Forest Research in the Congo Basin Earns the 2020 Bormann Prize
Peter Umunay’s research, which explores ways to find a balance between conservation and economic development in the Congo Basin, earned him the 2020 F. Herbert Bormann Prize, an award that honors an F&ES doctoral student whose work best exemplifies the legacy of the late Yale professor.
Growing up in a small farming community in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Peter Umunay ’20 Ph.D., ’14 M.F.S. recalls walking through the tropical forests of the massive central African country with his grandparents. He marveled at the size of the forests — one of the largest systems of tropical forest in the world.
This environment also gave Umunay a view of the importance of these forests to locals; agriculture, non-timber forest products and, in particular, logging in the region support the livelihoods of millions of people.
But over time, he also began to understand the environmental importance of the Congo Basin. In addition to being a biodiverse area for wildlife and plants, the massive forest system operates as Africa’s Amazon — a lung, metaphorically — absorbing and storing atmospheric carbon, which is crucial for global climate stability.
Today, Umunay’s research sits in the middle of this delicate balance between conservation and economic development. His broad focus is tropical forest ecology and forest management but, more specifically, he’s interested in technical and policy implementation of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) mechanism, a global payment for ecosystem service scheme aimed at stabilizing the climate through the protection and sustainable management of tropical forests.
Recently, this research earned Umunay the annual F. Herbert Bormann Prize, an award that honors an F&ES doctoral student whose work best exemplifies the legacy of the late Yale professor. Bormann, who taught at F&ES from 1966 until 1992, was a plant ecologist whose research first called the world’s attention to the threat of acid rain in the 1970s. During his career, Bormann’s research helped scientists better understand the complex but irrefutable relationship between humans and the environment.
“Many of these people rely on these forests to make a living, to get basic needs like food and water,” says Umunay. “So how do we balance two realities: where people need the forest to survive, but the world needs the forests to protect our climate?”
“What I hope to do in my research is demonstrate that you can harvest timber while still protecting these forests, using techniques that will allow for the extraction and use of forest materials in a more sustainable way.”
Umunay began his career with the Wildlife Conservation Society in central Africa as a team leader of a forest dynamics program before attending F&ES in 2012. As a master’s student at F&ES — and as a Ph.D. student for five years — he has held numerous roles at the School, including a research assistant in sustainable forestry; a teaching fellow of silviculture, forest landscape restoration and regression modeling; and a program manager and research fellow at The Forests Dialogue, a Yale-based program that promotes multi-stakeholder discussions on forest issues. He’s used his scholarly expertise to consult with the World Bank, the World Wildlife Foundation, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature in southeast Asia, central America and Africa.
Umunay will soon leave Yale to take a role with the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Center. He will serve as a senior advisor on forests and climate change, which he says will give him the best opportunity to help create impactful policy and fundraising efforts at the global level while interacting with developing nations — Africa, in particular — on a local level.