Local people should be appreciated in all their complexity,
neither scorned nor romanticized. They should always be among the
paid experts on management teams for large protected areas such
as national parks.
To geographers, "landscape" suggests people
and nature coexisting in the same places at the same times. The
term "pine forest" seems to mean that people are outsiders
and can only go "into" it. By contrast, "pine forest
landscape" signifies pines, other plants and animals, soils
and rocks, slope and climate, and people. Conservation solutions
should be applied to human landscapes, not to "natural ecosystems"
that make human presence seem like unnatural interference.
In Olancho, serraña means essentially "pine
forest landscape" trees, terrain, and whatever and whoever
dwells therein. Montaña is a similar term for trees, terrain,
and inhabitants. Local landscape terms should be used generously
by outsiders saying serraña is far better than referring to
"el bosque de pino"; la montaña speaks volumes, while
"pluviselva" and "bosque humedo" have
little or no meaning to most people.
This is an ongoing process within local society, not
an event that can happen only when outsiders are present. Environmental
education characterizes everyday interaction within and between
families, friends, villages, urban neighborhoods, and foreign visitors
alike. Environmental education may indeed come about when conservationists
hold workshops and field courses but only when they learn from their
"students" and vice versa.
Bird education as part of a conservation project should
build on local knowledge, when this is considered by participants
to be useful or at least not prejudicial to bird populations. Bird
workshops should contain a mixture of local and scientific knowledge.
If local people feel that what they know is important and is respected
by outside experts, some may become more deeply involved in conservation,
as the example of Francisco Urbina demonstrates.
Education is always a mode of action, not solely a
preparatory stage. Since 1997, I have participated in three bird
count workshops in Gualaco, modeled loosely on the U.S. Christmas
Bird Count and International Migratory Bird Day but with substantial
variations. Participants range from teachers and farmers to Peace
Corps volunteers and youth groups. For one or two intense days,
participants study birds already somewhat familiar to them and are
also introduced to "unknown" species. They learn about
field guides and ornithology. After classroom discussions and talks,
participants practice in the field preparatory to the day-long count.
The count day itself begins at 4:00 a.m. Half the
groups disperse to various points of the Valle de Gualaco and Valle
de Agalta, count bird species and numbers on hikes of ten to twenty
kilometers, and return to base at dusk (sometimes long after). Other
groups, who miss the preliminary training days, go on treks to the
Sierra de Agalta. They take two days to get to their counting sites
and use the count day itself to return (downhill) to the trailhead.
After the day's counting is concluded, all groups gather for supper
and swap birding stories. Compilers put together the data for presentation
the following morning. Between 120 and 200 species are usually recorded,
and numbers of each species are noted as well. (The lack of more
than two or three expert birders, combined with the difficulty of
the terrain, prohibit spectacularly high numbers such as those garnered
by count groups in other parts of Central America. Under ideal conditions,
around 300 species would probably be counted).
To conclude, the groups discuss the highlights, the
problems, and suggestions for improving the activity. As counts
become annual events, the data begin to take on long-term significance
for conservation. In addition to generating new and exciting information
about local birds, the counts have inspired participants (teachers
and extensionists, for example) to incorporate birds into their
everyday work activities.
GENDER AND AGE
This should be a concern in all conservation projects,
especially because so often it has been ignored. In most cases,
women manage money better than men, and they are also usually in
charge of the household. They need to become integral to the functioning
of conservation networks.
Children should be looked on not as blank slates but
as those with the most intricate knowledge of the avian landscape.
They should become leaders of conservation initiatives and train
their parents. In Olancho, this is a pragmatic solution, because
children are far more likely to be literate than their elders.
At the other end of the spectrum, the knowledge about birds locked
in the heads of Olancho's oldest citizens is rapidly being lost.
Folklore collecting and oral history projects are always invaluable
endeavors, and knowledge about the environment should be a major
focus in the preservation of the past.
Conservation projects should be planned by outsiders
and local people together. "Outsiders" means not only
foreign conservationists and biologists but also Hondurans who do
not inhabit the rural landscape. The examples of Juticalpa and of
the terratenientes showed how distinct urban and wealthy Hondurans
are from rural dwellers, and this is common across Latin America.
Planning should involve human needs and the needs
of the environment together and should not be seen as an excuse
to effect one on the pretext of caring about the other. Microwatershed
(microcuenca) protection is a fine example of an integrated project
that is beneficial to the landscape and all its components. Sanctioned
by law and custom, communities across Honduras are delimiting and
managing their watersheds, protecting vegetative cover and restricting
human use, with resultant benefits to flora and fauna.
Planning needs to be dynamic, strategic, and ongoing.
Bulky management plans that are ends in themselves take too much
time and money to prepare every protected area in Honduras has at
least one, and some have several, stacked on shelves and gathering
dust. Today's projects need to have alternative strategies built
into them to allow for contingencies; if they are rigid and predefined
for a five-year span, for example, they may become impossible to
implement due to rapidly fluctuating socioeconomic and political
conditions. Brief operative plans should suffice as toolkits for
action but should not smother human initiative and ingenuity. Project
management teams should possess background studies as resources
but should not necessarily spend valuable time synthesizing this
information in lengthy documents.7
LEARNING TO READ THE LANDSCAPE
Each of the preceding chapters considered distinct
spaces and diverse problems. Conservation projects in the planning
stage need to identify such spatial regions and concerns. Societal
anchoring points should be treated as highly important, even if
they possess low biodiversity.
Juticalpa, for example, as a central place in the
decision-making hierarchy and a key node in cultural networks, is
the place where local people from around Olancho meet and exchange
information and where political decisions are made.
Juticalpa is also a filter of the outside, where the
wider world meets Olancho. Because they will not change the nature
of central places and cannot ignore them, conservation projects
need to lean on these places to their benefit, like epiphytes on
a tree. Olancho decision makers cluster in Juticalpa and take environmental
messages to the national congress. Radio stations based here are
received in every corner of the department. There are regional offices
of government agencies, international projects, and NGOs, all with
considerable say in landscape management. How successful can a conservation
project be if it bypasses Juticalpa, concentrating on the countryside
and based in Tegucigalpa? Yet many do just this.
Another spatial anchor in Olancho is the rural domestic
landscape. I stress the village and its pajaral because conservation
comes about first and foremost through the decisions and practices
of villagers. The pajaral is a home territory over which disenfranchised
people have control. In a wider sense, the pajaral as home extends
from the plains to the montaña. Conservation should start at
Human space is intricately textured, and outsiders
need to become sensitive to differences such as those between a
smallholder landscape and a terrateniente landscape, because these
are as important for success as knowing how to differentiate types
of forest. 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." In conservation
actions, local people also learn other ways of reading: the small
farmer with the eyes of a rancher, the rancher with the eyes of
"Conservation" signifies much more than
special efforts on the part of a management team. Conservation projects
are necessary, however, to focus the efforts for example, on particular
areas and species at risk. Projects may not need to be justified
in terms of economic development using financial incentives: in
Honduras, many people consider birds to be important because they
are part of local and national heritage (patrimonio).
Whether the Honduran Emerald is saved or extinguished
will not make a difference to economic development, but that does
not mean that the emerald is "insignificant." Nevertheless,
local people can easily be manipulated by interested parties who
feel threatened, with the result that the protection of birds can
be made to appear a frivolous "luxury" demanded solely
However, as I have shown, any idea that local people
believe "nature" is unnecessary if it does not provide
economic benefits is far from reality. Indeed, where they do mouth
this opinion, I often detect the presence of an outsider hostile
to environmentalists (there are many of these, particularly within
development projects focused on high-yield and fast-results "sustainable"
agriculture). I suspect this is the case not only in Olancho but
also across Latin America.
Projects need not have names or publicity. I have
observed numerous projects and have participated in some that are
preceded by great reputations and publicity, glossy pamphlets, and
numerous meetings but become bogged down at the stage of achieving
concrete results.Projects obsessed by form (reports, meetings, publications,
vehicles, offices, politics, appearances) may appear slick, especially
when one visits them for a day or reads about them from afar, but
this does not mean that they are received well (or at all) in their
Even though well-planned, well-funded, and well-executed
programs may indeed be as effective as they are impressive, they
are not the only way. Ad hoc groups of people may form for a purpose
and then dissolve, having achieved their goals even if no one else
noticed and they wrote no final report. Lasting friendships and
private initiatives, like those described in this book, can lead
to "undocumented" conservation.
The money trap is currently dooming conservation initiatives
across Honduras. Now that money is available (conservation having
become mainstream for many development initiatives, especially those
funded by the World Bank and USAID), numerous projects stake their
futures on secure budgets and high salaries rather than on volunteerism
and dedication to the cause. Being strapped for funds the norm for
conservation in Olancho should never be reason for inaction.
Some of the most important and genuinely sustainable
projects are extensive conversations, which don't cost anything.
Talk is free. What of the mobility that is necessary for many projects,
a need that big agencies and NGOs meet through use of expensive
donated vehicles? It is perfectly possible to use bicycles and public
buses; walking or riding beasts of burden can be solutions in other
When I worked on the management team of the Parque
Nacional Sierra de Agalta, we felt freer and achieved a lot more
when we stopped depending on rides from government agencies and
NGOs to reach remote areas. If rides were forthcoming, we would
not refuse them; but otherwise, as Peace Corps volunteers and as
private activists, we learned to get to where we wanted to go using
any means at our disposal. The alternative, in the case of government
agencies such as COHDEFOR, was to wait hours and even days for the
local boss to assign us a vehicle; often, the vehicle would nevertheless
be diverted to other errands.
Funding should come from local sources if at all possible.
Can landowners take on the expense of protecting their birds? Can
local farmers pay for bus fare to arrive at a meeting? Encouraging
people to pay even symbolic amounts is better than giving "free
rides" and creating dependence. When rumors of huge funds are
abroad, people with pecuniary interests take note while those who
don't wish to be perceived as corrupt give well-funded projects
a wide berth. Though generating jobs in conservation is an important
goal, attracting people who are involved solely for the money can
become a serious political problem.
Funds for program operation should be raised first
at the local level, for it is here that the project should have
highest visibility. Even though direct dependence on foreign aid
is common in rural landscapes across Latin America, this does not
mean that local businesses, churches, civil groups, and private
citizens will not be willing to give monetary or in-kind donations.
In many cases, NGOs simply forget to ask them. Local
offices of government agencies involved in natural resource management
should be enlisted for in-kind contributions to private projects.
The more local money circulates in a project, the more it will take
on relevance; many will see it as something in which they have a
stake rather than as a foreign implant.
Subsistence hunting for food or other basic needs
should not be prohibited or condemned out of hand without knowledge
of who is hunting what, and why. In many cases, animal and bird
populations can recover or be reintroduced if habitat is protected.
Hunters who become managers of fauna on public as well as private
land are preferable to "poachers."
Wildlife management involves give and take with local
sustenance requirements. In Olancho, utilization of common species
such as the paca and agouti, both abundant in many areas, can be
traded off for protection of threatened biota such as cats, raptors,
The need to eat should be taken extremely seriously.
Land cannot be taken away from poor farmers who have no other place
to go. Conservation projects that attempt this will not only lose
credibility at the local and regional level; they may put their
participants in physical danger.
Frontier regions in Central America became rife with
automatic weapons in the post Cold War era. In Olancho, many poor
as well as wealthy families define their strength by the AK-47 assault
rifles that they possess. Guns are often said to settle disputes
definitively, though in reality guns feed long-running family vendettas.
Because of this, conservation in a heavily armed region like the
Cordillera de Agalta cannot help but be conciliatory and peaceful.
Nongovernment conservation projects should divorce
themselves from association with the use of force and seek at all
times to keep their personnel far from danger. Research stations
being burned down and extensionists being threatened are signs to
back off. In any case, when conservationists are murdered it is
often because they have opposed powerful and corrupt interests,
not peasant farmers.
When visiting a village, action-oriented conservationists
can become frustrated by ethnographic researchers like me, who linger
over a strong cup of coffee and a good conversation. According to
some, nothing is being achieved by sitting around and chatting.
My belief, on the other hand, is that in many cases it is extremely
important to spend many hours in open discussion on people's porches.
It is important to savor conversations with and among local people
to enjoy conversing, rather than looking upon it as a requirement
or a bore. Finding out about the meanings that landscapes have for
local people is part of the process of becoming entangled with the
local world. If this is not important to a conservation project,
then it will be unsuccessful. Conservationists who are unable to
build trust (confianza), the glue of Central American social relations,
will be perceived as objects to be exploited for access to privileges
Talk circulates. Once talking becomes part of conservationist
practice, one attempts meaningful conversations with all local residents,
house by house (not only in public meetings). More important, local
people continue to discuss with each other issues that have been
raised, achieving a multiplier effect.
When "everyone is talking," it can become
socially acceptable to undertake bird conservation actions where
it might previously have been regarded as odd behavior. Mostly through
talk, with JosÇ Mendoza as catalyst, burning of fields and
unnecessary killing of birds on Cerro Agua Buena became unpopular
among its coffee farmers. Constant discussion there focuses on whether
this should continue to be the case; as long as the consensus is
yes, those who go against the grain will be censured by their peers.
In most cases this censure is far more effective than punishment
imposed from above.
The fact that laws are difficult to enforce in frontier
regions does not mean they should be ignored by conservationists.
Just the opposite: all relevant environmental clauses should be
learned by heart by local people and outsiders. Laws, even if not
easily applicable, should have at least a theoretical presence.
Many impoverished people are unaware of the power
that laws may afford them for example, to protect their watersheds
from powerful usurpers such as timber and hydroelectric companies.
In Olancho, despite its reputation for lawlessness, an overwhelming
majority clamors for law enforcement that will allow people to live
in dignity and will permit the environment to recover.
The words that conservationists know are often inappropriate
to local situations. Why use generic ecosystem terms when talking
with farmers? "Bosque humedo subtropical" is a poor
substitute for serraña. Why employ "bosque lluvioso tropical"
when montaña says it better?
Rural Olanchanos who have not been exposed to outside
environmentalists or foresters use bosque in the limited sense of
a grove of trees. Talking with them about the forest as el bosque
is unproductive. Conservation takes place in the local landscape,
not in the university or the office, so it makes most sense to draw
from the local lexicon wherever possible and to avoid employing
generic words from elsewhere. If the local vocabulary does not suffice,
for example in the naming of obscure antbirds and ovenbirds, then
appropriate translations should make sense in cultural context.
Language is a serious problem in bird conservation,
because almost all available field guides are in English, making
them the exclusive provenance of educated outsiders who possess
a specialized knowledge, thus alienating many local people. Serious
efforts should be made to disseminate materials in the local primary
or secondary language.
In Honduras, for example, a field guide to Honduran
birds, in Spanish, would be an excellent project. In the meantime,
we make do with spliced-together photocopies of various guides from
other countries, crossing out foreign names and inserting local
When a conservation network functions to transport
interests between sectors of the human population, landscape dialogues
are enlivened and enriched. Awareness expands; new perspectives
take hold as common interests materialize.
Who would have thought there would be so many established
local names for the rarely seen Three-wattled Bellbird, all within
a limited area of a single province in Honduras? How can conservationists
have missed or dismissed for so long the importance to birds of
the smallholder landscape and the dooryard garden? Who could have
imagined that "ordinary" serraña would serve as a
haven for the Golden-cheeked Warbler?
Or that large landowners would have flocks of six
hundred Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and would hold the key to
local conservation of a thorn forest species like the Honduran Emerald?
The potential for consensus, mutual respect, and effective long-term
conservation of biodiversity multiplies with every round of landscape