In Seattle and throughout the Pacific Northwest, it can be easy to think of forestry in terms of towering evergreens, and mountainsides carpeted with conifers. But for Peter Gill, who spent the last two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in a tiny village in Senegal, he worked with trees on a much smaller scale—on the margins of farmland, planted not for lumber but for sustenance, as erosion control or for fencing.
The son of two former Peace Corps volunteers, Gill grew up in Nepal and later attended school at Carleton College in Minnesota. He moved to Seattle and the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) in 2009 as part of the Peace Corps Masters International (PCMI) Program, which prepares students with three quarters of course work before heading off on their Peace Corps assignment. After two years abroad, PCMI students then return to SEFS to complete their thesis and earn a Master of Forest Resources degree.
Gill just completed his two years in Africa and has returned to Seattle. He’s working with Professor Ivan Eastin, his faculty adviser, to finish his final research paper—which, like his work in Senegal, focused on deforestation and agroforestry.
Living in his village of 600 people, Gill worked with 24 local farmers and two women’s groups on projects to integrate various tree species with their crops and gardens. His goal was to create a better environment for agriculture in a way that also provided direct, sustainable use of the trees. That work could include growing nitrogen-fixing trees as a windbreak, or addressing erosion control by planting native moringa trees, whose leaves are nutritious and are made into a sauce eaten with millet.
Planting intensive rows of trees or other edible shrubs has another advantage. In the largely open countryside of rural Senegal, fencing is crucial because it allows farmers to grow year-round crops such as cassava—rather than farming only in the rainy season—by protecting their crops from cattle, goats, sheep and other livestock passing through with nomadic herders.
Yet most local farmers can’t afford metal fencing, says Gill, and adding wooden posts would mean cutting down more trees and further contributing to deforestation. A good way to solve both problems cheaply and sustainably is to plant “live fences” of thorny hedges, which can potentially serve double duty as a food source.
Gill often worked side by side with farmers and their families, and he was thoroughly immersed in his village. “I enjoyed it a lot,” he says. “It was a great learning experience and very challenging, but overall I think there’s not a better way to learn than getting your hands dirty—and I certainly got my hands very dirty.”
Far from discouraging Gill, the challenges in Senegal helped cement his long-term plans. “I feel like it provided me with more of a sense of what I want to do after school,” he says. “I’m really excited about working in forestry and conservation in developing countries, and specifically agroforestry.”
Now that he’s back at SEFS this quarter to complete his thesis, Gill is also participating in another important aspect of the PCMI program: mentoring the incoming class of PCMI students and helping them prepare for their own experiences.
So far, he’s attended a few Q&A sessions, which cover everything from the process of applying to the Peace Corps to living conditions in developing countries. Every situation is different, of course, and the next class of PCMI students won’t necessarily end up in Senegal. Yet Gill says there are definitely some general lessons and philosophies for Peace Corps volunteers to keep in mind—including being highly adaptable to new situations, and learning as much as possible about a place before trying to change it.
“A good place to start when you’re looking to get involved in your community is to ask people about their strengths,” he says. “You can really get them engaged and build their confidence, which is really what development should be about. That’s a better recipe for successful work.”
ABOUT THE PCMI PROGRAM
PCMI is a professional degree program designed to allow students to complement a rigorous program of academic study with intense hands-on experience during their overseas Peace Corps assignment. Students generally complete one year of academic coursework prior to beginning their 27-month Peace Corps assignment. Following the conclusion of their Peace Corps duty, PCMI students generally return to their university to complete their degree requirements for graduation.
The SEFS PCMI program is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. So far, 18 students have been admitted into the program, and SEFS students have served in Tanzania, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Senegal and Paraguay.This year, as well, the University of Washington ranked #1 among larger universities for alumni currently serving in the Peace Corps, and Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet visited SEFS on February 5 to recognize PCMI students for their service and contributions.