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Fulbright Award Winner Conducts Vital Forestry Research in the Congo

July 31, 2013

By Cathy Cruise

Ashley Milton. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Ashley Milton. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Graduate student Ashley Milton spent last summer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and was captivated enough by her work in forest management there to want to find a way to return. Now that she’s won a Fulbright Award, she’ll be doing just that.

Milton is working on her PhD in Environmental Science and Policy, specializing in water resource management. The Fulbright was awarded for her dissertation project, “Forest Resilience for Sustaining Livelihoods and Ecosystem Services,” which focuses on how activities such as logging, fuel wood harvesting, settlement creation and farming impact the people of the Congo.

Her project centers, she says, “on the lives and livelihoods of the people who live and rely on the forest. How is deforestation impacting how water is cycled, or their proteins — what animals in the forest people get their meat from — and what impact will that have on human populations?”

Milton worked last summer in the Congo as a fellow with the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Mission. But as her time was winding down, she felt her work wasn’t done. That was when she spoke with the members of the CARPE team, whom she considered her “external doctoral committee,” about pursuing a Fulbright. When she returned to Mason, she worked on her application with advisor Dann Sklarew, associate professor of environmental science and policy, and Graduate Fellowship Director Kathryn Agoston.

“With much help from Mason and my undergrad institution, Florida A&M University, I was able to put together what turned out to be a successful application,” Milton says.

This time, she will be in the Congo from August to May studying two lakes in the region. By also interviewing locals to record their concerns about the area, and measuring what she discovers against existing literature, she hopes to create sustainable local-level management strategies that can be interjected into future forest policies in the region.

Milton will be based in Kinshasa, which, she says, is “just like any other city you’d find in the U.S. Lots of fun things to do. Lots of nightlife. I learned how to salsa dance and had my first karaoke experience there.”

But from this lively hub she’ll take trips out to remote forest areas for months at a time, where just getting around is a labor-intensive feat. While the lakes she’ll be studying are geographically close, access between the two is dicey.

“I have to fly out to Mbandaka, and then trek in a couple of hours to Lac-Tumba, either on foot or using some type of vehicle. Then I have to trek back out to Mbandaka and take a flight back to Kinshasa. Then to get to Lac Mai Ndombe, I will use the same process. Or I can take a 24-hour boat ride up the river to access Lac Tumba.”

She’ll also conduct interviews by seeking out the local citizens on foot. “Some are stationary,” she explains. “Others are migratory — hunters and gatherers. So I have to make an effort to find those people.”

Since Milton has worked previously in Senegal, she speaks Wolof and conversational French, which is one of the languages spoken at her study site in Kinshasa. But people also use the local languages of Lingala, Kikongo, Swahili and Tshiluba. Milton plans to gather a research team that can help with the interviews. “I don’t speak any of the local languages, and there will be a lot of ground to cover,” she says. “I wish I could speak Swahili; it’s a beautiful language. It’s on my bucket list.”

While the area has had its share of devastating wars, Milton feels her worksite is a safe distance from any current conflicts. “It’s interesting, because the conflict pushes a lot of refugees further into the forest, which causes deforestation in itself,” she says.

“I wouldn’t say I fear for my safety. Except that there’s a family of lions that live in my landscape. I’ll be interviewing local people, and I believe they know what the sounds are like when something is coming. If they say run, I’ll run.”

This summer, Milton has been completing her human subject review process, serving as a teaching assistant for Mason’s Global Problem Solving Consortium on Water Management and Environmental Sustainability, administering exams and tying up the details of her trip, which includes getting in-country research clearance. She’s moving to Washington, D.C., too. “All of that sort of puts my excitement on the back burner for now,” she says.

Milton feels the work she’ll be doing is a “definite career boost” for someday securing a job in the field of international development. After she graduates, she would love to work as a Foreign Service Officer with USAID. She hopes her experience in Africa, along with the Fulbright and her work providing management solutions for developing nations, will make her a good candidate.

“I think the Fulbright will definitely open some doors that might not have been opened without it. I’m excited about entering the job market with this experience,” she says.