks where the Pataxó live. In defining this suite of species as representative of an “untouched” rainforest to be protected, conservationists seek a pure, ahistorical nature, from which humans are banished.

They might learn from the Pataxó. For Joel Braz and other Pataxó persons, dendezeiro lives in a place and interacts with others in the landscape. It therefore has the right to exist and freedom of movement. To the Pataxó it is alive and native in a multispecies tangle, one they understand through histories of walking through and depending upon the forest. No wonder that the Pataxó were appalled by the exotic species control practices, promoted by the Brazilian environmental agency, ICMBio within the Discovery National Park. There, the dendezeiros were killed by chemical injection (probably glyphosate) and were cut. As explained to me by an indigenous leader, ICMBio considers the dendezeiro exotic in order to prevent Pataxó people from venturing into the National Park to hunt the pacas (agoutis) that can be found eating fruits under dendezeiro.

Dendezeiro in front the Mont Pascoal hill (Photo by Thiago Cardoso, 2014)
Dendezeiro in front the Mont Pascoal hill (Photo by Thiago Cardoso, 2014)

The fluidity of Pataxó conceptions of what is wild or domesticated, natural or cultural, exotic or native allow for an historical forest, produced through human and non-human disturbance, and render essentialist arguments about bioinvaders seem strange. Indeed, selectively exterminating the dendezeiros of the National Park is, for them, “criminal,” as it removes the palm from an ecology that needs them.

Walking with the dendezeiro and Pataxó interpreters teaches us yet again how binary notions like domestic-wild or culture-nature produce a very particular way of living and thinking a world. The Pataxó attention to the possibilities and productivity of landscapes produced through more-than-human relations, coupled with an understanding of the contingent histories of colonial-capitalist expansion, illuminate the importance of the art of noticing encounters through difference and processes of worlding in the Anthropocene. For the Pataxó, as they walk through the forest, dendezeiro is vulture plant, offering up itself to others.

Works Cited
Barad, Karen Michelle. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Clement, Charles. 1992. “Domesticated Palms.” Journal Principies 36(2):70-78.
GISP. 2005. “Programa Global de Espécies Invasoras.” América do Sul Invadida. A Crescente Ameaça das Espécies Exóticas Invasoras.
Ingold, Tim and Vergunst, Jo Lee. 2008. “Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot.” London: Ashgate Publishing.
Tsing, Anna. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Tuck-Po, Lye. 2008. “Before a Step Too Far: Walking with Batek Hunter-Gatherers in the Forests of Pahang, Malaysia.” In: Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot. London: Ashgate Publishing.
Dransfield, J, Johnson, D and Synge, H. 1988. The Palms of the New World: A Conservation Census. IUCN-WWF, Plants Conservation Programme, No. 2.
Watkins, Case. 2015. “African Oil Palms, Colonial Socioecological Transformation and the Making of an Afro-Brazilian Landscape in Bahia, Brazil.” Environment and History 21(1):13-42.

Thiago Cardoso is a biologist and PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina with an MSc in Ecology from the National Institute of Amazonian Research. He work with ecological anthropology, political ecology, biosociality, Amerindian ethnology, public policy, and the biocultural and territorial rights of indigenous and traditional peoples. He is also a Visitor Researcher in the AURA project – Living in the Anthropocene, Aarhus, Denmark and in the PACTA project (local populations, agricultural biodiversity and traditional knowledge) in Brazil. His research is funding by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).

This post is part of our thematic series: Multispecies Anthropology: Becoming Human with Others.