Franklin Environmental Center, The Orchard-Hillcrest 103
531 College Street
Middlebury, VT 05753
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Roots of Power: Ethnobotany and the Social Production of Space in Tropical Agrarian Societies

There is great cultural continuity in the usage and significance of a particular plant species across tropical Africa. The Dracaena plant relates to property rights, grave marking, and peace symbolism throughout the region – not as a broad swath of meaning, but rather as a landscape element and social practice that appears again and again in diverse societies. In both Tanzania and Cameroon, for example, Dracaena fences both inscribe the moral authority of ancestors into the landscape and repel poisonous snakes. In the eastern Caribbean, Melanesia, and Polynesia, the botanically similar Cordyline species has very similar meanings and uses (appearing most famously in anthropology as Rappaport’s rumbim plant in Pigs for the Ancestors). This presentation is about how the key botanical property of these ‘boundary plants’ – that they take root easily from cuttings – intersects with social organization and colonial change in tropical agrarian societies. Based on 2014-2015 fieldwork in Cameroon, Tanzania, St. Vincent, Papua New Guinea, and Tahiti, I argue that these ‘boundary plants’ have remained meaningful despite far-reaching social changes in recent centuries because of the way that overlaps between property rights regimes and principles of social organization by gender and kinship in agrarian societies have remained relatively compartmentalized from statutory boundary-making in postcolonial societies. Understanding the parallel lives of Dracaena in Africa, Cordyline in the Pacific, and their social synthesis in the New World (where Afro-Caribbean people use Cordyline in particularly African ways) reveals how property rights systems intersect with landscape change and social organization in agrarian societies.

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Academic Affairs

Contact Organizer

King, Sandra A.
(802) 443-2007