Elizabeth Hennessy selected as a 2019-2021 Vilas Associate

May 8, 2019

Nelson Institute Assistant Professor of History and Environmental Studies, Elizabeth Hennessy has been selected as a 2019-2021 Vilas Associate. Made possible by the Vilas Trustees, this appointment will provide Hennessy with research funding for two years to support a new project on the social and ecological costs of palm oil production in Ecuador.

Hennessy plans to study the impact that palm oil production has on the land, labor, and ecology of Ecuador, the sixth largest global producer of palm oil. In particular, she will examine how global markets have reshaped patterns of land tenure, what the local concerns are regarding palm plantations, and how these issues can be addressed.  

“This is a generous grant that will allow me to do a great deal of preliminary research and gather data,” Hennessy said. “Most of the research that has been done on palm oil has focused on large plantations in Southeast Asia, which is where the majority of palm oil is produced, but I am interested in palm oil production in Ecuador and how it differs from these large-scale palm oil plantations. Eighty-seven percent of palm oil production in Ecuador is done by small holders, which has major implications for peasant livelihoods in addition to ecological impacts.”

Hennessy said she hopes that her research will contribute to a wider discussion of the Plantationocene, a word for the “lasting social and environmental consequences of plantation economies.” Over the next five years, she plans to write a book on the research that develops from this project.

“The expansion of oil palm plantations to feed a global demand has created economic opportunity for some, but at the cost of the loss of natural habitats in regions rich in biodiversity,” said Paul Zedler, Associate Dean at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. “Professor Hennessy’s research will give us valuable perspective on the environmental and social costs of the growth of the oil palm industry.”

In addition to this research and her potential book on the topic, Hennessy has also been working on other projects related to conservation and land tenure. Later this year, Yale University Press will publish her book, On the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galápagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden, which examines the Galápagos giant tortoises as iconic species at the center of “tensions among evolutionary science, conservation, and tourism development in the archipelago.” On campus, Hennessy is affiliated with the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, the Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies program, and the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies. She teaches theories of space and nature, animal history, the global environmental history of the Anthropocene, and Latin American environmental history.

“What we’re seeing with this incredibly exciting generation of scholars is work that breaks boundaries, moving from history to ethnography, and from conservation science to community politics,” said Paul Robbins, Dean of the Nelson Institute. “For the Vilas Associates Award to recognize extraordinary scholarship like Dr. Hennessy’s, which is so wonderfully hard to pin down by discipline, shows real vision.”

Hennessy would like to thank her collaborators in Ecuador, Patricia Polo Almeida, Carlos Mena, and Antonio León, as well as the community at the Nelson Institute, who have all been instrumental in making this award possible. Read more.