Interview with Peter Umunay, 2014 Russell E. Train Fellow
What background experience do you have in wildlife conservation?
I graduated from the University of Kisangani with a License (B.S.) in biology and focus in forest ecology and plant systematics. Thereafter, I received a job offer from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to complete a census of Ituri Forest Dynamic Plots coordinated by the Center of Tropical Forest Science. What began as a 12-month contract went on to become a five-year professional career with WCS. I led the forest inventory unit and the REDD+ programme of the WCS-Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Forestry project based in the Ituri forest landscape, and worked in different projects related to protecting wildlife populations, including a management plan for the Okapi Faunal Reserve, participatory mapping and community-based forest management across the landscape.
What led you to become involved in forest conservation, specifically REDD+?
Throughout a variety of experiences – beginning with my childhood in a farming community in the DRC, continuing during my degrees in forest ecology and during my roles with various forest organizations – I have become aware of the services forests provide to support the livelihoods of millions of forest-dependent people, and the impacts of human activities in changing forest dynamics and climate. REDD+ appears to hold great promise and could be a major step forward to reduce deforestation and forest degradation, protect species diversity, and simultaneously improve forest-dependent people’s livelihoods and fight climate change.
I was interested in participating in REDD+ at early implementation stages, and because of my field experience I was frequently chosen to represent WCS in workshops at local, provincial and national levels, for the preparation of the DRC’s REDD+ Readiness Preparation Proposal (R-PP). Following the R-PP, I helped write the proposal for the implementation of the Mambasa REDD+ Pilot project located in the Ituri landscape.
How did you hear about the Russell E. Train Fellowship and how is this fellowship contributing to your work?
The Russell E. Train Fellowship is very well known in the conservation field. I received the application from a consortium of conservation organizations since 2008, but waited until 2014 to apply for the fellowship in order to have a more competitive application.
What drew you to pursue your Ph.D. at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies?
After completing a two-year master’s programme at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, I noticed that the school provides a great environment to do interdisciplinary research, in addition to tremendous human and financial resources. Furthermore, Yale’s size, diversity and commitment to excellence were strong attractors.
What does your research focus on?
I am interested in technical and policy implementation of REDD+. Through a combination of remote sensing and field data, my research focuses on responding to the challenges of designing scientifically credible, cost-effective and transparent national-scale monitoring systems able to quantify, monitor and report carbon stocks and human-induced deforestation and forest degradation in DRC.
The application of my work is to build a model that links activities causing forest and biodiversity loss to underlying drivers. My research is then used to construct reference scenarios to determine the scope for emission reductions and biodiversity conservation.
How do you hope your research will improve the field of forest conservation?
My research must be able to establish links between REDD+ initiatives and other conservation management frameworks to ensure that these maximize the social and biodiversity benefits of REDD+. The links between forest management, climate change mitigation and conservation interventions must be framed and oriented toward emission reductions, biodiversity conservation and human well-being.
What is the greatest challenge for REDD+ in DRC?
Governance, the processes and forest-related policies are the greatest challenges for the success of REDD+ in DRC. DRC, as many forest-rich countries, has weak institutions and weak policy enforcement for forests, biodiversity and forest-dependent people. Deforestation drivers – such as agricultural expansion, logging and extractives – in combination with land tenure and safeguard issues are often symptoms of a larger failure of governance.
What are your hopes for forest conservation in DRC?
The DRC government has initiated ambitious policy reform with the creation of a National Environmental Agency and the adoption of a governance matrix. The National Environmental Agency could coordinate natural resource management across sectors and advise the government on effective policies and measures. On the other hand, the government matrix aims to link REDD+ and extractives as an opportunity to steer the country toward a green economy and reduce negative impacts on forests, biodiversity and forest-dependent communities. In addition, the DRC government has also committed to expanding protected areas from 11 per cent to 17 per cent of the national territory, a goal that is supported by the Programme to the Network of Protected Areas (PARAP). If all of these initiatives work, they can contribute to effective governance and therefore protect forests.
What do you enjoy most about your current work and research?
I like the fact that I am taking an interdisciplinary approach, including learning from work done in other countries, and working with people whose expertise is different from mine. I am also happy that the technical part is coming along, and the acquisition of high-resolution images will help assess deforestation and degradation trends in DRC’s forest and estimate carbon. Finally, I enjoy the fact that my scientific adviser and co-adviser give me the opportunity to explore different things that will help me frame my research questions.
Peter’s research is partially funded by and will contribute to the WWF’s Carbon Map and Model Project which aims to create a national biomass map of carbon stocks and emissions in the Congo.
Learn more: Russell E. Train Fellowships support individuals pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree in conservation. Today’s conservation challenges are more complex than ever before and require advanced skills and knowledge to tackle pressing issues from climate change and deforestation to wildlife crime and rights-based fisheries management.
Writing by Jordan Ackerman, WWF Forest and Climate Programme