Spotlight Story

20 September 2023

Paola Bonilla: The Journey of a Latina in Conservation and Shaping Representation

Category: Spotlight Story

Paola Bonilla has always known community service as the pillar of her path in life. Since a young age, this Boricua has felt a connection to grassroots organizations, as well as contributing with her knowledge and passion for wildlife and science.

With a solid background in avian science and animal production, Paola started a journey in animal welfare and behavior during her master’s degree that has led her to serve as one of the field technicians for the Puerto Rican Parrot Conservation Project at Río Abajo and contributing with her knowledge to expand inclusion efforts for Black, Indigenous, Latino, and other communities of color in the United States and beyond.

After completing her master’s degree in Maryland, Paola worked for several years facilitating community work in the Washington DC area, ensuring food security for the Latino community and underserved populations.

“I was exposed to communities outside my bubble, so the importance of service was always very present for me, but without forgetting my passions, which have always been science and animals.”

She eventually extended her work to urban gardens at public housing projects in Puerto Rico, until she started working as the Project Coordinator for the Puerto Rican Parrot Conservation Project at Río Abajo, a collaboration between the NGO World Parrot Trust and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources.

Her work focuses on making sure all aspects of the conservation efforts for this species are covered. The aviary she works at is located at the Río Abajo State Forest, one of the key conservation areas for this species on the island. When describing her day-to-day basis on the field, Paola mentioned the most crucial part is ensuring proper alimentation for the parrots.

“We maintain cleanliness in the area and conduct bird observation in the aviary, which serves as a reproduction center and a release site for birds into the forest. Our observations include monitoring released wild birds and marked ones to collect data on their survival and potential return. We also assist in socializing birds in captivity and identifying potential mating partners for them in the future. To ensure the safety of the nests during breeding season, we climb trees to check their condition. Our efforts also involve providing food to the birds, especially during times of difficulty in the forest caused by hurricanes and other challenges.”

After her return to the island, Paola wanted to seek ways to contribute to community service. She understood working on the Parrot Conservation Project meant working on a national symbol for Puerto Rican culture and patriotism, which eventually led her to intertwine aspects of heritage and conservation into her work.

“The Puerto Rican parrot holds a special significance for Puerto Ricans as it symbolizes pride and patriotism. Its presence as one of the few animals that existed in pre-colonial times makes it even more important and working towards its conservation is a crucial task for promoting autonomy.”

These efforts led her to start her contributions as part of the Latino Climate Council, of which she’s been part for a year now. As part of her role, she has helped implement professional development tools for the council and Hispanic Access Foundation.

“We have noticed a trend of underrepresentation in our Council, particularly among Black and Indigenous peoples. It is our responsibility to ensure that the entire Latino community is represented and heard. So, we are seeking training and collaborating with individuals who can provide valuable insights on how we can become better allies and how we can create policies that address important issues. Our goal is to highlight these topics in our various publications, including white papers and fact sheets.”

Beyond this crucial work, Paola was invited to participate in Congressional Briefings related to the Farm Bill, representing Puerto Rico and talking about conservation practices on the island and the need to expand their conservation program and include more rural communities and people who may not have as much access to information.

“That was very positive because I was able to engage in conversations with different people, so I’m grateful for Hispanic Access that provided me the opportunity to participate in that.”

Paola also contributed to the first draft of the “Latino Connection to Waterways” report, in which she contributed with her knowledge of management strategies and updated background information on floods and drought within the Latino community. In the future, she hopes to continue her work in BIPOC communities and collaborate on projects that ensure food security for this population.

“In my opinion, leadership in conservation involves finding a balance between listening and acting. We often act impulsively based on our knowledge, data, and professional training in conservation. However, it's crucial to recognize that conservation is a social issue that affects all people, whether they are aware of it or not. Therefore, it's important to work closely with the community affected by our conservation efforts. This will prevent us from engaging in empty rhetoric and allow us to involve the community in the conservation process. Conservation is not a linear path with a destination but a continuous process in which the community must be engaged.”

Hispanic Access is inspiring, training, and working with leaders like Paola Bonilla, who have a stake in their community and have the drive for positive change. This #HispanicHeritageMonth, help support and continue this work, by making a Charitable Donation

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