Nosara, Life & Health

Living Under the Shadow of a Tree

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When Ana Maria Vega Figueroa, now 77, settled on the shore of Ostional Beach 57 years ago with her husband and her firstborn son, she said it was just a mountain without an owner. They had left Bejuco of Nandayure, where she was born, because they had nothing there, and came to Ostional with nothing but the hope of making a home for themselves.

When they arrived in the month of February, she said they lived in the shade of a tree and cooked over rocks on the ground. A couple months later, in April, her husband, Francisco Lara, built a house out of palm and they began to plant corn, rice and beans, as well as fishing. They would salt the fish and dry it in the sun to preserve it and later her husband and son would make the 12-hour trip on horseback to Nicoya to sell the fish and buy the few products they didn’t produce themselves at home, like sugar, coffee and soap. Back then, just five colones was enough to buy what they needed.

Affectionately called Anita, she is considered one of the founders of the community of Ostional. Right there, she gave birth to 12 more children. Of the nine that are still alive, eight live in Ostional and one lives in nearby Santa Marta. Along with one of her brothers and 24 grandchildren, the Vega clan makes up more than 7% of the 480 people who currently live in Ostional.

In time, they cleared land to make a plaza and built a school with a dirt floor, enclosed by palm. Roads were made when Daniel Oduber Quiros was president, 1974-1978 and the community was developing.

The first time Anita and her family saw a sea turtle arrive at the beach, in the 1950s, Anita said they were amazed and she was happy because she knew she’d see more. But back then, so many coyotes and dogs roved the area that would eat the turtles as soon as they arrived, never allowing them to lay eggs. She said they search from one end of the beach to the other and not find one single egg.

Vega and her family, as well as others who settled in the area, worked to get rid of the dogs and the coyotes, which can still be heard up in the hills but no longer terrorize the turtles. The numbers of turtles coming and successfully laying eggs began to increase into a phenomenon—so much so that in the late 1970s a Peace Corp volunteer sent a letter to Dr. Douglas Robinson, a biology professor at the University of Costa Rica, suggesting that the area be studied.

Robinson, originally from the United States, began spending time in Ostional. Initially, he was met with suspicion as some believed he was tipped off by people who came in boats to rob the turtles, but Robinson held a meeting with community members to explain his research and started gaining their trust and friendship.

Anita was among 24 community members who used to meet under a Matapalo tree as the community began to organize. She remembers holding raffles and other activities between 1980 and 1982 to raise funds for travel to San Jose to support establishing a program to care for the turtles.  Later in 1987 the Ostional Integral Development Association was founded, of which Anita’s daughter, Magdalena Vega, is currently the president, and in 1996 the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) established an office there.

In 2002, the peak number of turtles that came at one time was 1.2 million during October. Earlier in the same month, a group of some 850,000 turtles arrived, filling the shoreline with eggs, and according to Magdalena, the figures continue to increase, which they view as evidence of the success of the community’s program.  

In recent years Anita, her family and her community have organized for another related cause— the effort to pass the Coastal Community Territories Law Project (TECOCOS), to keep their homes and continue living where they grew up. At her age, Anita says her knee hurts and one of her arms bothers her, but even so, she has personally gone twice to San Jose to participate in manifestations.

Decades ago, her husband was trying to work with a legislator from Santa Cruz to try to register the land where they live but was not able to. Anita knows that the government does not allow land in the maritime zone to be registered. 

She used to live in a home just 20 meters from the high tide mark, but sometimes the water reached their house and flooded it. Because of this, they stored their possessions up off the ground, but she said it was scary. She remembers on one occasion waking up to the sound of flowing water and when she got out of bed she found herself almost knee deep in water.

Eighteen years ago, she moved into a different house, 100 meters from the high tide mark. The house is made of fibrolit panels with a cement floor and a metal roof. Widowed seven years ago, she currently lives there with two of her sons. Each morning, she does her housework and enjoys cooking typical foods—from rice and beans to rosquillas.

Just two years ago, they finally installed electricity, and she is thankful that now she has a washing machine and no longer has to wash clothes by hand. She also has a television and a refrigerator, modern conveniences that she says make life more comfortable now, although she affirms that life was healthier and more peaceful before. For entertainment, they would hunt for shrimp and on evenings when there was a full moon they would spend time at the beach. Chemicals weren’t used to grow food and children were more obedient, she related.

When asked what she would do if the government evicted her and the rest of the community from their homes, she looked down, shrugged and asked, “What could we do?”  The sound of the waves fills our ears, steady and calming, as she speculates that she might seek refuge with her daughter in Santa Marta or one of her brothers. But that wouldn’t be her home, the home she began to make in the shadow of a tree.