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International Incidence

The Gund Institute of Ecological Economics’ approach attracts global interest

By Kevin Foley Article published October 12, 2005

Michel Masozera
Gund institute student Michel Masozera explains why he left an important job in Rwanda to attend UVM: "I read on the Internet about this program, and I said, 'This is what I want I do.'" (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

Michel Masozera has temporarily traded the lush slopes of his native Rwanda for the Green Mountains.

Masozera, who began pursuing his Ph.D. in natural resources in August, is one of many students and faculty who have traveled long distances to study or teach at the UVM Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. Two post-doctoral students from Mexico are already working at the institute, and six more graduate students will join them in the spring when a USAID project starts. In fact, roughly half of the Gund’s 38 affiliates were born in other countries, an unusually high ratio for almost any university program, and an almost unprecedented level for Vermont.

The wide range of backgrounds helps open doors for international projects ranging from work with AIDS orphans in Ethiopia, a collaboration with China on ecological complexity and ecosystem services and a plethora of modeling collaborations, some funded with non-U.S. grants. “And yes, we do have really good food at our pot lucks,” says Anjanette Merino, a Gund administrator.

Merino and Professor Robert Costanza, the institute’s director, work hard to recruit international students and faculty, attending far-flung conferences, taking late-night phone calls from far-flung area codes, thinking creatively about admissions and financial aid and providing another layer of support for students as they undergo the often arduous process of seeking a visa. “This doesn’t happen by accident,” says Merino.

While the institute’s research is, true to its intellectual roots, active at many scales and locales (affiliates are working on “Burlington Bread,” a local alternative currency, and Costanza spearheaded a local application of the Genuine Progress Indicators, a broad measure of economic and social well-being), Costanza says internationalism is an essential part of the institute’s intellectual identity and one that is highly attractive to foreign students.

“I would like to think that the kinds of things we are doing and our general approach to problems appeals to that broader audience,” he says. “We’re not taking a conventional approach to economics, a Northern-centric and corporate-centric approach. We worry about problems of distribution and equity, and that’s what people in the real world are really concerned about.”

New tools for a conservation leader
Finding new ways to address issues that emerged in his professional work certainly motivated Masozera, who is 37 and already has a master’s degree from the University of Florida. He has long been committed to pursuing creative policies for African conservation that account for the needs of both people and wildlife, and believes that his UVM studies will help him extend his efforts.

Masozera brings rich experience as a practitioner to his doctoral studies; he most recently worked as the Wildlife Conservation Society’s country director for Rwanda. He began working for the organization in 1994 after he moved back to the country after spending most of his life as a war refugee in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His work was centered in the mountainous Nyungwe Forest, one of the largest high-altitude rainforests remaining in Africa and home to 13 species of primate and about 270 species of bird. His work there was honored last year with a $25,000 National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in African Conservation.

While with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Masozera led the first comprehensive biological survey of the forest. That work led to creating multiple zones within the reserve; some highly sensitive areas were heavily restricted, while other zones allowed area residents some use of natural resources. Masozera’s efforts heavily contributed to government’s creation of Nyungwe National Park in 2004, a huge commitment for a poor, densely populated nation.

Masozera is proud of his role in those accomplishments, but he came to Vermont to learn how to do more.

“(The Wildlife Conservation Society’s) approach, one that many organizations are using, is biocentric, based on biodiversity. But there are more values to natural resources than just plants and animals,” he says. “Looking in the context of my country, where the population is dense, we need new approaches to do conservation. When I was looking at what other people are doing in conservation, what other approaches are out there, I found that the Gund institute was following an integrated approach, combining social, economic and ecological systems to address conservation issues. I found that appealing, and that is why I decided to come back to school to learn more and find out how to apply that thinking in the context of my country or Africa in general.”

Masozera, who only arrived on campus in late August, is just beginning his research program, and he’s not sure of the course of his thesis. But he’d like to apply some of the general concerns he explored in his master’s project (which concerned the socioeconomic impact of the Nyungwe reserve) using an ecological economics framework. He would like to use some of the Gund’s modeling and theory toolkit to estimate the value of ecosystem services provided by protected areas in Africa. That emphasis, he says, comes from his experience wrangling with government officials and other stakeholders as a conservation professional.

“When you talk to decision makers, sometimes you’ll say, ‘This forest is very important for biodiversity,’” Masozera says. “But they don’t get it very quickly, because they don’t see any direct benefit related to that. But when you say that the water that comes from this forest is used by a million people, they get the message very quickly.”

Masozera hopes to return home in about two years to do fieldwork and write his thesis. In the meantime, he’s enjoying conversation with his new colleagues — “I learn from them, they learn from me,” he says — and adjusting to the different rhythms of Vermont social life. He’s trying to embrace change: This winter, he plans to set aside his beloved soccer for a time and learn how to ski.