During the first weekend of September, an avalanche of people hampered the arrival of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles on the coast at Ostional. Photos of the debacle created a stir on Facebook and massive criticism on the social network soon followed.
I won’t say that I don’t understand the hostile response that these images created among so many people. It is natural; visual stimulation has an immediate impact and reaction is organic, almost instinctive. Nevertheless, looking only at the photos is like reading just the title. For that reason, if you are truly interested in the subject, allow me a moment to add a few more points to the discussion.
1 The presence of people doing good or bad things in Ostional while turtles lay their eggs is not exactly an unusual event. It happens somewhat frequently, and normally, authorities can control it. However, this weekend, the number of people was unusual and the situation got out of control.
2 Why did so many people go? In large part because of the negligence of those who promoted trips and visits taking advantage of the overlap between arrival season and the drought the province of Guanacaste is suffering (normally, getting to Ostional during the rainy season is not easy).
3 The situation, as picturesque as it was chaotic, caught authorities completely by surprise (two park guards and three Public Force officials had to face the chaos). It’s clear that there was a lack of foresight, planning and control.
4 Measures are already being taken to prevent this from happening again. The administration of the Ostional Wildlife Refuge is coordinating with the Public Force, community leaders, tour guides and the Ostional Development Association (among others) to strengthen control. SITRAMINAE (which filed an official complaint regarding the event) also offered its support and lashed out at the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC – Sistema Nacional de Areas de Conservacion) through statements made to La Nacion.
Now, in addition to all that, there are other facts to take into account when talking about Ostional. A discussion like the one that was launched this week gives us the perfect excuse to address them.
A fundamental point that many seem to have forgotten is that the sale of turtle eggs from Ostional has been legal since 1987. It is in the only beach in Costa Rica where the practice is allowed, and it is managed by members of the community using an integrated and sustainable model under the control and supervision of the UCR, MINAE, SENASA and INCOPESCA.
“Legal?! But, but, how is that possible?”
Long story short, because there is not enough beach for so many eggs. The quantity of turtles that come to Ostional is so extraordinary that their main “predator” are the turtles themselves. It is estimated that the turtles destroy approximately 40% of the nests laid before their arrival, passing over them and throwing other turtles’ eggs in the air. Add to that the role of vultures, larva and other species and well… things get complicated. Not to mention erosion and the dry season conditions, which basically make the nests cemeteries. As a result, the mortality rate by natural causes for turtle eggs in Ostional is 93%, which is to say, with or without human intervention, the great majority of the eggs are lost.
So yes, the Ostional Development Association is authorized by law to do better than that 93% and take advantage of eggs that would otherwise be lost. What percentage of all eggs found on the beach does the community of Ostional extract? Around 1%.
However, year after year we see photos of Ostional residents rightfully working to harvest this food in a legal way, and year after year they get criticized by many people who ignore that, likening them to criminals who operate on the Atlantic, without understanding the reality of this town, the context for its struggle and the sustainable spirit of the project.
Naturally, many environmentalists, biologists and conservations have come to debate this project for a long time now. The UCR (which has been working in the community for almost 45 years) argues that the program is sustainable and comprehensive, and that it doesn’t risk the species while allowing locals to sustain themselves. In that regard, the project’s detractors say that the practice puts the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle at risk and endangers other species, such as the Green and Leatherback sea turtles, because the black market takes advantage of Ostional’s legal sales to “launder” illegal eggs and sell them as if they were from the area.
It is also important to consider that the program provides employment for almost 40% of residents. In addition, in includes benefits for students, mothers and even a pension system. As you can imagine, for the almost 1,000 Ostional residents, the project represents the source of their progress.
In the end, if the subject interests you as much as me, I urge you to watch the documentary OSTIONAL: A Community’s Refuge (OSTIONAL: el refugio de una comunidad), directed by Pedro Murillo and prepared by the UCR. I can’t emphasize enough the importance and relevance of this project. Above and beyond the main subject of the work, what it says about the case of Jairo Mora is fundamental and truly represents an international embarrassment for Costa Rica. In addition, the end of the video is a slap in the face for our entire legal order, our way of making laws and our way of forming opinions.[video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvTaMrTfxlY width:550 align:center autoplay:0]
I understand that seeing images like those illustrating this article can be irritating, but let’s not forget that at times, when we react with automatic fury, we lack context and perspective, especially if we are giving our opinions from afar and with limited information.
In addition, that irritation could be better placed: without going far, the drought currently affecting Guanacaste is far worse and more worrisome than the incident in the photos… and it is not a subject being debated on social networks.
Ostional is part of Costa Rica and the majority of us don’t understand its reality.
Its residents are under constant threat of relocation and the State has kicked the can down the road for many years, unable to solve the situation of this and many other coastal communities whose fate was decided by laws signed in San Jose, without the proper attention to their context and reality.
Let’s not make the same error as our legislators… we can worry about the conservation of our turtles, but we can (and I’ll dare to say, we should) also worry about the conservation of our communities and our people.