Though Michel Masozera was raised in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), he dreamed of returning to his home country of Rwanda. In 1996, two years after the world-shaking Rwandan genocide, he got his chance: the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) offered him a job working to protect the Nyungwe Forest in southwest Rwanda.
"When I started with WCS, people were saying, 'are you crazy? Is conservation the priority for the country? We are having refugee resettlement problems: why can't they resettle in the forest?'" he says.
His answer: without protected forests, Rwandans would suffer even more. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa: a place the size of Vermont with ten million residents, "meaning that national parks are like isolated islands in the sea of people," he says.
Masozera spent much of the next decade working to convince the country's political leaders that land conservation was a crucial tool for meeting their goals of rebuilding. Parks are the stronghold for Rwanda's famed mountain gorillas and the tourist dollars they attract, and they also protect the water sources that provide for Rwandan agriculture.
Four years as the country director for WCS in Rwanda taught Masozera a lesson: "you can't address conservation without including local communities in the equation."
"And that's why I very much wanted to come here, to UVM, to the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics," he says, "because they take a holistic approach to environmental issues."
Working with professor Jon Erickson, Masozera has completed his doctoral research on the social and economic benefits of forests and other protected natural areas in Madagascar, Tanzania and Rwanda.
Today Nyungwe Forest is a national park and Masozera looks forward to settling with his wife and young daughter in Kibuye on the shores of Lake Kivu. "Yes, I intend to go back to Rwanda," he says "but in the meantime WCS offered me a job leading their new global program on payment for ecosystem services."