Chr. Michelsen Prize for Outstanding Development Research goes to NMBU’s Aida Cuní-Sanchez

The winning article found that tropical mountain forests in Africa store a lot more carbon than previously thought, and that they were being deforested faster than in the lowlands. We asked Cuní-Sanchez why this was such a significant finding.

High carbon stocks and heavy deforestation

“We found two things. One is that the mountain forests have high carbon stocks, and the other is that that they have higher deforestation rates than forests in the lowlands, within the African continent,” explains the Associate Professor. “This has a major implication: deforestation in the mountain areas of tropical Africa is contributing to climate change more than we knew.

A call for action

“These findings are a call for action. We need to better preserve these forests, not just for the carbon they store but also for the biodiversity and the livelihoods of the peoples who depend on them” says Cuní-Sanchez.

Awards such as the Chr. Michelsen Prize and the surrounding media help to draw attention to such calls for action. We asked Cuní-Sanchez what is happening as a result of this research. What are the impacts?

“It helps that the findings were published in Nature. The research has already had quite a lot of attention,” she says. “There are discussions on both how to save these forests and restore the areas that are degraded. We are getting attention from policy makers, the media and the big donors. There are talks with, for example, Norad [the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation] and the Rain Forest Foundation, who want to know more about these mountain forests and assess what they can do. Changing policy takes time, but now we have the attention of the policy-makers so we have taken the first step.”

New reasons to preserve Africa’s mountain forests

Prior to embarking on this research, Cuní-Sanchez had spent several years working in the tropical forests of Africa’s lowlands. She then studied mountain forests in Kenya and began to notice a different reality than what was documented in the scientific literature for mountain forests.

“I started to look at what publications were out for the African continent. Whilst there were some on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Cameroon and some forests in Ethiopia, there was no overview,” recalls Cuní-Sanchez.  

“Most of what we know about mountain forests comes from the Andes and Central America - the Neotropics. In these areas, carbon storage is not documented as being particularly high. After studying mountain forests in Kenya, I thought maybe [the high carbon levels here] were an exception – there’s always variation in nature. But then, after I started to put more data together from fieldwork in Cameroon, DR Congo and Uganda, a pattern emerged. Most of the mountain forests stored high amounts of carbon. I realised that these findings were actually quite unique and that we needed to write about this.”

Cuní-Sanchez began to utilise plot data - published and unpublished - from over 50 different research groups on the continent. “A colleague who specialised in remote sensing suggested we also look at the deforestation rates in these montane areas, because the implications could be really important.” Thus emerged the prize-winning paper.

Aida Cuni-Sanchez at the award ceremony with NMBU's Arild Angelsen, who is on the award committee.
Åse Roti Dahl, CMI
The Chr. Michelsen Prize for Outstanding Development Research aims to promote and inspire high quality and relevant development research. NOK 50 000 is awarded biannually to a researcher below 40 years of age for an outstanding peer-reviewed article.

The Prize Committee state their reasons for awarding this paper and explain why this research is so important:

“The nominated paper, High aboveground carbon stock of African tropical montane forests, is a high quality and relevant contribution in several ways. The main finding is that the biomass and carbon stock in these forests is substantially higher than previously thought. The average of ca. 150 tons of carbon per hectare is comparable to lowland forests and about 2/3 higher than the default emission factors proposed by the IPCC. These ecosystems are endangered, with 0.8 million hectares having been lost since 2008; if this trend continues another 0.5 million hectares will be lost by 2030.”

“By giving the prize to a primarily natural science article, the committee also wants to point to the relevance of natural sciences in development research, and the potential for interdisciplinary research across the natural and social science divide,” state CMI's Prize Committee in their justification text.

Aida Cuní-Sanchez was nominated for the award by Dean of NMBU’s Faculty of Landscape and Society, Eva Falleth.

“Although there are 101 co-authors, Cuni-Sanchez is first author as she conceived the study and assembled the AfriMont dataset which made the paper possible,” says Falleth. “She sampled plot data in four of the 12 countries in Africa that were studied (Cameroon, Uganda, DR Congo and Kenya). She analysed the plot data and wrote the manuscript, showing strong leadership and commitment - the paper took over 3 years to be completed. The paper was mainly driven by her motivation to create a continental overview of carbon stocks in mountain forests in Africa, to help improve their conservation.”

“I am proud of Aida and her academic environment for receiving this prestigious award. Such an award reflects how research and education are highly international at NMBU, the Faculty of Landscape and Society and the Department of International Environmental and Development Studies (Noragric). Congratulations!” says the Dean.

Re-investing the prize money to further research

Cuní-Sanchez and the 101 co-authors in the paper have agreed to donate the funds from the prize to a female PhD student in Cameroon to help her re-measure some of the AfriMont plots. This will help improve our understanding of carbon storage in mountain areas by providing data on changes over time related to, for example, climate change.

Read CMI's coverage of the award 

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Published 16. March 2022 - 6:43 - Updated 16. March 2022 - 8:38