Virginia Tech is coordinating a Memorial Center of Excellence at the Institute of Forestry in Nepal to honor 24 of the country's leading natural resource conservationists killed in a 2006 helicopter crash.

The venture is a three-year collaborative project that also involves Yale University, Principia College, and the World Wildlife Fund. Funding for the center comes from a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development through the independent agency, Higher Education for Development, and nearly $200,000 in contributions from Virginia Tech. Tom Hammett, forestry professor and director of Virginia Tech’s Non-Timber Forest Products program, who has worked in Nepal since 1974, is serving as director of the partnership.

United States Ambassador to Nepal Nancy Powell, Virginia Tech Associate Vice President for International Affairs S.K. De Datta, and Hammett attended the opening ceremony, held March 14, 2008, in Pokhara.

In addition to promoting excellence in forestry research and education, the center will strengthen the capacity of the Institute of Forestry to educate Nepal’s future professionals in natural resource conservation and forestry, develop teaching and learning systems that will attract international collaboration, develop programs to increase social inclusion, and increase the sustainability of the Institute of Forestry.

While Nepal is known for its majestic mountains and trekking adventures, most people do not connect it with trees, yet trees are key to its survival, Hammett says. “The Nepali people have a daily relationship with the forest, something we have lost.”

They make daily forays into the woods to collect firewood, medicinal plants, water, or material to make handicrafts. Forests also harbor wildlife, and Nepal is home to some of the world’s rarest animals, including the Royal Bengal tiger and the one-horned rhinoceros. When forests are mismanaged, wildlife disappears, with potentially disastrous consequences for tourism, a major source of income for many in Nepal.

Nepalis have another reason to be concerned about their natural resources: Nepal is an agrarian country with ninety percent of its people involved in agriculture. By properly managing their natural resources, Nepalis can ensure that they have employment which provides a good income.

The Memorial Center of Excellence is designed to provide this support, promoting conservation through research and training. As part of the project, a mentoring program will be set up to help students who come from less advantaged backgrounds — those from remote areas or lower castes.

Project officials hope that in addition to creating a model center, the venture will be a living tribute to the 24 conservationists who were killed. In addition to staff of the World Wildlife Fund, victims of the crash included Margaret Alexander, who was deputy mission director of USAID-Nepal, and Bijnan Acharya, a program development specialist with USAID. The center will be a legacy of what these people stood for: giving local people a voice and respecting the natural environment.

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