Natural Resource Economics

INTERNATIONAL STUDENT VOLUNTEER PROGRAM

The International Student Volunteer (ISV) program is the world’s highest rated volunteer program, with over 35,000 student participants in just 15 years. Their mission statement is, “to support sustainable development initiatives around the world through life-changing student volunteers and responsible adventure travel programs designed to positively change our world and to educate, inspire and result in more active global citizens.” I have learned first hand that they accomplish this, and much more.

The program is divided into two parts. During the first two weeks you join a team and work on your sustainability project. I met my team of seven upon arrival in Sydney, Australia and then traveled to our home-stay further north in Newcastle. Here, we worked for one week restoring a national wetland park which was suffering from invasive plant species that disrupted the resting area for thousands of East Asian migratory shorebirds. Without this resting ground, the birds would be forced to continue their flight for several more days, often leading to their death.  We spent this week removing each of the weeds by hand. On our breaks we learned about these birds and their migration pattern. Our evenings involved debriefing the day’s activity and brainstorming ways to further impact this wildlife community.

While we were on this project site, we also learned of a public concern for the damaged break wall surrounding the wetland. Fortunately, we were at the location just two days before a large storm that would have broken the remaining wall and flooded the entire area beyond repair. We filled sand bags and strategically placed them to form a sturdy break wall that would survive this and many other storms in the future.

During our second week, we worked alongside the team for a project known as Stepping Stones, which was developed to repair soil erosion through planting trees. Unfortunately, the project was losing funding and was short staffed. We helped to pick up the slack and planted 840 trees. This picture shows me kneeling in McGully’s Gap, an area that would have been preeminently affected by the soil erosion that had been occurring. They best part about this project was that we were planting a life that would continue to grow and make a lasting impact on this area in Australia. My hope is to one day return and see how the 840 trees that we planted filled the entire land.

During the last two weeks of the trip, I joined a larger group of volunteers who had each been working on their own sustainability project. Together, we toured the east coast of Australia learning about their Aboriginal culture and wildlife conservation. We had the wonderful opportunity to take a course on coral reef biodiversityin which the instructor educated us on the tragedies the Great Barrier Reef was facing. Before heading out to the waters for snorkeling, we became well versed on how to safely interact with the wildlife that existed in the reef.

I would say that this was the most impactful portion of my trip since I was up close to the very wildlife I had spent my four years of college learning how to protect. My major involves strategic policy planning to incentivize people to work together to both meet production needs and the needs of the wildlife I witnessed. This was truly an unimaginable experience. If you are in the ENRE program or simply have the interest to learn more about wildlife and how to protect it, this is the program for you!

 

By Shannon Mora

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Internship with Rainforest Alliance

Businesses that depend on the land require financial support in order to thrive economically and sustainably. This support will stimulate growth and secure an economically viable future. The obstacle then becomes overcoming their high-risk investment quality. Forestry businesses, farms, and small and medium enterprises that exist in developing countries face this barrier when applying for long term loans.

The Rainforest Alliance has a renowned and credible seal that is awarded to producers who meet rigorous requirements and standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network and the Forest Stewardship Council. The reputation that accompanies the seal guarantees investors that from a social and economic standpoint, certified businesses holding this seal would prove to be a lucrative and a worthy investment. This expectation allows producers to be eligible for both long-term and short-term loans. While the Rainforest Alliance does not directly offer monetary support, it supplies a connection for these businesses to lenders that are capable of elevating them to their full potential.

My time interning for the Rainforest Alliance gave me an in depth understanding of this process. My position was under the Programs, Planning and Assessment Division of the organization. I had the privilege to view the quarterly reports from each project that the organization was involved in for the fiscal year of 2015. The organization focuses on several areas of concern: forestry, climate, agriculture, tourism, and sustainable finance.  Each report gave a detailed description of the project, it’s accomplishments, it’s challenges, and a short story of a person that was directly impacted by the Rainforest Alliance’s work in one of 80 different countries. I was not only lucky enough to read these updates, but also to hear from the directors of each project themselves. I sat in on phone conferences between them and the senior vice president of the organization, Joshua Tosteson. After  gaining a full understanding of the most essential points of interest for each project, I summarized them in a final report that was submitted to the board.

This was my largest accomplishment, and perhaps, one of my greater contributions to the organization. I also produced a power point presentation with information that will aid in the launch of a future organization-wide learning series.  This program is designed to improve internal communication among separate departments. My role in this development was to thoroughly research existing methods of communication in non-profit organizations . Then, I had to apply this information to the specific needs of the Rainforest Alliance and offer academic support for the learning series program we were creating. My work will be included in the final proposal.

Overall, the experience was rewarding. I learned a great deal about the operation of a certification organization and was exposed to a professional environment that caters to the environmental issues that I am most interested in. I gained skills and knowledge that are not obtainable in a classroom setting. My internship at the Rainforest Alliance was both, professionally and academically valuable.

By Shannon Mora

Fostering Energy Management in RI’s Public Sector

Over the course of the past year, I have been working as a URI Energy Fellow on the Rhode Island Public Energy Partnership (RIPEP) Team, an initiative funded by the Rhode Island Department of Energy (DOE). As energy efficiency became a focal point for RI’s state and municipal heads, the RIPEP Team played a crucial role in determining if energy efficiency retrofits are a success, and if buildings are performing efficiently.

We accomplished this by establishing a baseline of energy consumption for over 80% of RI’s school facilities, using an online energy management tool called Portfolio Manager (PM). This baseline report allows decision makers to look at how much energy their district consumed, by building, from 2008 to 2014. The data was displayed as monthly values and grouped by energy type (electricity, natural gas, etc.). This accessible and comprehensive baseline was the first of its kind in RI, and is an invaluable accomplishment for energy efficiency in the state of Rhode Island. Now that energy efficiency has been measured in the state, it is possible for public decision makers to manage their own consumption.

Many school and municipal departments had very little knowledge of their own energy consumption. The process of evaluating energy bills is often overlooked, and the bills are simply paid for by the state without careful consideration. The RIPEP Team helped schools and municipalities make important energy decisions by:

  • Establishing a baseline for their buildings energy consumption,
  • Identifying poorly operating facilities, and
  • Providing measurable changes in energy consumption after retrofits.

After the baseline was established, the RIPEP Team also gave school districts and municipalities the means to continue their own energy management through the use of the same, user friendly and free online tool, Portfolio Manager.

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Having an experiential learning experience such as the one I received as an Energy Fellow at the URI Outreach Center was instrumental to developing a well-rounded repertoire of professional and social skills. Throughout my time on the RIPEP Team, I grew and developed in many ways I would not have within a classroom. When I first came in to the program I was disorganized, a poor communicator and unfamiliar with working in the professional office environment. Working on a supportive team encouraged me to take on new responsibilities, which led to improvement of my professional skills. Some of my many tasks included taking notes at seminars regarding current energy issues, leading small group meetings, and conducting community service. I also had opportunities to work with professionals in the field to accomplish common goals. Taking on diverse and challenging responsibilities developed my ability to synthesize ideas, bolstered my public speaking, and overall improved my professional demeanor.

Building upon my weaknesses has given me a sense of confidence I would not have found within a classroom. It has given me a clear head and reassurance to follow my passion to improve the environment. I hope to find a career in either the environmental or energy field where I can have a direct effect on environmental issues such as renewable energy or diminishing natural resources. I finally feel like I am ready to begin my career. I owe a great deal of my preparedness and confidence to my experiential learning as a URI Energy Fellow.

 

by: Connor Fiske ’15

Environmental & Natural Resource Economics Major

December 18th, 2015

E. Coli Testing

For my internship I worked with the Acton, Massachusetts Health Department where my main duty was to test natural water sources for E. Coli contamination. I sampled natural water sources for E. Coli on a daily basis. Each day, I first figured out what natural water source locations I would be testing, usually six to ten different sites. Then, I would gather up tools that I needed to collect the samples from the natural water sources. All I needed to collect these samples was one container for the water from each site, a marker to label the sites on the container, a map, and an extended arm pickup tool so I could retrieve samples without touching the water with my hand (almost like a robot arm). Then, I would drive the Department of Health’s company car (a Toyota Prius) to each natural water source location, collect the water samples, and bring them back to the Health Department.

Once I was back, I would run each sample through a filter, then put the filter paper into a petri dish and let that petri dish sit in an incubator over night. Then I would take out the petri dish samples we had in the incubator from the previous day and count the number of specs or dots on the petri dish filter paper. The number of dots on the filter paper shows how much E. Coli was in that water: the more dots the more E. Coli. This entire sampling process is known as the petri dish filtration method. After this process, I would put the data in an Excel spreadsheet that shows every natural water source test site in Acton, with the date and the amount of E. Coli contamination on that day. Lastly, I would analyze the data for trends and natural water sources that had too much E. Coli contamination.

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My internship didn’t directly deal with an environmental problem, but some of the results of my E. Coli water testing could have been an effect of an environmental problem. Runoff from nearby farms and agricultural areas can increase the amount of E. Coli in natural water sources. In agricultural and farm areas there is a large amount of fecal matter from both the animals and the soil in general. E. Coli comes from fecal matter and can then make its way from farms to natural water sources, causing an unnaturally high level of E. Coli in a natural water source. The highlight for me from this internship was that I actually got to be outside doing hands on work for the majority of each day. I love being outdoors; not being cooped up in an office all day was very enjoyable.

 

by Trevor MacDonald ’15

Environmental and Natural Resource Economics Major + Business Minor

May 6th, 2014

Mangroves and Poverty Traps in Tanzania

Background

I have been asked to reflect on my experience in Tanzania, but it is proving to be difficult. You can see all the pictures, read all the books, and hear all the stories about poverty in developing countries – but nothing can compare to experiencing it firsthand. Despite being back in the United States, I feel like I am still there. Rather than seeing what is around me and falling back into my daily life, I can’t shake Tanzania from my mind.

I spent a little over two weeks in Tanzania conducting field research for my Senior Honors Project. I worked with Dr. Emi Uchida and Ph.D. Candidate Cathy McNally to study the relationship between mangrove ecosystem services and poverty traps. In short, we want to see if there are any ecosystem services from mangroves that could contribute to poverty alleviation. Mangrove habitats provide essential services to surrounding communities – including protection from erosion, flooding and storm surge, access to raw materials, carbon sequestration, and nursery habitat for many species of marine life. We specifically visited rural coastal villages that are the most vulnerable to coastal flooding and storm surge – in hopes of targeting the communities that have to deal with these shocks the most often.

Poor and vulnerable populations tend to rely disproportionately on natural resources to fuel their livelihood, as they lack access to other market goods and services. If their village is struck by a hurricane, for example, then they risk losing access to their surrounding damaged resources, as well as most of their assets. We want to understand the sources of risk that poor and vulnerable populations face and the ways in which they mitigate these risks. Without access to adequate risk management techniques, these populations tend to be more exposed to exogenous shocks and are exposed to the mechanisms that cause poverty traps to persist. As a result, they continue to remain in poverty indefinitely. If specific mangrove ecosystem services are found to directly contribute to the reduction of poverty traps, economic development and mangrove restoration efforts can both be improved.

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The environment

As we began our visits to the first few villages, I could clearly see the environmental degradation we were studying. Since all of the villages were coastal, the villagers relied heavily on fishing and shrimping. Yet, it seemed as though these marine populations were quite depleted. Despite spending an entire morning shrimping, some fishermen would only catch a handful of shrimp. On the beaches, we also observed fishermen using illegal nets that had very small holes. They would drag them along the bottom of the sea bed and pick up anything and everything. As a result, they would rip out sea grass, fish eggs, and juvenile populations of marine life. With such low fish and shrimp populations, they had no choice but to use these nets and get whatever sort of harvest they could.

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Coastal erosion, evidence of flooding, and mangrove degradation were also present. Even though mangroves are protected, we could see boats and houses made out of mangrove wood. Many communities also suffered from salt inundation in their public wells – causing them to lose access to fresh water. Every ounce of their lives depended on their surrounding natural resources – and they were slowly losing that access. These communities have to resort to illegal activities in order to survive, and you can’t really blame them. There are no other feasible options. After visiting the first couple communities, the severity and complexity of the problems these individuals were facing began to set in.

Some of the villages were located within the boundaries of SANAPA National Park. Despite the importance of the Park making an effort to set aside reserved land and conserve resources, the local populations didn’t always seem to benefit. With wild animal populations increasing, farmers’ crops would get trampled or destroyed more often. Furthermore, living within park boundaries limits these communities’ abilities to access their surrounding resources. Without the ability to utilize their environment, they can sometimes be forced to illegally poach or cut down mangroves causing further environmental degradation and unsustainable sources of livelihood. Although SANAPA provided positive benefits to the communities, such as clean water and more localized healthcare, it became clear that there were deeper complexities in the connection between these two parties.

Overall, the relationship between those in poverty and their environment was quite evident throughout our visit. They rely on the ocean for fishing and shrimping, on the surrounding habitat for hunting, as well as the nearby mangroves and coconut trees. Without these resources, they wouldn’t be able to survive. Studying this relationship became more important to me than ever. With everything I have learned in the classroom, I was confident that there are ways in which poverty alleviation and environmental restoration efforts can be improved.

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The people

Taking a step back from the surrounding environment, I began to observe the people. No matter where we traveled, we were always welcomed with open arms. I saw such strength, kindness and an amazing sense of community throughout these villages. Even though the village members didn’t always know who we were or why we were there, they were always so generous and respectful. It was refreshing to experience a culture where acceptance and generosity are the rule, not the exception.

And then there were the kids. In every village we visited, there were so many children. They would always come running up to our vehicle, mesmerized by the newcomers to their village. We must have interacted with well over 50 kids over the course of those two weeks – but one little girl struck a chord with me. The first time I made eye contact with her, she ran up and gave me a huge hug. Nobody else had so effortlessly accepted me. With my limited Swahili, and her inability to speak English, we mainly communicated non-verbally – but there was this deeper understanding between us. I could see how she saw the world, because I used to have that same glow in my eyes. She didn’t see the negativity – she only saw the good. All day I had been reviewing survey data and I knew I had hours left of work to do, but something about that innocence pushed me to put down my pen and spend a few hours with her. And I was so glad I did. She took my hand and I followed her wherever she wanted to go. We ran in circles, danced, played hand games and sang songs. She stayed right by my side. When I looked at her, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I used to have that same look – and how I would do anything to make sure she maintained that innocence. I never wanted her to see the bad in the world. At this point in the trip I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with the immensity of the problems these communities were facing. I understood why they were so hard to solve and have persisted for so long, and I began to wonder if I would ever be able to make positive change. Fatuma changed that. When I looked at her, I knew I was in the right place.

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Back in the States, I found the research fascinating and was really interested in constructing the survey instruments. I knew I loved numbers and would like analyzing all of the data. But it was that afternoon that my future was confirmed – I knew I was in the right place. I knew I would do anything to fight for a better world for kids like Fatuma. I accepted that there are going to be a lot of obstacles and a lot of failure when trying to improve these issues – but at the end of the day, it’s pretty simple. Everyone deserves access to basic rights, like adequate nutrition, clean water, clean air, health care and education. But everyone also deserves the right to reach their full potential. Everyone deserves a chance to see the world as a place of endless possibilities, as a place where they can reach whatever goal they want. And I may not have all of the answers now, but someday I’ll find out how I can make my mark on the world. I may not change Fatuma’s life – but I know she changed my mine. I can only hope that someday I’ll be able to help others like her.

 

by Sarah Martin ’14

Environmental and Natural Resource Economics Major

April 28th, 2014