University of Oregon to export environmentalism expertise abroad

Posted by Deborah Bloom on Sunday, Jun. 19 at 12:27 pm.

A new research partnership is being established between University of Oregon and the West African country of Gabon to create a more sustainable economy for the oil-rich nation.

The agreement will create a mutual partnership between the University and the Gabonese government, allowing Oregon students the opportunity to study natural resource management and economic development in the African nation and for Gabonese students to study at Oregon universities.

“The potential and possibilities are exciting,” said University president Richard Lariviere in a press release. “This could serve as a model for how the U.S. can work in collaboration with other developing nations.”

Lariviere, joined by staff from the offices of state senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, signed the partnership agreement with Gabonese president Ali Bongo Ondimba on June 10 in Washington DC.

Part of the University’s Global Oregon Initiative, an effort to bolster the state’s international outreach, the agreement will create the Gabon-Oregon Transnational Research Center in Environment and Development, centered in both Eugene and the Gabonese capital of Libreville.

It’s a necessary step for the oil-rich nation, said University spokesman Phil Weiler.

Although Gabon has taken advantage of its oil wealth for decades, experts say the country’s oil reserves are depleting, while its non-oil industries remain stagnant.

“The current president recognizes that his country is at a crossroads and he needs to figure out what direction to take the future of this country’s economy,” Weiler said.

Rich in natural resources, with an abundance of biodiversity, the African nation is largely composed of rainforest, making the country a prospective hot spot for ecotourism and green economic development.

“We at the University have a lot of expertise and interest in global development and questions of sustainability,” associate professor Dennis Galvan said. “That’s why they’re partnering with us.”

The agreement is touted as groundbreaking by University administrators, yet the program’s establishment means the University is entering into a partnership with a country marred by accusations of corruption and electoral fraud.

Though Ondimba has become known for reducing corruption within the Gabonese government, his rise to power was openly challenged after his presidential win in 2009 in an election that incited violence over accusations of fraud.

“There are certainly problems in Gabon and that election was not as transparent as it could have been,” Galvan said. “But the main thing to emphasize is what happens now … this is not about the Gabonese past. It’s about the Gabonese future.”

An expert on Africa since his undergraduate years, Galvan claimed corruption to be endemic to the region and emphasized the need to contextualize the nation’s current events within the backdrop of post-colonialism.

“It’s one thing to say we won’t do business in Africa,” Galvan said. “It’s another thing to say we are going to understand the African reality of what a change toward good governance looks like.”

Still to be determined is how to fund this new program. The University has long wanted to create a research program in Africa, but federal grant money has yet to come through. For now, the agreement is a memorandum of understanding, with no hard deadline for how to move forward.

“The partnership creates the parameters of what this program will look like,” Weiler said. “Now, it’s a matter of finding the resources to make it happen.”