Ana Gloria Guzmán-Mora is the executive director of Conservation International’s Costa Rica program, where she works with local communities and governments to help them meet their goals for protecting the planet.
Conservation News spoke with Guzmán-Mora about her encounter with the biggest fish on the planet, the communities that give her hope for Earth’s future and the limitless rewards that come from taking risks.
Question: What sparked your passion for ocean conservation?
Answer: Growing up in Costa Rica, I have been surrounded by nature my whole life. As a kid, I spent most of my time climbing trees and listening to birds in Costa Rica’s capital, San José. But some of my favorite childhood memories are my family’s summertime trips to the coast. I found the ocean to be this incredible and mysterious world, filled with life and energy. I loved it so much I wished I could breathe underwater.
When I started university, I decided to study biology to learn everything I could about nature — from botany to genetics. This range of knowledge has been incredibly valuable during my career in conservation because it has helped me understand how every part of an ecosystem is connected. But even as I explored different parts of nature, all roads led back to the ocean, so I went on to pursue my master’s degree in marine science.
Q: Do you have a favorite fish?
A: Absolutely, and it happens to be the biggest fish in the ocean: the whale shark. The first time I saw this gentle giant, I was scuba diving off Cocos Island southwest of Costa Rica and I screamed in delight — despite being underwater with all my gear. They swim so peacefully, no effort, no resistance. For me, this is what freedom looks like.
I’m also extremely interested in how humans interact with fish. During my master’s program, I spent a year working with fishing communities throughout Costa Rica to help them manage their fisheries sustainably, without depleting the ocean. While research was my primary focus, I also attended many local government meetings with the fishers. I became their advocate, communicating the fishing communities’ goals for science, policy and conservation. Of course, I still love to study fish and other marine life, but this work helped me realize how important conservation is to humanity’s well-being.
Q: What does your day-to-day look like now?
A: Every day is different. Before the pandemic, I frequently visited our conservation sites across Costa Rica and worked with communities to help them protect and restore the nature they depend on — from mangroves in Chira Island off the country’s Pacific Coast, to fisheries in the provinces of Paquera and Tambor in the Nicoya Peninsula in the west. Our projects are all about getting local people engaged in conservation by identifying their priorities and ensuring that projects are built with their vision and needs in mind. Our projects link conservation initiatives, such as mangrove restoration, with opportunities to develop sustainable livelihoods. One of the key elements in every project is supporting local people, who are our main allies for conservation.
Fishing communities are vulnerable to environmental and economic shifts, and often lack the health infrastructure to protect against disease spread and infection. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Conservation International pivoted from some of our regular activities. I’ve spent most of my time coordinating our efforts to provide support, food and protective gear for the communities that we work with in Costa Rica. We also put together a joint campaign with the National Fisheries Authority to incentivize Costa Ricans to purchase fish and marine products from local communities and made a quick assessment to connect the local fishers with markets and retailers closer to their communities.
Q: Can you tell me about your time with some of these communities?
A: Most of the communities that I work with have a deep connection to the environment, which means they’re seeing firsthand how quickly ecosystems are changing.
For example, in Chira Island, the older fishers told us that it used to be normal for them to see a variety of marine life — such as sharks and sea turtles — during every fishing trip. However, pollution, agricultural expansion, the degradation of wetlands and climate change have deteriorated the region’s marine ecosystems — and their coasts are now mostly devoid of life, with fish stocks rapidly dwindling.
But they are not giving up — most of the communities are determined to protect and restore nature so that they have something to leave behind for the next generation. These people are the most crucial part of our conservation projects, and their passion drives me to do better. For example, we are working with five local communities in the Gulf of Nicoya in western Costa Rica to improve the management of coastal fisheries. By collaborating and practicing sustainable fishing techniques, these communities have become essential to building partnerships with local and national retailers. This is helping them reach broader markets and fetch higher prices for their fish.
Q: You are Conservation International’s youngest female country director. What advice would you give to women who are embarking on careers in conservation?
A: Be fearless. Fisheries science is a male-dominated field. Women are told or often feel like it’s not the right place for them, but that is a huge misconception. I took a leap — and it paid off. If you feel a passion for something, just go for it, even if you are scared or uncertain. When I took chances throughout my career, I didn’t realize they were leading me to my dream job in ocean conservation. It’s about taking risks. Believe in yourself and be open to learning from a variety of people along the way — from mentors to local communities. It will make you a better conservationist and person. Every time I hesitate to take a risk, I remember my legacy. I come from strong women who fought their generations’ stereotypes. They gave me these chances — and I don’t plan on letting opportunities pass.
Cover image: Ana Gloria Guzmán-Mora diving in Cocos Island, Costa Rica (© Edgardo Ochoa/Conservation International)