Nelson Institute alumna expands community conservation efforts around the globe

September 4, 2019

Master’s Degree in Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development, PhD in Environment and Resources from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

From the lush rainforests of Napo Province, Ecuador to the golden shores of Coron Island in the Philippines, Nelson Institute alumna, April Sansom has traveled the world to work with communities on land rights and conservation initiatives. A long-time believer in the power of community-based conservation, Sansom focuses much of her work on small scale conservation projects that empower local groups to independently manage land use and conservation projects. Although her first experience with this work occurred during her time with the United States Peace Corps, she became deeply involved in community-based conservation during her time as a graduate student at UW-Madison, forming relationships that she continues to foster in her new role as Director of Community Conservation.

For Sansom, the Nelson Institute provided the interdisciplinary graduate environment she was seeking and offered her an opportunity to work on a UW-Madison project that involved small scale dairy farmers living in buffer zones near important protected areas in Latin America. A collaboration between the UW-Madison Dairy Science department, the Dairy Forage Research Station, and the Nelson Institute, Sansom had the opportunity to interact with dairy farmers in Bolivia and learn more about their land use needs and conservation ideas.

“It was a really wonderful interdisciplinary project in the truest sense of the word,” Sansom said. “My particular role was to work with women who were dairy farmers and learn from them about their roles in natural resource management activities in rural Bolivia. It was such a wonderful project and opportunity and I loved being a graduate student.”

In fact, Sansom loved it so much, she decided to pursue her PhD at the Nelson Institute and continue her community-based conservation work in Latin America. For her PhD project, Sansom focused on the conservation activities in Ecuador, where many dairy farmers are nestled in the heart of three major protected areas near the Amazon Rainforest.

“This was a tremendously rewarding experience, because the farmers were so inspiring in their efforts to manage their farms in a more sustainable way while providing for their families,” said Sansom. “One of the things they were needing to do to provide enough food for the cows was to push into the protected areas, but they were working really hard to avoid that. So, my job was to essentially analyze the activities in Ecuador, look at the outcomes, and research what outcomes were successful and what worked from the perspective of the farmers. For that research, I had a wonderful committee that allowed me to do academic research that was actively helping people, which was a wonderful experience to have as a graduate student.”

During this time, Sansom had been thinking about her future career aspirations and her desire to work in community-based conservation with a focus on small scale projects in small communities. So, when she met then, Community Conservation director Robert H. Horwich during one of his lectures at the Nelson Institute and learned that his organization focused on small scale community conservation, she was excited to join his team. At first she joined the organization as a board member, but was named director after Horwich’s untimely death.

“I was excited to work on small scale projects in small communities as I believe that’s where we will find solutions and scale them up,” Sansom said. “Community Conservation is a great grassroots organization that has a good track record of successful conservation projects around the world.” Founded in Gays Mills, Wisconsin, in 1989 by conservation expert and scientist Robert H. Horwich, Community Conservation “empowers local people to manage and conserve natural resources within the social, cultural, and economic context of their communities.”

“I’m incredibly proud and excited to be the director and doing the programming as well as the administration,” Sansom said. “We have a really neat story. We were founded by a behavioral ecologist who started it in his living room in Gays Mills, Wis., which is as grassroots as it can get. He was a visionary in his time in terms of community focused conservation that focused on local conditions and local people. He worked directly with the communities to find solutions to conservation challenges and he was very good with that. Now, we have the opportunity to build on his legacy.”

Sansom says she is honored to carry on that legacy, but she is equally excited to have the opportunity to continue the projects she started while she was a student at the Nelson Institute.

“I just returned from Ecuador where I had an opportunity to reconnect with the farmers I worked with as a graduate student,” Sansom said. “I was able to see how the solutions are still benefitting them and explore the possibility of collaborating with them on a new project with Community Conservation. We would really be building on the work I did as a graduate student and thinking about how we can move that work forward.”

Sansom says she is excited about the possibilities and the positive connections Community Conservation and the Nelson Institute have introduced into her life.

“Things are very exciting and interesting and I really enjoy it. I like working on building our board, and collaborating with the entire impressive team. We have another employee [Communications and Outreach Coordinator Shelly Torkelson] who is a Nelson Institute alumna and it’s very fun to work with her since she is a graduate of the evolved and developed program that I went through,” Sansom said. “I also really enjoy reaching out to our supporters and having conversations with people who are inspired by our story and want to have an impact on our mission. I have these wonderful experiences connecting with and talking with people. I feel really lucky that my job is also my passion.”