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.”