Playa Grande, Costa Rica:
As the setting sun dips below the horizon and darkness mantles this gently curving beach, a hatchling olive Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea
) scrambles from its sandy nest and skitters to the surf as its ancestors have done here for millions of years. Nearby, Laura Jan, a young local woman, watches the tiny reptile disappear into the waves and smiles as the fragile cycle of life is renewed for these endangered animals.
Protecting sea turtles and their habitats has become her personal mission, and also forms the basis of some powerful CI conservation partnerships here on Costa Rica's northwestern shores. Over the past year, local women led by Jan have organized to protect precious sea turtle nesting grounds by preventing uncontrolled development that threatens the nearby national marine park. Today these women educate local people about sea turtle conservation, raise money from the growing tourist trade, and fund social welfare programs that benefit their community. None of this could have happened without the help of partners including the Costa Rican government, The Leatherback Trust, and CI.
The State of Seas and Sea Turtles
Grazing on ocean sponges, jellyfish, crustaceans, and seagrass, sea turtles keep marine ecosystems balanced. Over the last century, however, humans have damaged coastal habitats and hunted turtles so efficiently that six of the seven sea turtle species are now Endangered or Critically Endangered. Worse, modern shrimp trawlers and industrial longline fishing vessels kill tens of millions of marine animals including sea turtles each year.
"Sea turtles represent the plight of all marine life," explains Roderic B. Mast, head of CI's Sea Turtle Flagship Program. "There are radically fewer turtles in the seas now than there were a few hundred years ago. They have fallen prey to a variety of hazards all human-caused that threaten not only turtles, but the oceans themselves."
One of the Last Nesting Grounds
Playa Grande, one of the most beautiful beaches on Costa Rica's Nicoya peninsula, is also one of the last major nesting grounds in the Pacific for the world's largest and most endangered sea turtle, the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea). They are the survivors of a unique evolutionary line that has cruised the seas for more than 100 million years. Leatherback populations have plummeted during the past two decades, with some Pacific populations crashing by as much as 90 percent.
Playa Grande is part of the Las Baulas National Marine Park, baulas
being the Spanish word for "leatherback." For decades conservationists fought to block commercial development in and around the park's 85 square miles of rich coastal and marine habitat, fearing it would destroy the turtles' nesting beaches, pushing them further toward extinction.
Las Baulas was established in 1990 but remained a park in name only due to scarce funds. In 2004 CI began working with Costa Rica's Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MINAE) and other partners to incorporate coastal and marine conservation into the park's mission. CI also joined forces with The Leatherback Trust, MarViva, and several other non-governmental organizations working to control commercial development and unsustainable fishing in the park.
Engaging and Empowering Conservationists
In 2004 Manuel Ramirez, senior director for CI's Southern Mesoamerica program, invited Laura Jan and many others from local communities to participate in several conservation workshops in Las Baulas. Jan, who heads a local tourist guide association, realized how park conservation could breathe new vitality into her nearby hometown of Matapalo. Her guides made certain that tourists didn't spook nesting turtles or harm their eggs, but Jan was inspired by CI's concept of empowering local people to be active conservationists.
She went door to door in Matapalo urging women to join her in a new conservation cooperative to help Las Baulas. Her organization, Las Damas Amigas de Parque Nacional Marino de Las Baulas (the women friends of Las Baulas National Marine Park), partnered with CI and MINAE to promote tourism, underwrite tougher sea turtle protection laws
, and raise money by selling food and crafts to visitors. Today, tourists flock to Las Baulas, and development is more strictly controlled. Park concession profits fund programs at Matapalo's school, help single mothers, and underwrite community workshops on pollution prevention and biodiversity protection.
A midnight moon casts Playa Grande in blues and grays. Jan observes a group of tourists waiting their turn to approach a nesting leatherback. Still leading the guide's association, she plans to use her conservation earnings to go to college a first in her family.
"Our message is that people can live with the environment without harming it," Jan says. "These sea turtles and the park are linked to my community's survival
. If the park flourishes, we will flourish."