A Gabonese delegation headed by education minister Séraphin Moundounga spent a full day at the University of Oregon on Monday and heard descriptions of potential research projects that could result from a new Gabon/Oregon Transnational Research Center on Environment and Development.
The 14-member group – on a U.S. State Department-arranged tour of Western universities, community colleges and vocational schools – took a UO campus tour, looked in on a biology lab, met with Gabonese students at the UO and participated in a reception Monday night at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.
But a highlight of the delegation's day at the UO was an hour-long program on the Gabon/Oregon Center that included presentations from six professors on likely topics for research collaboration for the two countries. Most involved natural resource and scientific research, but there were also discussions of partnerships in economic modeling and environmental law.
"Tropical rainforests are among the most important ecosystems on earth," said UO Biology Professor Brandan Bohannan, who described how microorganisms are by far the most abundant life forms in those environments.
Bohannan serves as director of the Institute for Evolution and Ecology (IE2), which operates the Amazon Rainforest Microbial Observatory in Brazil, studying since 2009 the effects of deforestation on the biodiversity of microorganisms.
"I would like to expand our research to rainforests in other parts of the world," Bohannan told the UO's guests, pointing out the ideal location of Gabon for his research.
The Gabonese delegation visited Sacramento and the San Francisco area before coming to Eugene. A trip to Corvallis with stops on Tuesday at Linn-Benton Community College and Oregon State University were next for the group.
The Gabonese education officials scheduled visits to the UO and OSU because of the Gabon/Oregon Center partnership, which was signed late last year. A UO-led, five-campus Oregon African Studies Consortium - which also draws from academic experts at Oregon State University, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland State University and Willamette University - will partner with the Gabonese government to fulfill its vision of turning the country into a laboratory for a new model of development for Africa.
The Gabonese government has pledged to help create the transnational research center with $20 million in funding - $5 million for start-up expenses and another $15 million that will be invested by the UO Foundation. That endowment fund's annual distributions will pay for core staff and base operations in Eugene and Libreville, the Gabonese capital.
Gabon, with a population of 1.5 million, is one of the richest nations in west-central Africa after 50 years of coastal and offshore oil production. But its leaders acknowledge that oil will not last forever, and its democratically-elected president has introduced a sweeping "Gabon Emergent" program to shift the country's economic focus, eliminate government corruption that existed before his 2009 election and modernize the country's workforce.
The Gabon partnership with the UO and other members of the Oregon consortium will focus on mutual training of students from both Gabon and Oregon universities, and long-term research collaborations on topics that include ecotourism, environmental governance, land use near national parks and partnerships with forest residents to search for new medicinal resources.
Speakers at Monday's overview session on potential Gabon/Oregon Research Center projects, in addition to Bohannan, included Frances White, a UO associate professor of anthropology and director of the Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences; Jim Hutchison, the UO's Lokey-Harrington Chair in chemistry and founding director of the ONAMI Safer Nanomaterials & Nanomanufacturing Initiative; Cassandra Moseley, a courtesy assistant professor in Planning, Public Policy and Management, and director of the Institute for a Sustainable Environment and the Ecosystem Workforce Program; Alfredo Burlando, an assistant professor of economics and expert on institutional design and bureaucratic corruption; and law Professor John Bonine, co-founder of the Western Environmental Law Center.
Jay Namyet, the UO Foundation's chief investment officer, and Chris Bennett, director of African internships in the UO's International Educational, Employment and Experience program, also spoke to the Gabonese delegation. Dennis Galvan, the UO's vice provost for international affairs and professor of international studies, hosted the presentation – which was conducted in French, or with a French interpreter.
White, a biological anthropologist who specializes behavioral ecology, discussed her research on non-human primate social systems – including her active field project with wild bonobos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She drew the afternoon's biggest laugh with a comment about the bonobos' female-dominated society.
Hutchison, a national leader in the field of green chemistry, talked about the benefits of designing new chemicals that reduce hazards – from the time they are extracted from the earth until they return to it. He said the field is expanding rapidly and the UO has remained at its center.
"We have taught over 200 institutions across the U.S. to do the chemistry we do here," Hutchison said.
Moseley discussed the collaborative work of the Institute for a Sustainable Environment in balancing economic needs with environmental realities to reach sustainable levels of development and resource management. Burlando talked about the work he has done in Tanzania and Uganda with economic issues including bureaucratic corruption and waste. And Bonine talked with the Gabonese guests about the UO's environmental law program – the world's oldest such program – and the environmental law master's program, which draws three-quarters of its students from outside the U.S.
"These two green places – Oregon and Gabon – have a lot to learn from each other as both work to transition to sustainable economies," Bonine said in a statement prepared for the Gabonese visit. "Oregon Law is eager to start working with professors, lawyers and students in Gabon."
Gabon, which straddles the equator on the west coast of Africa, has national parks covering 11 percent of its land mass and rain forests covering 85 percent. It has been called "Africa's Eden," and also boasts a 63 percent literacy rate and compulsory education for children between the ages of 6 and 16. About 80 percent of citizens in the former French colony speak French.
UO faculty will receive information on how to apply for seed grants and other funds to support research, programming and outreach on sustainable development-related topics involving Gabon soon after the center launches this year.
More than 20 faculty from the UO and other institutions around the state have expressed interest in research and outreach projects under the new center.