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LSU Graduate Student Receives Prestigious Fellowship for International Study

Case Watkins awarded IIE Graduate Fellowship for International Study (formerly, Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Program).

Oil palm fresh fruit bunches await transport to a processing facility, Valença, Bahia, Brazil.
Photo: Case Watkins

LSU doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography & Anthropology Case Watkins recently received a prestigious IIE Graduate Fellowship for International Study (formerly, Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Program) to conduct a yearlong research project on sustainable agriculture practices in Bahia, Brazil.

“I am thrilled and honored to receive this fellowship. I thank the Mellon Foundation; IEE; my advisor, Professor Andrew Sluyter, as well as the other members of my dissertation committee; the Department of Geography & Anthropology; and the College of Humanities & Social Sciences, especially Assistant Dean Ann Whitmer, for supporting me throughout the process,” said Watkins. “I am humbled to represent the Fulbright program and its spirit of international exchange and cooperation.”

Congressional budget cuts forced the U.S. Department of Education to cancel the 2011 Fulbright-Hays program months after the application and selection processes had concluded, but the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation graciously provided a one-time grant of $3.16 million to the Institute of International Education, or IIE, to fund several of the would-be Fulbright-Hays Fellows. To learn more about the Mellon Foundation’s offer to fund the Fulbright-Hays Fellows, visit http://www.iie.org/en/Who-We-Are/News-and-Events/Press-Center/Press-Releases/2011/2011-06-28-Launch-Of-IIE-Graduate-Fellowships-For-International-Study.

LSU doctoral candidate in the Department
of Geography & Anthropology Case Watkins
recently received a prestigious IIE Graduate
Fellowship for International Study.

From January to December 2012, Watkins will conduct his dissertation research project on the history and contemporary economy of oil palm agriculture in Bahia. Native to West Africa, the African oil palm diffused to Brazil as a part of the Columbian Exchange – the immense trans-Atlantic diffusion of people, biota and ideas during the colonial period.

Details of the oil palm’s voyage to Brazil remain unclear, but by the 18th century, the tree somehow became established in Bahia, where Africans and their descendants tended and harvested oil palms in semi-wild groves using techniques adapted from their homelands. The Bahian oil palm groves therefore represent both an important African contribution to the cultural and economic development of the Americas and a significant instance of African resistance to the brutal constraints of slavery.

Drawing on archives, interviews and oral histories, Watkins’ project will detail the processes through which Africans and their descendants in Bahia established and maintained groves of African oil palms and illustrate how the trees and their products became central to vibrant Brazilian cultures that continue to thrive.

In complement to his historical investigation, Watkins will use interviews and participant observation to examine Bahia’s contemporary palm oil economy. Palm oil production and consumption remain important ways of life for many in the region, but modernist development pressures are transforming the market. Traditional producers now compete with agroindustry, and powerful interests advocate for the expansion of production to meet growing demand. The project’s contemporary component will use a political ecology approach to illuminate the palm oil market in Brazil, an emerging world economic power undergoing massive growth in its agricultural sector.

An oil palm on the grounds of an industrial
processing facility in Taperoá, Bahia, Brazil.
Photo: Case Watkins

The implications of Watkins’ research resonate beyond Brazil and into the development practices of the global south more generally. Palm oil is currently the world’s most produced and consumed edible oil. Typically grown in monoculture in denuded tropical rainforests, its cultivation practices often erode biodiversity, and have drawn criticism from researchers and environmentalists.

Conversely, the traditional cultivation systems in Bahia rely on what scientists refer to as agroforestry, wherein farmers actively promote biodiversity by cultivating a variety of plants and trees. Previous researchers have suggested oil palm agroforestry as a compromise that could potentially allow for continued oil palm development without the need to destroy rainforests, but such research is as of yet sparse. Watkins’ project contributes to that effort by evaluating the potential of agroforestry such as that practiced in Bahia as a sustainable alternative to monoculture in the massive global industry.

After conducting his research in Brazil, Watkins will return to Baton Rouge in late 2012 to complete his dissertation.