Colombian Communities Shift From Sea Turtle Predators to Guardians

© Rod Mast

The tragic murder of Costa Rican sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval earlier this month saddened all of us in the conservation community. Today, we bring you a more hopeful sea turtle story — one that shows how conservation can be a force for positive change in communities who embrace it.

Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast has long been an important area for turtles; five out of the seven species of sea turtle worldwide travel to eat the seagrasses that grow there. Since pre-Columbian times, the indigenous Wayuu people have been eating these sea turtles, as well as using and selling their parts for use in folk medicine and religious rituals.

After centuries of uncontrolled exploitation on La Guajira Peninsula, sea turtle numbers have diminished, drastically endangering local sea turtle populations. Once local people realized this, the Wayuu decided to contribute to their conservation.

La Guajira is characterized by a very dry and harsh climate, which has made agriculture difficult. As a consequence, the Wayuu are forced to survive on the resources provided by the ocean and the raising of sheep, which continually roam the arid landscape foraging for plants.

These extreme conditions have made the Wayuu a very tough but fragile tribe, with deep bonds with both the desert and the sea. During my first visit to the area last year, I was surprised to find that even communities living more distant from the sea store large quantities of dried fish and prawns that have been brought by their coastal dweller kin. I was told that such behavior was common throughout La Guajira.

Based on the guidelines of CI’s Conservation Stewards Program, in 2011 CI-Colombia partnered with Cerrejón Coal, Fondo Acción and Corpoguajira (the local environmental authority) to implement a conservation agreement of sea turtles with two local Wayuu communities at La Alta Guajira, the peninsula’s northern tip.

Commitments made by the Wayuu include no hunting of sea turtles, no harvesting of eggs, no sale or trading of turtle parts and constant nesting site protection and monitoring. Most of the communities’ nutritional needs are now met by consuming fish and sheep.

In return for complying with their conservation commitments, CI and our partners committed to benefit the development and livelihoods of these partner communities by building local natural resource management capacities, training and sponsoring monitoring patrols, and providing essential materials identified by the Wayuu that will contribute to the enhancement of their living standards. Some of the benefits received by the communities include water storage tanks, new fishing equipment and roofing tiles.

Since 2011, more than 50 local Wayuu men and youth have been trained in turtle monitoring, tagging and sea turtle first-aid techniques.

Every night, patrols of four people each walk the beaches during nesting season, taking measurements when the turtles hatch (such as length, weight and the number of eggs that don’t hatch in each nest) and keeping an eye out for illegal activity. When turtles are scarce during these long nights of vigilance, volunteers share memories of the former times when their grandparents used to dispatch truckloads of turtles to La Guajira’s major cities.

So far, our combined efforts have protected 45 nests, released 3,568 newborns to the Caribbean and saved 74 turtles from drowning when accidentally caught as bycatch in fishing nets.

But most importantly, socioeconomic monitoring done by CI and partners has revealed that the conservation agreements are also having a positive effect on 99 local families. For example, some families have invested their patrolling stipends in enhancing their homes’ concrete flooring.

Two years after the agreement began, 95% of interviewed participant households have a positive perception of the work done by their fellow community members. Furthermore, the local environmental authority is considering replicating CI’s model in other areas of La Guajira as part of its sea turtle conservation strategy.

Even though results are promising, much work still has to be done. With continued efforts, we hope to ensure the agreements’ long-term sustainability in regards to local capacity-building, regional awareness of the project and tangible economic development alternatives that will help continue the transition of the Wayuu from predators to true conservation stewards.

Alejandro Rosselli is the national coordinator of Conservation For Development, the Colombian branch of CI’s Conservation Stewards Program.