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Dr. Oliver T. Coomes

Department of Geography
McGill University,
805 Sherbrooke Street West,
Montreal, QC H3A 0B9

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. 

Indigenous Agroforestry

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.





Contact Information

Department of Geography

McGill University

805 Sherbrooke Street West

Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 0B9

phone: (514) 398-4111 fax: (514) 398-7437

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Last updated July 12, 2012