Elsa Ordway

Tea plantation on the edge of Nyungwe National Park
Tea plantation on the edge of Nyungwe National Park

Rwanda is a small mountainous central African nation, rich in biological diversity and storied in its history of conservation. It is home to a third of the remaining mountain gorillas and its Nyungwe National Park contains the largest mountain rainforest in Africa. At roughly the size of the state of Maryland, Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Between 1990 and 1994, Rwanda experienced massive population displacement as a result of civil war and genocide. Resettlement in response to these conflicts strained natural resources and diminished long-term land use across much of the country. The social implications of these conflicts have been thoroughly examined, yet the effects it has had on the resilience of Rwanda’s natural environment is just now beginning to take shape. Elsa Ordway looks to investigate this through spatial analysis tools and quantitative methods with the goal of helping us better understand the ecological reverberations of conflict and conflict-induced resettlement.

Elsa Ordway (’13) joined E3B after spending two years as a field assistant and educator in countries ranging from Madagascar & Equatorial Guinea in Africa to the southern Caribbean nation Trinidad & Tobago. After graduating from New York University in 2009, Elsa began work with Community Centred Conservation on the tiny archipelago nation of Comoros. While stationed there she collected nesting ecology data on sea turtles and trained local students as ‘Eco Guards’ to assess the health of surrounding coral reef communities. This combination of applied research and outreach greatly influenced her work as a graduate student in Rwanda. “Being there I realized the importance of building trust within a community to carry out research that can be put to effective policy and effective change in conservation.” Elsa is an avid knitter, Michigan native and rock climbing enthusiast. She will be pursuing a PhD next year to continue conducting research that aims to understand how human interaction with the environment alters ecological processes.

Marking a GPS point in Nyungwe National Park
Marking a GPS point in Nyungwe National Park

You were in Rwanda for two months. What were your day-to-day activities for your research? 

I spent the majority of my time ‘ground truthing’ the spatial data I would use later in my analysis. Essentially, I was collecting GPS points of different land cover types in protected areas, like Volcanoes National Park, around Rwanda. I then used this data in my image processing  to determine how forest cover has changed during the conflict (1990-2003) and post-conflict periods (2003-present). By incorporating the period after the new constitution was written in 2003, I can examine the effect of more progressive policies and forest cover targets set by the government on the extent of forest recovery in protected areas.

What do we gain by understanding how conflict affects natural resources & the environment?

There are a lot of ways in which conflict may impact the environment. In some instances of civil conflict there can be wide-spread and rapid human demographic shifts; people avoid violent areas and move to more rural and potentially protected regions. These migrations can drive deforestation by altering land use patterns and modifying land and forest cover. This is was particularly true for protected areas like Gishwati Forest Reserve in Rwanda. This relationship between deforestation, conflict and rapid human movement and resettlement has not  been extensively studied. Only by doing so can we better design policies that protect local biodiversity and benefit human livelihoods.

Interested in how climate change is currently affecting communities across Western Africa?
Yale Environment 360 video ‘When the Water Ends: Africa’s Climate Conflicts’

What was it like working in Rwanda? Can you give us some insight into your experience there?

Caption Here
A group of curious onlookers in Gishwati Forest Reserve

Having done a fair amount of international field work in far off places, I’ve come to love the solitude of being in rather remote parts of the world. Rwanda offered a very different experience and quite a lot of companionship, solicited or not. Owing to a very large population in a very small area, people live and work in nearly every corner of the country. The high population density scattered across the endlessly rolling hills of Rwanda’s rugged landscape make for a very ’social’ atmosphere. Passersby are frequent, offering greetings, directions, and limitless questions. Miles before reaching a village, I could be seen hiking the road or the woods and would be greeted by what seemed like every child in the vicinity hailing the approaching muzungu. Even in the forest, people could be found collecting various resources from honey and water to sticks and branches for fuelwood and vines for basket-making. Some of the only areas I was able to find quiet respite were in the two forested national parks, Volcanoes and Nyungwe. There, the only chatter came from any one of a number of primate and bird species.

Effectively communicating research is key to building awareness for conservation issues like deforestation. What tools can we use as researchers to inform and engage the public?

I think it’s extremely important for science communication to move beyond what it is and traditionally has been. The jargon involved in ‘academic’ science can be isolating and often limits the number of people who can access that information. Different forms of communication, whether through dance, poetry or theatre, have the potential to engage people on a more visceral level than traditional writing styles in science. These more artistic mediums have been less tapped into and may allow for a form of expression that ‘hits’ people on a deeper level.

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Accompanied by armed guard escorts in Volcanoes National Park
Accompanied by armed guard escorts in Volcanoes National Park
Heading home after a day’s work
Heading home after a day’s work

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