“Imbibing the lesson of defiance”: oil palms and alcohol in Colonial Ghana, 1900–40

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This article examines a controversy over oil palm landscapes in colonial West Africa. Oil palms provide two important food products, palm oil and palm kernels, but they are also tapped for palm wine, an alcoholic drink produced from the sap of the tree. In Ghana (the colonial Gold Coast), the preferred wine-tapping method destroyed the tree, leading to conflicts among Ghanaians and with the colonial state over the best uses of oil palm trees. Many Ghanaian elites agreed with colonial officials that felling palms for wine was wasteful, but others defended palm wine as a symbol of resistance to colonialism. Although colonial officials tried to suppress the production of palm wine and spirits distilled from it, their efforts were halfhearted, reflecting skepticism about the environmental and economic cases for protecting oil palms. Felling palms for wine did contribute to the systematic degradation of Ghana’s once dense “palmeries,” but this was a complex transformation rather than a case of reckless overconsumption.

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© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. Publisher's version of record: https://doi.org/10.1093/envhis/emx135

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Environmental History