The Mountain Research Initiative is deeply saddened by the death of Esther Mwangi, Principal Scientist with Forests and Governance at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and a highly valued and active member of the MRI Science Leadership Council.

Esther Mwangi was a researcher, environmentalist, and public policy expert whose work explored gender and land-rights inequalities in relation to natural resources.

A citizen of Kenya, Esther started out on her academic journey with a Bachelor’s degree in Education (Botany, Zoology) from Kenyatta University in Nairobi, followed by a Masters of Philosophy in Environmental Studies from Moi University in Kesses. She subsequently obtained her PhD in Public Policy from Indiana University in Bloomington, USA, under the mentorship of Nobel Economics Laureate Elinor Ostrom. Her PhD examining the ecological and livelihood impacts of changing property rights arrangements in the Maasai rangelands of East Africa was co-winner of the 2005 Harold D. Lasswell Award for best dissertation in the field of public policy. Of her mentor, Esther later said: “Elinor Ostrom was a great believer in our collective capacity to solve problems. I think that her message is one of hope. It is a message that is trying to harness the different capabilities that exist to help us learn and to be flexible in our decision-making.”

It was this collective and inclusive approach to addressing issues of sustainability and resource use that also drove much of Esther’s own research. She was passionate about strengthening women’s rights to forests and trees, and enhancing their participation in decision-making. She sought to understand the factors that influence tenure security – particularly among rural, forest-adjacent or forest-dwelling communities – and was also interested in the conditions that support cross-scale and cross-level coordination in natural resources management, and ways to effectively link knowledge to on-the-ground action. Her work was global in scale, and included research undertaken in Uganda, Tanzania, Indonesia, Peru, and Nicaragua.

Esther spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment – completing research on the interactions between property rights transformation, rangeland management, and livelihoods in semi-arid pastoral systems in East Africa – before joining CIFOR in 2009.

“We knew we had attracted someone special, and when Esther arrived at CIFOR and we saw her output our convictions were confirmed, not only because of the quality of the work she produced, but because of her incisive mind and analytical skills,” said Robert Nasi, Director General of CIFOR. “She really drove home the importance of gender in forestry. We shared the same dry sense of humor and love of elephants. Esther left us far too early.”

In 2016, Esther joined the MRI Science Leadership Council (SLC), providing valuable advice and impetus for the MRI’s scientific activities. In addition to being an active voice for gender and land-rights inequalities in mountains during the MRI’s annual SLC meetings, Esther was also a key participant in the MRI’s Mountain Governance Working Group. Recognizing a critical need for better understanding and information regarding mountain governance challenges and opportunities, this working group was established with two principal aims: Firstly, to identify common problems, risks, and challenges that undermine or impede effective governance for sustainability of mountain social-ecological systems; and secondly, to analyse contexts and principles that appear to be associated with governance successes for fostering sustainability of mountain systems, and explore how promising cases are addressing their governance challenges. Esther’s knowledge of the mountain policy sphere, combined with her engagement and enthusiasm, played an important role in the development and success of this working group.

“The passing of our esteemed friend and colleague Esther Mwangi is a deep loss for us all,” said MRI Executive Director Carolina Adler. “Esther had such an amazing mind. She was a truly deep thinker, who genuinely cared for matters relating to gender, tenure, governance, landscapes, and the commons. We extend our sincere condolences to Esther’s family. She will be greatly missed by all of us at the MRI.”

You can read more about Esther Mwangi’s life and work on the CIFOR website. Messages of condolence can be left on the commemorative website set up by Esther’s family.

Esther Mwangi 2

Esther Mwangi, 14 December 1965  5 October 2019


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