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Listening to Locals
A Conversation with Mark Bonta
with Ron Mader, Robert Healy, Jon Kohl, John Shores and Scott Walker



Earlier in 2004 Planeta published excerpts from the book "Seven Names for the Bellbird." The book, published by Texas A&M Press, is sold at fine bookstores and via Amazon and is one of Planeta's Top Shelf favorites. Author Mark Bonta was kind enough to take part in an online conversation in June 2004.

Participants included Robert Healy, Jon Kohl, John Shores, Scott Walker and Ron Mader.

I want to thank Ron for setting this up, and I hope we can get some good dialogue going.

I've been pleasantly surprised by the reception for Bellbird so far. A really nice review came out in Birding a couple of months ago, and the other bird magazines have provided complimentary reviews.


My editors and I actually felt that the birding crowd would be the hardest to please, but, it turns out there is a lot of sympathy out there for ornithophilia. I guess I was set off because a blind reviewer of an earlier draft -- a self-proclaimed expert of Brazilian birds -- said that he had talked to local people many times, and never heard anything of interest from them!

Conservation recommendations were a later add-on to the book, which originally shied away from any sort of prescriptive approach. However, I'm glad now that I strayed from pure ethnography and into conservation, if any of my ramblings can be of use to practitioners.

Mark, your book is at the top of its class. Excellent! Thank you and Texas A&M Press for allowing to publish excerpts. Any chance the book will be translated and published in Spanish?

Occasionally one of the banks in Honduras funds the translation of a major book on Honduras; the problem is that this costs $10/page for the good Honduran translators. If some foundation or bank wanted to pay a good translator, I think there would be a decent market in Honduras and elsewhere in Latin America. Let me know if you know of anyone or group that would want to make this happen.

Sometime back in 97-98 we met in La Ceiba at Fito Steiner's house when I worked for RARE Center for Tropical Conservation. Since then it has been pretty vicarious. I just wanted to share that I have an excellent translator in Guatemala who has done work for me. She would charge $9.25/page. If at some point you're interested, let me know.

Hi Jon. Thanks for the offer. I'll keep it in mind.

What are some of the 'lessons learned' in promoting conservation and tourism with the U.S. Peace Corps in Honduras?

We learned that it was an uphill struggle, because some of the more development-oriented people within and outside PC were never really convinced that biodiversity and nature had anything to do with development.

I would venture to say that the Honduran environmental movement would not be where it is today--certainly not the protected areas movement -- if it hadn't been for the PCVs, but few remember them in the literature or the press because they almost never provided money. I believe this also happened in Costa Rica. (Evans, The Green Republic, is a good read). Ask Mario Boza about the original role of PC in "natural resources" and the answer is surprising.

PCVs made a lot of mistakes, of course, and perhaps labored under ideas that weren't precisely correct. Most did not have an adequate grasp of landscape dynamics, culture, geograpphy, and so forth. However, they did have a better grasp than any other group of the corrupt power politics of COHDXEFOR, and PCVs were one of the few blocks of people who blew the whistle on what was going on -- for example, with the PDF project in La Union, Olancho, a USAID fiasco. I was one of the whistleblowers and talked directly to US officials.

The same thing with the Babilonia Dam. PCVs made up for with on-the-ground savvy what they lacked in academic sophistication. Patuca Dam was another one. PCVs were officially forbidden to get involved. Yet, realpolitik we did, and good things happened as a result. A lot of us were involved in environmental organizing and passed these skills on to Honduras.

The parks management workshops were crucial in training a generation of biologists and foresters. PC, with I believe AID money, won over scores of COHDEFOR folks (many are very good). We supported numerous NGOs, and helped spark the explosion in environmental NGOs.

Jorge Betancourt was key. Who knows what would have happened without him. A real people's politician, made you feel you were important, made the most humilde campesino think this. Always too busy, always spending too much time with every single person. The guy, in mind, is the reason there is an environmental movement in Honduras, yet, today, he's hardly even recognized, because he doesn't self-promote. Other Johnny-come-lately's take more credit than they are due.

Another is Jim Barborak. I disagree with him on key points, as I do with Jorge (who BTW is my compadre), but Jim also really injected energy into the Honduran conservation movements, and into volunteers. You waited breathlessly for these people -- they gave you strength. They have incredible vision.

Now, on the down side, some volunteers could be really problems. Ripping up coffee plants in La Muralla--getting death threats, causing problems for future volunteers. They were often guilty of a simplistic understanding of complex processes -- some of this was due to the poor training that has wracked PC, but it was mostly due to the fact that we were straight out of college, and many of us thought we were there to work with wildlife.

We were the "cloudheads." People got in the way. We were very different from other PCVs. Sustainable development for many of us was unimportant -- we were there to lock up the forest, protect it. Now, Honduras did help pioneer the buffer zone, but even so, many natural resource volunteers wore their misanthropism on their sleeves (like the infamous coffee-uprooting fellow).

All in all, I am extremely proud to have been a PCV and have been there at the beginning, so to speak, in the context of Agalta. If we are forgotten by history, that's probably a good thing. Agalta went from being hated by local people, to being defended by them. Perhaps the only truly horrendous thing PC did was, as an institution, forbid volunteers to participate in the non-violent movement to protect the park against the Babilonia dam which has now been built.

The builders of the dam whispered in the US embassy's ear and convinced them that the Gualaco people were plotting to kill PCVs, and were dangerous, when in reality the folks whispering in the ears of the Embassy security folks were mafia types.

Unbelievable! Here you had entire communities pleading with the government to protect the park, staging peaceful protests, asking for sustainable development; you had the mayor, Rafael Ulloa, one of the great Honduran conservationists, branded as a troublemaker on the Us Embassy website. They had been fed false intelligence (why does that sound familiar?!). PCVs were forbidden to get involved, and lost enormous credibility as a result.

The dam was built, and the Planes de Babilonia -- featured in Seven Names for the Bellbird -- are no more. The whole area is trashed. It is ABSOLUTELY horrendous. And more dam projects are in the works for the Sierra de Agalta.

So where PC fell down was in the administration -- abandoning places at the crucial time and believing the wrong people. But the PNSA exists because of PCVs and the Honduran counterparts who risked so much to work with them. In my case: Francisco Urbina, Ana Maria Erazo, Manuel Rey.

Mark, I just read your excerpts and browsed your home page. I too believe I'm one to 'linger over a strong cup of coffee and a good conversation'when doing conservation work, only I do mine in El Cielo Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. In reading the Conservation Geography in Honduras excerpts I ran across this one I found interesting and have a question about:

"To use a common geographic phrase, conservationists need to learn how to read the landscape. They need to investigate how and why it is managed the way it is, what emotions it inspires in its residents, and how change is 'built in.'"

Could you please elaborate on what you mean by change being "built in"?

This is "complexity theory" lite. What I'm suggesting is that landscapes are windows into self-organizing, nonlinear eco- and anthro-systems that don't need external organizing agents to solve their problems. They don't take "commands" on how to function from alien sources -- they have all the tools they need for success at their disposal.

Landscapes are windows into self-organizing, nonlinear eco- and anthro-systems

Change, in this view, is not something that can only happen when outsiders come in (though obviously outsiders do bring necessary and crucial, as well as unwanted, changes), but also results from the constant adaption and readaptation built into complex localized processes--such as the adaptation of farmer to forest, for example, or any type of relationship between a land user and the land.

Farmers and ranchers, if they are to last, are constantly experimenting with the environment, trying to find out how best to maximize their own gains (by diversifying, for example); the smartest ones figured out long ago that it was much more beneficial to work with the environment rather than against it. And of course traditional farmers have given us 99% of the crops of the world.

A disclaimer: I've known Mark Bonta slightly, going back several years. Mark was still a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras and I had responsibilities for supporting his program out of my office at headquarters in Washington DC.

Given the nature of Olancho province, I can see close parallels to Chiapas and other similar areas. But not all remnant wildlands around the world are quite so politically and socially exciting.

For example, the issues outside Yellowstone are quite different in appearance: snowmobiles rather than subsistence wildlife harvesting.

My worry is that local control of resource conservation is subject to the rule of the common denominator. Yes, local control leads to conservation, but typically only that level of resource protection that the community as a whole agrees is appropriate. In the ideal case where all the members share a high level of ornithophilia, this is wonderful. But a few dissenters can lower the common denominator so that certain species (maybe prized species like white tail deer or predatory species like cats or misunderstood species like vultures and condors) are persecuted and in some cases locally eliminated. Question -- how can we generalize from Olancho to other areas?

My worry is that local control of resource conservation is subject to the rule of the common denominator

I think that we CAN'T generalize to the United States and other highly developed countries, because we do not have over half of our population living in subsistence conditions -- by default, close to the land.

Honduras is still "traditional" enough that love of nature is not something that has to be force-fed to people -- anti-environmental thinking is a byproduct of the Alliance for Progress, the Green Revolution, and so forth, in Honduras. Most of our people in the United States have at most a few generations of tradition of living on the land, and as the Dust Bowl showed, it takes quite a long time to "settle in" and forge a 'land ethic'.

In Latin America we have, despite all the migrations and upheavals, and 1492, centuries upon centuries of accretion of experience, and even a couple generations of complete environmental slaughter have not done away with people's biophilia. I give you an example from today -- Honduras is probably heading into a general strike the likes of which has not been seen since 1954.

Instead of simply labor unions, human rights groups, teachers, and other social interests, the true impetus comes from an environmentalist group (the Movimiento Ambientalista de Olancho) led by campesinos and priests whose stated goal is to allow communities control over their own resources, and to accept strict environmental protection guidelines.

Environmentalism, in the last five years, has gone mainstream in the towns and the countryside, at the same time that mining companies and logging companies and ranchers continue to strip the country clean. You have campesinos of my personal acquaintance who have given up slash-and-burn agriculture -- knowing that they are the ones that ultimately get blamed for environmental destruction.

Environmentalism has gone mainstream in the towns and the countryside

The poor turn to sustainable agriculture and microwatershed protection because it makes sense, and harks to a time before "modernization" when (according to the municipal archives I've read) local governments took such things seriously. I read recently the old Olanchito archives, and came across a detailed land-use code, which included various hunting restrictions; it was turn-of-the-20th-century.

I'm consistently amazed at the level of alienation from the land in the United States, and I live in a world center of cotton farming. People wax rhapsodic about "America", but it seems so shallow. Incidentally, in Appalachia, where I'm from, one does find a lot more 'ornithophilia', even among people who 'hate environmentalists.'

What do we do when the community's acceptable common denominator means the local extirpation of some charismatic or keystone species?


Well, communities are trick things of course. They vary radically from one to the next. In my book I featured the positive, but I could easily have written about the proliferation of 'anti-environmental' 'rednecks' who abound in Olancho, many in the guise of foresters and ranchers.

In many communities, jobs are the bottom line, and people lay down and die for industry or really for anything that will provide jobs (and we always have those who create the false owls-jobs dichotomy). But I see 'USians' as one of the most gullible peoples in the world, willing to fall for the 'sacrifice the mountain lion' crowd so easily--perhaps we are too spoiled, too cowardly. The only animal in Honduras that suffers from unquestionable loathing is the poisonous snake, but even there, environmentalists have made inroads recently convincing people of a live-and-let-live mentality.

The Hurricane Mitch experience helped to confirm what environmentalists had been saying about deforestation traumatized Honduras in a way that has never happened to the United States. If we say that, as minimum, 10,000 people died from a storm that affected the entire country, with X percentage of bridges destroyed, the captial and largest city trashed, etc. This tends to favor a bit of humility in the face of superior forces, I would think. In the United States, all we have is ill-made disaster movies like 'Day after Tomorrow.'

A Mitch-scale catastrophe in the United States would wipe out 500,000 people. Imagine if the deaths were in Appalachia, where every time there are heavy rains, now, you have deaths thanks to mudslides from mountaintop removal in West Virginia and Kentucky. Many nations across the 'Third World' -- at least, their poorer residents -- are realizing just how important is environmental health.

I've read the book, and really appreciated Mark's thesis that "locals" can enjoy nature for its own sake, as well as for economic benefits. I think that we are always applying theoretical models when we study the behavior of others, not realizing that models explain only part of our own behavior. Incidentally, I'm all for models, because (1) they organize our search for explanations and (2) they can often explain part of what we see. But just as we are very happy with a regression that explains 60 percent of the observed variance, we should realize that there are lots of random, personal elements involved in decision-making.

For example, why do I spend more time tending my back yard than my front yard, while my neighbor does just the opposite? Maybe it has a universal explanation (he's a first-time homeowner, I'm not). But maybe we each have different tastes. This piece of information has some policy relevance, because he may be more willing to participate in some front-yard beautification project than am I.

Speaking of differences, I want to pick up on the idea that campesino love of birds may not be universal. I am reminded of a wonderfully funny essay the late George Plimpton on his search for the last surviving Imperial Woodpecker in northern Mexico. It's title is the punchline. After much search, he found a man who had seen one. "Un gran pedazo de carne," he told Plimpton! [Plimpton , G. (1977). "Un gran pedazo de carne". Audubon Magazine , 79(6): 10-25.]

There are plenty of people in Olancho who think nothing of shooting birds for pure fun, and they exist all over the world. But, I am arguing that at the cultural level, they are insignificant, or at least, they do not represent the majority. The minority report is, however, important, and would be in this case if I were saying -- all people love birds, and if you say different, you're wrong.

What we have with birds in Latin America is the projection of the North American and European experience to the field in Latin America, because most ornithologists are not trained as social scientists, and even social scientists will find what they set out to find. It was the accretion of huge numbers of Plimpton-esque anecdotes -- and everyone has them -- that have 'proven', thanks to lack of contrasting evidence, that Latin Americans hate birds or, at best, tolerate them. Nobody else was studying birds but ornithologists and birders, and neither group was really looking at human culture, except in that people could perhaps tell them where birds were located.

In talking with tropical ornithologists, I have gotten the general comment that "Oh, yeah, those villagers sure did seem to know a lot about their birds". Of course, we take practically as gospel that indigenous groups have all this lore, so what I tried to do is say Let's not discriminate, let's look at the mestizos too.

And many bird aficionados have said "so what?" because they're not perhaps in with those of us who believe in people-driven, people-centered conservation. And there are many of those out there.

Basically, I think it comes down to better education about Latin America, a type of de-programming in this case. It would be great to lead a field course in ornithophilia to Honduras -- I think a lot of people's minds would be blown meeting some of the folks I profile in the book.

It comes down to better education about Latin America

Speaking of tours, I would be very interested in a collaborative effort to promote responsible ecotourism with your colleagues. Do you see a way that Planeta could profile local guides?

Suggest some ways. If you have interview questions, I can send them along via email. answers could be translated. But I'm not quite sure what else you might have in mind.

Planeta is fairly popular website and I wish it could used to promote more self guided tours in Honduras. The Honduras Guide could be better. If we could collaborate, we could make some improvements across the board.

I will definitely keep this in mind because I do have some friends that could post their profiles, and are more than willing to serve as guides. Indeed, the folks in Gualaco were trained years ago in a course in the US (CAPS/HOPS?) to be ecotourist guide, but after that, nobody really showed up!

It's a great idea -- provide permanent contact info for these folks. My personal platter is overflowing right now, but I shall try to get something together.

BTW on another topic, Jesse Fagan, Oscar Pinot, and I are leading a birding tour to Honduras in August 2005. Cost is relatively low. Details are posted on Birding Honduras. Please help spread the word or come along! We are limited to eight participants.

We really should collaborate more. Speaking of which, I'm planning some medium-term research in Oaxaca, so we may meet in person rather soon. I'm looking into cultural uses of cycads among indigenous and mestizo groups.


Excerpts of this article were published in the July 24, 2004 issue of Honduras This Week.


Ron Mader is the responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning website.


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