A voice for Africa
By Fariss Samarrai
Desanker has never lost sight of the forest for the trees. He
has kept his focus on the bigger picture: the policy implications
of research findings in the environmental sciences.
Desanker tries to get the developed world to see that the
developing world is often the victim of environmental problems
it had little to do with.
is a forester, a U.Va. research assistant professor of environmental
sciences who serves on international committees seeking ways
to help the developing world survive and thrive in the global
economy. He recently participated in the World Summit for Sustainable
Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, representing NASA,
one of his research sponsors. Its a matter of equity,
he said. I want to help developing countries to have a share
in how they are represented in the global community.
specializes in the effects of global climate change on southern
Africa. Born and raised in Malawi, he speaks English and Chichewa,
a language spoken in Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. He is often
the voice of southern Africa among international scientists and
a growing community of policy-makers who are interested in how
science can inform their decisions.
change affects everyone, Desanker said, but often
it is the people in developing countries who are most affected
by extreme events caused by global warming, such as flooding,
drought, crop failures and disease. The people in these countries
dont have the infrastructure or government support to help
them when these events occur.
scientists agree that the earth is warming and that this trend
is being accelerated by industrial activity in developed nations,
mainly by the burning of fossil fuels. Even the slightest increase
of global temperature can result in extreme changes in weather
and climate on regional scales. Africa is considered one of the
most vulnerable regions in the world for extreme changes.
try to get people in the developed world to recognize that people
in the developing world are often the victims of problems that
they had little to do with, he said.
serves on several international committees dedicated to explaining
the science of climate change and its social implications, including
serving on a U.N. Expert Group on Climate Change Issues for Least
Developed Countries. As coordinator of the Africa chapter of an
international panel, he works with 15 other scientists in southern
Africa surveying the effects of climate change.
started out as a pure scientist, being very good at computer modeling
and forestry, and he also is breaking new ground in science-to-policy
initiatives, said Hank Shugart, W.W. Corcoran Professor
of Environmental Sciences at U.Va. and director of the Global
Environmental Change Program here.
year Desanker participated in the United Nations Climate
Change Convention, where he helped negotiate a position for least-developed
countries. The convention secured $15 million from developed nations
as seed money for creating a program of action to support the
needs of 46 developing countries. Eventually, more than half a
billion dollars will be dedicated to helping these countries with
emergency management and infrastructure needs.
the U.S. and other developed countries, there are systems in place
to help people when there is a flood or hurricane, Desanker
said. But in least developed countries the people are on
their own for even basic needs. I try to negotiate for the people
in these countries, to give them a voice among the developed countries.
the son of a forester, grew up on forest reserves. He studied
forestry in the mid-80s at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland
and earned a masters degree in mathematics and a Ph.D. in
forest biometrics at Michigan Technological University. He specializes
in computer modeling of regional land environments. Desanker was
a postdoctoral fellow at U.Va. before returning to Michigan Tech
for a faculty position.
1995, he returned to U.Va. and now coordinates the Miombo Network,
an international study on the effects of global climate change
on the massive Miombo forest region of southern Africa, an area
that spans seven countries.
travels to Africa four or five times a year, spending three to
four months of the year there. He continues to conduct field research
while forming partnerships with colleagues who share his interest
in policy issues. He has played a major role in helping form a
new education and research consortium between U.Va. and four universities
in southern Africa.
consortium, called SAVANA Southern Africa-Virginia Networks
and Associations is one more way Desanker is crossing international
boundaries, seeking solutions to global problems, no matter how
deep the forest.