Pudrición del cogollo (Bud Rot Disease) rose to international notoriety as the main threat to Latin American oil palm monoculture in the early 2000s. According to the Colombian National Federation of Oil Palm Growers (Fedepalma), the disease emerged on the Colombian Pacific border between Colombia and Ecuador, specifically in Tumaco's region, becoming the most dangerous "economic disease" across the continent. My research explores the ordinary and uneven relationships that bud rot disease has established with small-scale palm growers, workers, and scientific experts in Tumaco, Puerto Wilches, a rural town alongside the Magdalena River in the Colombian northeast, and Magdalena state, a north coast Caribbean region, where most 50000 hectares of palms have died in the last 20 years. Before starting this research project, I investigate how local communities undergo herbicide-based eradication campaigns against coca leaf crops in Tumaco. During this fieldwork, I became interested in examining agrochemicals' uses in oil palm plantations. In this preliminary exploration, I heard about bud rot disease for the first time, and since then, I have begun tracing its stories. Thus, I used the thinker summer grant to visit for the second time Tumaco and start preliminary observations in Puerto Wilches to learn more about bud rot disease. From these ethnographic experiences, I learned two things. First, bud rot disease has operated as a practice of land dispossession for small growers, who had to abandon and sell their "diseased lands" at meager prices because of the high costs of preventing and controlling the epidemic. Second, bud rot disease has changed labor regimes inside plantations, as companies have to hire human pollinators to pollinate a new oil palm specie that is more resistant to the disease but can't produce fruits since it is an "infertile" specie. Based on these learnings, I'm writing my dissertation proposal to examine bud rot disease as a matter of debt, speculation, land dispossession, reproductive labor, plant reproduction, and technoscientific speculations. Over two years of ethnographic and archival work, I will map how small-scale palm growers, workers, and scientific experts have experienced the propagation of this epidemic and participated in its agricultural and financial treatment.
October 24, 2022