Between 1990 and 1994, Rwanda was undone by violence on an unimaginable scale. This led to the flight of nearly two million refugees, most of whom ended up in refugee and transit camps in nearby countries. As millions of people return to Rwanda they are forced to live in impermanent communities with inadequate building materials, electricity, food and water. Because of Rwandaâ€™s high population density, all land was cleared for agriculture and pasture, leaving the only remaining natural resources within national parks and reserves. With the lack of building materials and electricity, the need for massive amounts of wood for fuel and timber has resulted in communities resettling in protected areas, rapidly depleting Rwandaâ€™s already scarce natural resources and further contributing to the lack of clean water as erosion from deforestation worsens. Conservation and development organizations, as well as the Government of Rwanda, are aware of these problems but have struggled to address them. Little research has attempted to understand the extent of impact the conflict had on Rwandaâ€™s environment.
Where I Come In
After having spent a year conducting conservation field research in Madagascar, the Comoros and Equatorial Guinea, I recognized that successful conservation requires understanding regionally-specific political and cultural dynamics (a coup in Madagascar, longstanding political instability in the Comoros and a sovereign dictator in Equatorial Guinea). For example, marine conservation in the Comoros requires acknowledgement of the fact that nearly everyone living on each of the Comorian Islands relies on marine resources as their primary source of protein. Few supply ships pass by these islands, and ecotourism remains an unviable option due to the continued political instability. From these experiences, it became clear that working in international conservation in central and southeastern Africa at the community level is, without a doubt, what I want spend the rest of my life doing. To work more effectively in these regions I decided to return to graduate school to improve my research skills and acquire useful conservation tools like remote sensing and GIS, all of which will enable me to put ideas into action.
Through a Masters Program in Conservation Biology at Columbia University, I am researching the impacts of the Rwandan civil war and genocide on deforestation. Using satellite images I am able to quantify the extent of deforestation and answer questions like â€˜how extensive has the resettlement of refugees in, or near, protected areas been?â€™, â€˜how severe is the loss of forest resources as a result?â€™ and â€˜what is the capacity for these forests to recover?â€™. The results of this research will directly impact local conservation and development organizations, as well as the Rwandan government, to be used in planning and rebuilding. Due to natural disasters, climate change and warfare, human movement and resettlement continues to increase. Understanding the consequences of this movement and how it may burden the environment can help us better mitigate the impact and manage natural resources upon which we depend.
Why Your Support Is Needed
By analyzing satellite images of Rwanda from the present day and the past I can quantify the extent of forest area prior to the conflict, and determine where and how much has changed. However, this satellite image-based analysis cannot be done entirely remotely. To ensure the accuracy of my work, and provide publishable and usable results, my research requires traveling to the sites in Rwanda that I am analyzing. By doing what is called ground truthing I can validate what is represented in current images, enabling me to also better infer what is presented in earlier images. Without on-the-ground field work, it is impossible to validate my research. Additionally, working with conservation organizations while in Rwanda will ensure that my research is useful and relevant to their work. Several local and international conservation organizations, along with the new government, are already working hard to protect Rwandaâ€™s forests and their biodiversity. My research findings and recommendations will be made available to each of these groups so as to directly improve future on-the-ground conservation within protected areas and manage forest resources.
As a graduate student in a two-year Masters program, traditional sources of research funding (government funded grants, private scholarships, etc.), particularly for international field work, are scarce and extremely difficult to obtain given the limited time constraints. Your support will make it possible to complete my work and connect it directly to on-going efforts in Rwanda.
Your donations go directly to funding research travel and field work costs. With a goal of raising $5000, I am budgeting for the cost of a $2000 plane ticket, $800 for travel while in the country (since my research will require traveling to three different sites throughout western Rwanda), $200 for research permits and $2000 to pay for living expenses. The Great Ape Trust in Gishwati Forest Reserve, an area I will be working in, has kindly made their office and field station available for my research needs for a small fee. Additional funds will be used to pay for travel to two additional research sites: Nyungwe National Park and Volcanoes National Park. Every penny raised will go directly towards covering these costs.