Dr. Oliver T. Coomes
Who I Am
I work on issues related to conservation, rural livelihood, and poverty among resource-reliant rain forest peoples of the Neotropics, particularly in the Peruvian Amazon.
I was born and raised in British Columbia. I did my BSc in Geography at the University of Victoria, mostly in physical geography (though my Honours thesis was actually on urban recreation!). I then took up a fellowship at the University of Toronto where I completed an MA in Geography which focussed on environmental management and policy - my thesis examined regulatory, judicial and administrative strategies to reduce the acid rain problem between Canada and the US. At that point I decided to 'shift gears' and went to work in the private sector for a large Canadian engineering firm as an environmental consultant. For six years I worked on a variety of environmental problems in Canada and overseas for private firms, government ministries and multilateral agencies. One of the projects took me to West Africa where I conducted an Environmental Impact Assessment for the World Bank on a dam proposed for the Niger River; the work required lots of interviewing with peasant farmers along the river and I was fascinated.
Member, Scientific Committee, EchoGéo (2012-present)
Member, Publications Committee, Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers (2015-present)
Member, Board of Directors, Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers (2015-2018)
Member, Field Study Award Committee, Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers (2016)
Associate Editor, Economic Botany (2009 – 2016)
Editor-in-Chief, World Development (2003 – 2012)
Invited Visiting Professor, Faculty of Economics, Université Paris 1 - Panthéon-Sorbonne (October,2011; Ministère des Affaires Étrangères)
Carl O. Sauer Distinguished Scholarship Award (2010), Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers
Member, Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) (2010 - present)
Member, Editorial Board, Journal of Land Use Science (2005 - 2014)
Member, Editorial Board, Journal of Latin American Geography (2003 - 2009)
Member, Scientific Steering Committee, Commission on Land Use and Land Cover Change, International Geographical Union (IGU) (2005 - present)
Chair, Cultural Ecology Specialty Group, Association of American Geographers (1998-2000)
Chair, Honours Committee, Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers (1998)
Nystrom Award Competition Committee, Association of American Geographers (1998-99)
Board of Directors, Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers (1996-1999)
Board of Directors, Amazonian Peoples Resources Initiative (APRI) (1998-2003)
Board of Directors, Amazon Conservation Fund, Inc. (1989-1998)
What I teach
The course introduces the geography of the world economic system. It describes the spatial distribution of economic activities and examines the factors which influence their changing location. Case studies from both "developed" and "developing" countries will test the different geographical theories presented in lectures. Co-taught.
A discussion of the geographical dimensions of rural/urban livelihoods in the face of socioeconomic and environmental change in developing regions. Emphasis on household natural resource use, survival strategies and vulnerability, decision-making, formal and informal institutions, migration, and development experience in contrasting global environments.
A graduate level seminar on humid tropical ecosystems, the people of the rain forest, and the development experience of tropical regions; regional focus on Amazonia. Draws students primarily from Geography, Biology and Anthropology.
An upper-level course, as part of the Panama Field Study Semester, on rural livelihood, migration and land use change in Panama. Offered every other year. Co-taught.
The purpose of this course is to introduce graduate students in Geography to geographical research leading to the preparation of the thesis proposal and its presentation to the class in the winter term.
My Research Interests
I work at the intersection of ‘environment’ and ‘economy’ among traditional rain forest peoples of the Amazon river basin, particularly in Peru, and elsewhere in the Neotropics. I seek to understand the microfoundations of natural resource use by traditional peoples – from swidden-fallow agroforestry and floodplain agriculture to forest product extraction and fishing – and their implications for economic development and for environmental conservation.
What are the prospects and problems of indigenous agricultural practices for improving the welfare of the rural poor and for conserving the rain forest?
What role does sustainable forest product extraction play, both past and present, in the household and regional economy?
How do peasants adapt their livelihood practices under conditions of environmental and economic change?
These questions guide much of my research.
My research has followed two broad lines – one contemporary and one historical – focusing on issues related to cultural ecology, livelihoods and development and land use and land cover change in Amazonia. My work applies concepts and methods from micro-development and agricultural economics to problems of human-environment relations among traditional, resource-reliant peoples. Much of this work has been in collaboration with students and researchers at McGill and other universities – they are the ‘we’ below and their names can be found as co-authors of the papers produced from our research (See “Research Papers”).
Amazonian Peasant Livelihoods
My dissertation work challenged common depictions in the literature of traditional Amazonian peasants as being undifferentiated ‘economic generalists’ and the apparent economic limitations of blackwater (oligotrophic) rivers. I encountered surprisingly high levels of market-product specialization and wide variations in cash income levels among peasant households which prompted me to focus on two key economic activities in the peasant household – market-oriented agroforestry and natural resource extraction – and on peasant responses to economic and environmental change.
Often portrayed as the ‘other path’ for rural development in Amazonia, market-oriented agroforestry systems had been little studied analytically. In a study of agrodiversity in a traditional community near Iquitos, Peru, we identified a set of key factors that explain why certain traditional peasant households use more (or less) sustainable swidden-fallow agroforestry practices and, in doing so, challenge the prevalent view of indigenous agriculture as being intrinsically ‘stable, equitable and sustainable’. Elsewhere, I discovered a new type of traditional lowland agroforestry system (i.e., avocado-yarinal system) on relic riverine features in the Amazon lowlands. From field data, we determined the factors that influence the dynamics of secondary forest regrowth, including the length of the fallow period, in swidden-fallow systems as well as the economic role and importance of charcoal produced from forest fallows and of palm fiber. And more recently we explored agrobiodiversity in indigenous agroforestry systems, documenting the abundance and distribution of useful plants in home gardens – reporting in one paper the highest cultivar diversity as yet encountered in the Amazon basin – and demonstrating the importance of informal seed networks in building useful plant diversity.
Natural Resource Extraction
Much currency has been placed by conservationists in the potential of traditional forest product extraction (timber and non-timber products) for improving the welfare of local people and, at the same time, conserving the rain forest, but relatively little is actually known about the economic role – both past and present – of such activities in the Amazonian peasant household economy. In an international collaborative project, we found important differences in extractive occupations across communities and households in a large nature reserve in Peru and demonstrate how differential wealth holding, even among very poor households, is highly influential in household activity choice and resource use behavior, from farmers to hunters and palm fruit collectors. In one community a graduate student and I identified the key factors that influence local peoples’ decisions to climb rather than cut down palms to harvest fruit. The critical importance of small differences in household wealth led us to develop a new method for rapid appraisal of household wealth among rain forest households. Such work pointed to the counter-intuitive result that in the rain forest, fisheries may be a more important risk-mitigating resource than non-timber forest products and prompted some of the first studies of the aquarium fish industry in the Amazon and the role of fish ponds in the transmission of malaria.
Peasant Adaptation to Environmental and Economic Change
My dissertation work showed the importance of considering livelihood practices in historical depth and context. In studies conducted since, we have identified how peasant households readily adapt their livelihood strategies to long-term economic cycles of boom and bust and to new economic opportunities. Also of importance to resource-reliant people are abrupt changes in their biophysical environment, and both how they shape their environment and respond to exogenous environmental shocks. In a study along the Ucayali, near Pucallpa, we document how a small group of people, using limited technology, were able to re-route one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon river, creating a massive oxbow lake. Elsewhere, I have been following another unique case of local environmental change over the past twenty years associated with the capture of a long reach of a blackwater (nutrient poor) river by the whitewater (nutrient rich) Amazon River, observing how peasant respond to new hydrological and edaphic conditions along the floodplain. In collaboration with one of my post-doctoral fellows, we studied the adaptive responses of the Tawahka Sumu people of Honduras, pre-and post-hurricane Mitch, and found that environmental shocks can open up new opportunities for the poorest of the poor, for improving their livelihoods and economic welfare.
Amazon Rubber Boom
Wild rubber extraction by rural people in Amazonia fueled one of Latin America’s most explosive natural resource booms (1860-1920) and left an indelible stamp on the lives and livelihoods of rural people in Amazonia. In collaboration with Brad Barham, we developed a new historical interpretation of the boom which accounts for the principle development outcomes begat by this extractive industry. Geographical and economic perspectives are used to build theoretical and empirical arguments linking micro- and macro-economic processes with key outcomes of the boom. Our work provides the conceptual basis for understanding not only this specific industry and period, but the structure and economic impacts of extractive industries in general and the experience of resource rich regions elsewhere. Insights from this work lead us to pursue the role of sunk costs in the resource extractive sector and to the study of the role of extractive industries today in Amazonia.
Land Use and Land Cover Change
Insights from our research in the Peruvian Amazon on the microfoundations of current and historical natural resource use have been usefully applied to studies we have undertaken of land use and cover change elsewhere in Latin America, including Panama, Mexico and Brazil as well as globally. Of particular relevance to science policy discussions are perhaps those insights generated through our work the forest transition and implications of land use change strategies for atmospheric carbon mitigation..
Current Research Projects
At the moment, I have four research projects underway.
Rain forest community location: determinants and implications
In collaborative work with Dr. Yoshito Takasaki at the Tsukuba University, Japan), Dr. Christian Abizaid (U. of Toronto) and McGill Geography post-doctoral fellow Dr. Pablo Arroyo, we are undertaking a large scale study in the Peruvian Amazon of the determinants and implications of community settlement and location. Often considered as ‘given’ by policy makers, just where and why traditional communities are located where they are bear potentially important implications for natural resource use and rural poverty, as well as program interventions aimed at conservation and development.
Historical land use, poverty traps and forest cover
In this study of agroforestry systems in a traditional Amazonian community near Iquitos, Peru, I am examining with Drs. Yoshito Takasaki (Development economist, Tsukuba University, Japan) and Jeanine Rhemtulla (Landscape ecologist, Geography, McGill) - the co-evolution of local land holding, land use and forest cover change. Of particular interest is inequality in land use, the development of land use traps, and the implications for forest cover, biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Peasant Responses to Environmental Change
For the past twenty years, I have been following an unusual case of abrupt environmental change associated with the capture of a long reach of a blackwater (nutrient poor) river by a whitewater (nutrient rich) river in the Peruvian Amazon. My focus in this long-term study is on how peasants respond to new resource use and livelihood opportunities afforded by changes in hydrological and edaphic conditions along the floodplain.
Agricultural diversity and seed networks in the Peruvian Amazon
In this study, we are seeking to better understand the patterns, dynamics and origins of crop diversity across ethnic groups, communities and households in the Peruvian Amazon. Our current focus is on peasant home gardens which appear to hold the greatest diversity of crops among the various fields held by traditional farmers. Informal seed networks are extensive and play an important role in the building and maintenance of agrobiodiversity in Amazonia.
Prosperity's Promise - The Amazon Rubber Boom and Distorted Economic Development
Barham, B.L. and O.T. Coomes. 1996. Prosperity's Dellplain Latin American Studies Series, Westview Press, Boulder, CO., USA. , 179 pp.
Lesley Johnson. M.Sc. Student. Remote sensing and community location in Amazonian Peru.
David Poissant. M.Sc. Student. Overfishing and community-based fisheries management in Amazonia.
Daniel Zayonc. M.Sc. Student. Field verification of local ecological knowledge for game biodiversity in Amazonia.
Past Graduate Students & Post-Doctoral Fellows:
Lauren Wustenberg M.A. 2018. Dynamic adaptation of peasant livelihoods to river capture in the Peruvian Amazon.
Tim Holland Ph.D. 2016. Land markets, migration, and forest conservation on an Amazonian frontier in San Martin, Peru.
Geneva List M.A. 2016. Agriculture and the risk of crop loss in the Amazon river floodplain of Peru.
Gillian Gregory Ph.D. 2015. Floodplain livelihoods, rural-urban linkages, and aquatic resource conservation in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peruvian Amazon.
Sarah Wilson Ph.D. 2014. Replanting a future: restoring cloud forests, biodiversity and rural livelihoods in Andean landscapes.
Meghan Doiron M.Sc. 2013. Information access, market trade and rural livelihoods in the Peruvian Amazon: an analysis of communication networks and price uncertainty among riverine producers.
Benjamin Miltner M.Sc. 2013. Biochar soil management in traditional Amazonia agriculture: charcoal production and kiln site cultivation in Peru.
Jennifer Webb Ph.D. 2010. Environmental contamination of fish and humans through deforestation and oil extraction in Andean Amazonia.
Alexandre Magno Diniz CNPQ-Brazil Post-doctoral Fellow. 2009-10. Migration, colonization and livelihoods in frontier Roraima, Brazilian Amazon.
Jeanine Rhemtulla Post-doctoral Fellow. 2008-09. Market-oriented swidden-fallow agroforestry systems, economic livelihoods and landscape ecology in Peruvian Amazon.
Sean Sloan M.A. 2008. Reforestation amidst deforestation in the Bayano-Darien frontier, Eastern Panama: variations on the forest-transition thesis.
Jean-Michel Cohalan M.A. 2007. River trading in the Peruvian Amazon: market access and rural livelihoods among rain forest peoples.
Christian Abizaid Ph.D. 2007. Flood plain dynamics and traditional livelihoods in the uppper Amazon: A study along the central Ucayali river, Peru.
Maya Manzi M.A. 2005. Peasant adaptation to environmental change in the Peruvian Amazon: livelihood responses in an Amerindian and a non-Amerindian community.
Mathilde Perrault-Archambault M.A. 2005. Who manages home garden agrobiodiversity? Patterns of species distribution, planting material flow and knowledge transmission along the Corrientes river of the Peruvian Amazon.
Marie-Annick Moreau M.Sc. 2004. Rainforest fisheries: regional organization and household participation in the aquarium fish trade of the Peruvian Amazon.
Stéphanie Brisson M.A. 2003. Labor access and unequal land holdings among peasant farmers in a lowland and upland community of the Peruvian Amazon.
Mónica Kjöllerström M.Sc. 2002 (Agricultural Economics). "Reservation income and the decision to borrow: an empirical analysis of interlinked informal credit contracts in the Peruvian Amazon. (co-supervisor: Dr. John Henning, Dept. of Agricultural Economics).
Carolyn Crook Post-doctoral SSHRC fellow. 2001. Bioprospecting, resource use and environmental conservation in Costa Rica and Peru.
Kendra McSweeney Post-doctoral SSHRC fellow. 2001. Responses of indigenous peoples to abrupt environmental change: Impacts of Hurricane Mitch on the economic livelihoods of the Tawahka Sumu Indians, Honduras.
Kendra McSweeney Ph.D. 2000. “‘In the forest is our money’: the changing role of commercial extraction in Tawahka livelihoods, eastern Honduras”.
Christian Abizaid M.A. 2000. “Shifting cultivation and fallowing practices in a land-abundant ejido: an intra-community study of Nuevo Becal, Campeche, Mexico”.
Kittisack Chanthaboune M.A. 2000. “Demography, migration, and resource use among ribereño households in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, Peruvian Amazon”.
Natalie Lerch M.A. 1999. “Home gardens, economic plant diversity, and exchange of planting material in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve area, northeastern Peruvian Amazon”.
Kevin Taylor M.A. 1999. “Data requirements for the establishment of protected area networks” (co-supervisor: Dr. Gilles Seutin, Dept. of Geography)
Victoria Diaz M.A. (Economics) 1998 “Land holdings and Household Size: Testing Causality” (co-supervisor: Dr. Franque Grimard, Dept. of Economics)