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Geography's Peter Deadman finds common ground on foreign soil

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

By Michelle Pressé. Waterloo is celebrating International Education Week with a variety of on-campus activities, as well as a series of stories showcasing some of the international experiences of our students, faculty, and staff.

Peter Deadman in a Brazilian village.Peter Deadman’s passion for understanding environmental and human interactions has taken him places.

The Faculty of Environment professor’s research focuses on using advanced geographic information technologies to model land cover change in response to socio-environmental forces. For more than a decade, Peter explored the application of agent based models to understand the land use strategies of multi-sited forest farmers in the Amazon estuary.

Peter’s research has provided a deeper understanding of the challenges facing the communities that live near Marajó, a Brazilian coastal island bordered by the mouth of the Amazon River to the west and northwest, and the Atlantic Ocean to the northeast.

“My main interest has always been trying to understand environmental problems, and how human decision making affects the environment,” says Peter. “The interaction between humans and the environment might vary from one country to another, but the challenges are often the same.”

The Amazon estuary has a large population of Brazil’s Caboclo persons, who are a mix of Indigenous Brazilian and European ancestry. Peter has met with many of the island’s residents to learn about how they are able to thrive despite the environmental factors they face.

One of the recent environmental changes in the estuary is the influx of farming açaí berries as a result of market demand. The berries are considered a top superfood for their antioxidant properties and other health benefits. Grown in large clusters at the top of palm trees in the Amazon rain forests, the clusters need to be cut and brought down manually in order to preserve the fruit and pulp.

“The resiliency of the people who live in these communities is incredible,” says Peter. “It’s a unique learning experience to be able to immerse yourself in their daily routine and witness firsthand how they live. It puts everything into perspective.”

Due to the estuary’s tides, yards flood daily, which has resulted in homes being built on stilts. Throughout his research in the Amazon, Peter has had several graduate students travel to the estuary. One student, Yue Dou, travelled to 600 homes to conduct household surveys in order to look at strategies for coping with the environment.

“When students are given the opportunity to learn from the world’s leading researchers in their field and conduct research abroad, they internationalize their education,” says Ian Rowlands, Associate Vice-President, International. “Experiential education is more than our philosophy – it’s our practice. We want to equip our students with the means to become globally-literate and world-ready citizens, which wouldn't’t be possible without professors like Peter.”

In addition to his work in the Amazon, Peter has also examined the application of 3-D models to explore the response of wetland vegetation communities to water level changes in Great Lakes coastal wetlands.

“Environmental problems exist everywhere,” says Peter. “Some of the biggest challenges we face have to do with human and natural systems interactions. People in Canada might think they have nothing in common with people who live in Marajó, but despite having different languages, environments, and cultures, we all worry about the same things – our children’s education, our livelihood, coping with unexpected changes. Our similarities are far more surprising than our differences.”