This paper explores the co-production of plants and people in twentieth century Gambia. Weaving oral histories and archival materials together with insights from work on biopolitics and Black Feminist Studies, I trace the different articulations of humanity that emerged alongside the care and control of plants—particularly peanuts, the primary commercial crop—in the twentieth century. The spread of commercial groundnut production in Gambia was accompanied by the rise of seasonal migrant farming that attracted young men to the Gambia River basin from across West Africa. In their new locale, these migrant farmers were incorporated into local families through seasonal contracts and in some cases, through long-term integration into extended lineages. These relationships were integral to the production of commercial peanuts but also to the exchange and reproduction of seed for planting. At the same time, under British colonial rule, the control of groundnut seed became central to the colonial quest for a ‘minimum economic crop’ and British efforts to manage seed culminated in the creation of laws that regulated how farmers saved and shared seed, including the exchange of seed between migrants and their hosts. Whereas the relationship that structured migrant farming—including the exchange of seed—often enrolled migrants into local families through idioms of kinship, sweetness, and indebtedness, colonial seed law spurred the redefinition of ‘native’ farmer along the lines of racialized difference. In following these different articulations of belonging and otherness, this paper shows how projects to regulate plant life are enmeshed with theories of the human/humanity. Where these different theories diverge provides space to reflect on alternative iterations of what it means to be human (and possibly plant) that persist and flourish even amid biopolitical projects. 

About the Presenter

Susannah Chapman is a Research Fellow in the School of Social Science at The University of Queensland. Trained as an environmental and legal anthropologist, her research explores the intersection of law, science, and society, with a particular focus on transformations in human-plant relations and seed interventions since the early twentieth century. Using ethnographic and archival methods, her work asks questions about the coloniality, biopolitics, and translational practices of contemporary efforts to regulate plant reproductive material and crop diversity. She conducts work on seed regulation, seed saving, and intellectual property law in The Gambia and Australia. 


About Anthropology Working Papers

The Working Papers in Anthropology seminar series provides a forum for dissemination of anthropological research and ideas among UQ scholars and invited researchers. All students are invited to attend the series and postgraduate students, from honours upwards, are invited to present their research. The aim is to provide opportunities for students, staff and those from outside UQ, to present and discuss their work in an informal environment.