Water Initiative Team Profile: Rebecca Asare

The key to Forest Trends’ work across the world is the identification of key organizations and groups in each region to pave the way forward with in a culturally-appropriate and specific way.  In West Africa and Ghana, one of these people is Rebecca Asare, who works with the Forest Trends Incubator for Ecosystem Services.  In this capacity, she works to socialize the idea of ecosystem services, including IWS, throughout the West African region and beyond. However, Rebecca’s career in Africa started not in Ghana and not promoting ecosystem services.

You’ve spent most of your career in Africa. Where did this interest come from?

I studied political science at Colgate University when I was an undergraduate. I focused on international development in Africa and minored in environmental studies.  About halfway through, I went on a semester study abroad trip to Tanzania with SIT [the School for International Training].  It was just an incredible experience with a great group of people. Every single person from that group has gone off and done amazing things.  That was when I got the bug – I came back from the trip and really wanted to go back to Africa.

How did you get back?

Peace Corps seemed like the best way for me to go back, so I applied to Peace Corps. When I applied, they told me I would definitely not go to French-speaking Africa, but then in classic Peace Corps style, they called me up and asked me if I would be interested in going to Cote D’Ivoire, and I said yes.

Did your experience in Tanzania prepare you well for Cote D’Ivoire?

When I first got there, I was just blown away by how it wasn’t East Africa.  There were threse giant trash mounds bigger than a three-story building, and I was just in shock for a while. But then I was assigned to work in a fabulous village in a remote area of the northeast on the border of the biggest national park in West Africa—the Comoé National Park. The village was full of really warm, interesting, generous people despite all of the problems and challenges they faced. I just loved it.

What kind of work did you do?

I was focused on water and sanitation.  All of these villages have these water pumps and boreholes as the main source of their water – at least, they are until they break down.  Some donor will often come in and build the pumps, but after six months they break, and no one in the villages have the knowledge to repair them.  So I got into working with the villages to do better with managing and maintaining the water pumps.  We had to look into buying replacement parts, learning how to repair the pumps, forming water pump management committees that would help to collect money for the repairs.  So that was my focus, but I also was drawn to work and travel in the national park.

How did that play into your time in Peace Corps?

I was very interested in what was going on in the park – how it was managed, the wildlife, etc. There was a German university that had a research station within the park that I would visit and do some work with. I was reading as much as I could about the work they were doing and the wildlife in the park, and I got to know the team pretty well. Right about when I was wrapping up my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, they became part of a big GIZ project working in the national park and they asked me if I would stay and be part of that. I was in charge of the community-based engagement with neighboring communities – since I had been working with the communities around the park for the last two years, it was pretty easy to step into that role. Looking back, I realize I really had no idea what I was doing, but we worked really hard and did a lot of education for the neighboring communities.

Were you ready to stay for a fourth year?

I loved my time there, but I was at the point where I realized I needed to leave so that I could come back. I was starting to feel like I had been there too long and needed to have a break. This was also around the time when the coup d’etat happened and the political situation started to deteriorate.  I never felt threatened or in any danger within my communities, but then the country erupted into the civil war, so it seemed like a good time for me to take some time out and go back to the US to get my graduate degree.

Why did you choose the Yale program?

I was really excited about getting a master’s degree in environmental conservation and in a program that would also let me think about people and development, and the Yale program was the only one that really appealed to me.  When I went into the program, I was focused on wildlife conservation and people, but by the time I came out, I had changed my focus to forestry.

What led you to change directions?

I happened to take a silviculture class with a professor named Mark Ashton and I just fell in love with trees. His class was so amazing – it was like sitting by the fire and listening to him tell stories around the campfire. He had a way of just making you feel so fascinated about every aspect. That’s what inspired my shift away from wildlife and more to trees. And really – they’re so closely related. Trees provide the habitat that the wildlife lives in, so protecting forests is still wildlife conservation.  Because I was also still interested in the social dimension, my focus really became the social aspects of agroforestry and forestry.  I did my master’s research in Uganda with the World Agroforestry Center (formerly ICRAF).

How did you end up in Ghana?

While I was doing my master’s research, I met my husband who was Ghanaian. He was working for the Danida Tree Seed Centre at the time. After a while, his organizations started a partnership with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and he went to Ghana to work on their sustainable tree crops program (STCP). I wanted to go with him, but all my connections were in Francophone Africa. I decided to go back to Yale and do my PhD  on shade management in the cocoa farming system, with all of my fieldwork in Ghana.

How did you get involved with the Nature Conservation Research Centre (NCRC) and Forest Trends?

About the time that I finished my dissertation, I was also going through a personal transition with my  husband and I splitting up and I was looking for a new job.  I met John Mason (CEO of NCRC) right about when he was helping to set up the West Africa Katoomba Incubator and he asked if I would be interested in helping to run it and being the bridge between the NCRC and FT.  It sounded pretty cool, so I said yes, and I’ve been working on that ever since.  My doctoral dissertation has been on the cocoa farming system in Ghana, so that fit in pretty well with the Katoomba projects. That work eventually led to me getting involved in the Water Initiative as well.

What do you find the most challenging about working in the field of payments for ecosystem services?

I think the biggest challenge is that it’s a new concept so we’re always talking about things that people don’t really understand yet. We tend to assume that people will understand us faster than they do. Sometimes I feel like we’ve almost skipped over the need for education and taking the time to build real comprehension,especially with policy makers and government stakeholders because while there’s always one person that gets it, there’s still so many people that need to understand what we’re talking about.  So it sometimes seems like in every interaction we are almost back to the beginning. And since it’s still a relatively new concept, there aren’t that many successful examples of project implementation, espeicially here in Ghana.

What keeps you motivated, despite these challenges?

I believe that PES – especially for water and carbon – are game-changing ideas, and that’s what is really exciting. We can actually redefine the value of resourruces in very practical ways, but it’s also the whole idea of accountability with a performance-based, transparent framework.  It forces the discussion about good governance and natural resources to the forefront in a way that’s never been done before. I mean, if we don’t do this, what are we going to end up with? Another big project where most of the money ends up buying cars for a government ministry? Having the actual transfer of payments within these systems will help to lessen that effect and also to have some firmer goals – projects where we’ll actually see an impact.

Are you planning on staying in Africa for the foreseeable future?

I have no immediate plans to go back. I did think about leaving for a while, but I’m very happy here. I grew up in Vermont, so ideally I would also like to have roots in the US and in Africa and be able to go back and forth with my two kids.  But I’m happy and invested and committed in Africa—it is a place that always makes me feel that I am at my very best.

And to close – tell me something that people don’t know about you.

I was just talking about this yesterday with my six-year-old. My absolutely favorite dessert is cheesecake with blueberries on top. That’s one of the challenges about Ghana. Cheesecake is not really cheesecake. I love dairy products and there’s no good dairy in West Africa. It’s just one sacrifice that I’ve made to build my life here.

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