The Why of Where

When asked what he does in his work, Mark Bonta says, “I mostly talk to people.” How hard can that be? Of course there’s more to the story. An assistant professor of earth science at Penn State Altoona, Bonta does far more than just engage people in conversation. His work as a geographer encompasses environmental science, ethnography, natural disasters, and conservation—and that’s only a partial list. He explains the diversity as critical to his work: “Geographers are synthesists and generalists—we have to be multidisciplinary.”

Bonta’s main focus is community-based conservation in Honduras, a country he has been working in since a “chance assignment in the Peace Corps” more than twenty years ago, he says. “They match you with a request for certain skills and then you go to the host country and train for three months. I was matched up directly with Honduran biologists who were trying to manage national parks with little to no resources.” Bonta’s role was—and continues today as a founding member of the Honduran Conservation Coalition (HOCC,—to work within communities in Honduras, with the residents, to help solve the environmental problems local populations face. “The ideal is that local communities be involved in managing and protecting the environment, and this is supported by Honduran law.”

This is where Bonta “talks to people,” as he says. “In ethnography you’re trained to have open-ended conversations.” Through those interactions, and learning what a particular community needs, “we are able to provide certain services and work directly with them.” He stresses that his role is not to go in, tell people what to do, and leave. Instead, members of HOCC work with communities to listen and problem-solve together. “Our connection through education and knowledge is a very powerful thing.”

What sort of issues present themselves? First, Bonta says, there’s “the environmental struggle and then the general struggle. The country is so close to the land. Communities need to figure out the best way to preserve their natural resources.” Honduras was hit by a very strong Hurricane Mitch in 1998, had a military coup in 2009, and is constantly dealing with development issues and the residual environmental impacts. Of course, watersheds are a major concern but, just as important, a community may want to protect itself from a large hydroelectric project that would flood local farms, or from a logging company that would clear-cut a local forest.

HOCC’s role includes both education and support. “We’ve had requests for workshops in communities. They might ask how they can set up a protected area. That [type of project] can be community managed. We worked with Catholic clergy there, who nowadays are often big forces for protection of environment and community, passing skills on to them. This is a way we can do things very quickly without a bureaucracy.” Some other workshops serve to educate the public about the impacts of, for example, open-pit iron mining on a local community. “You can have company representatives come in and promise the earth and sky [but the residents have] never seen open-pit mining. They don’t have the exposure to it so they just don’t know the risks associated with it. But photos and videos are very powerful.”

Sometimes the best thing HOCC can offer is data. “Biologists collect and identify new and unusual species, which could be critically important to a community trying to preserve its wildlife and watersheds; they have the data [to support their opposition].” In one specific case, language was the barrier. “When we did research on the cycad, a type of plant, we got funding to translate the final report into Spanish, print it and send it to all the communities we worked with. This isn’t standard practice—most scientific reports never make it back to communities. It’s amazing to see the effect. They were able to use that for conservation and for protection of critical heritage.”

What Bonta and his cohorts in HOCC do might not be considered “research” in some circles, but he disagrees. What they do is called “participatory action research: you’re doing research but participating at the same time.” He has found time to write two books and numerous articles and chapters based on his research but, he admits, “The more you’re involved with community conservation issues on the ground, the less critical it becomes to see your name in an English-language journal.”

A significant factor in HOCC’s success is the amount of money required for projects, only “a few thousand dollars at a time.” Bonta acknowledges that funding can be a challenge: “We’re in one of the most violent areas in the world, and we don’t shy away from working in difficult places, such as where there is illegal mahogany traffic, or people trying to put in mines. So it’s hard to get long-term sustainable funding. We haven’t had a lot more than operational funds.” He sees larger amounts of money coming from bigger organizations than HOCC, but “many times money being spent is reaching the ground but not making much impact.” Being a small organization has its advantages in lack of red tape: “We take what we can get but we use it very quickly.”

During the school year, of course, Bonta is in the classroom at Penn State Altoona, where he brings in real world examples every chance he gets because geography is “not just a study of places, it’s the why of where.” He says, “My academic career started with 9/11—two weeks after I started teaching, 9/11 happened.” That became a classroom topic, as well as Hurricane Katrina: “I had a license to teach exciting things. I was teaching about the potential effects of the storm [Katrina] in New Orleans while it was in Florida. You can turn anything into a teachable moment.” To give his students the opportunity to understand some of what Honduran communities face, “we do total-immersion role plays and simulate the poverty in Honduras.”

Bonta’s thoughts are never far from what he has experienced in his time in Honduras and what he wants to do next. At the end of the spring semester, he says, “I can’t wait to get down to Honduras, but won’t get there until the end of June. Among other activities, I will be helping set up a new conservation partnership between Juniata Valley Audubon Society, of which I am vice-president, the Honduran Ornithological Association, and a local university. I will also be working with communities in bird education and documentation, and submitting data to eBird [].” And then, come fall, he will bring his experience back to the classroom and teach his students about what he saw and what he did.

This story was originally published in Penn State Altoona’s Research and Teaching magazine. 

Last Updated September 22, 2015