This is from a series of reports written in 1997 for an NGO, Mopawi, exploring their efforts to promote sustainable development in the native Miskito and Garifuna populations in La Mosquitia, a rainforest in eastern Honduras.
the most inspiring thing about the project for turtle conservation in plaplaya may not be the cuddly rubbery turtle babies pawing their way towards the sea, or the near 40% birth success rate; it's probably adolfo bodden observing and taking notes on each of the dozens of unsuccessfully unborn turtle eggs. as someone leans over a turtle fetus grave dug in the beach, a few yards from their still viable nests, they rip open each of the soft egg shells, adolfo notes how many infected by fungus, how many with blood in them, how many not at all developed. why are you keeping track? i ask. with a nod and a slight smile, he replies, so we can see what's going wrong, and change it for next year.
conservacion de tortugas marinas
adolfo bodden y lauri boxer
the data here is enormous. adolfo keeps track of each nest, each egg - where on the beach it was found, possibly which turtle laid it, who brought it in, when and what time, when it was replanted, how deep, how many viable and unviable eggs, how many turtles hatch, how many of the leftover eggs were diseased/fungal/at all developed. for 48 nests this year, and 50 to 150 eggs per nest, that's a lot of pen scribblings in notebooks.
this kind of diligent data collection isn't exactly traditional in la mosquitia. with little formal training in biology, adolfo diligently executes scientific method here. to follow, record, observe and tally data, to propose hypotheses and draw conclusions requires patience and information management skills seldom seen in this part of the world. observance of nature takes place on a less analytical level; not with a pencil, let alone a paper based database.
in 1995, bonnie larsen was a peace corps volunteer working with mopawi, doing environmental education on the coast. a biologist by training, she took an interest when the people she was working with told her about the rapidly decreasing marine turtle population. when her term with peace corps was finished, she travelled across the coast, looking to start a turtle conservation project. She visited belen, ibans; finding the most interest in plaplaya. there, with adolfo, she established the basic form of the turtle program - scouting, rescue, replanting, guarding. after a year, she turned her responsibilities over to peace corps. between bonnie, whose volunteers since have provided biological expertise, communication skills, and long term vision. USAid, the parent group dispatching peace corps volunteers, has a new approach to these kinds of development projects: a team effort between the US department of the interior and peace corps. instead of the usual USDI expert sent in six times a year to oversee things, advise and administer from afar, the USDI experts visit only three or four times a year, and peace corps volunteers reside in the region to perform a more accompanying role.
besides these experts facilitated by mopawi and USAid, mopawi raises and administers funds for the turtle project. when i asked adolfo what mopawi did for him, he mentioned foremost that mopawi offers classes - management, administration, opportunities to learn. earlier this year, they sponsored a trip to costa rica for a few weeks visit to the ANAI turtle conservation project there. adolfo, other working members of the plaplaya community, and a government official from Direccion General de Pesca y Acuacultura (DIGEPESCA) travelled. we might blame this sortie for adolfo's scientific method; he returned to implement the current comprehensive data collection system. as well it seems to him the turtle promised land - his eyes light up as he describes the teams of biologists, foreigners, professionals, working reliably with hundreds of nests. he's part admiring the volume, in large part admiring the work ethic. as we talk, people from the village working for food, and their friends, drift in and out of the small open air beach shelter, laying in hammocks. during the turtle's nesting season, there are people guarding the nests day and night; but they are rumoured to drink, or sleep. last year three nests were ripped off from near the beach hut while guards were on hand. back then, there was only one person on duty at a time; now there are teams of two - adolfo hopes they will keep each other in line. one afternoon, when i was needing a place to descansar, i came to the shelter, chatted a bit with the volunteers and dozed off. when he came by with a fresh pineapple gift from his farm, adolfo found me and the two others, all of us passed out. we joked about it; but the bottom line is that it's still far from a professional well-oiled turtle population recessitation machine. but it's a start.
the turtles start coming up on the beach in march; baulas (leatherbacks) and caguama (loggerhead) frequent the sands near plaplaya. the females drag themselves up past the smoothsand towards the dunes, where they paddle out a hole and drop their eggs. then they cover the hole and paddle back into the sea - the young hatch, or don't, on their own, two months later. since the baulas can reach over 6 feet in length during their 100 year lifespan, it might take them over two hours to crawl up and give birth. during that time, an entrepeneurial young miskito or garifuna has plenty of opportunity to spy the immense beast on the beach, and calmly place a garbage bag under the birth canal, for easy pickup. the eggs are supposed to be good eating; between the size of the turtles and the turtle tracks, and the time it takes them to do their thing, their nests make an easy target.
adolfo reports a busy beach - like a race to discover the latest leviathan mother laying during the wee hours of the morning. with mopawi provided flashlights and backpacks and eggbags and canteens, teams of two vigilantes wander back and forth on the beach for 16 kilometers during the night hours. if they come upon a theft in progress, they avoid confrontation. speed, not strength is the deciding factor here; speed that might mean being the first to arrive, and then watching a turtle drag herself up on the beach, and dig a hole, for over an hour. when the eggs drop in their sack, or they are dug up from a recently buried nest, they must be brought back to the basecamp within six hours. there, a 70cm hole is dug and the eggs are placed inside. all possible permutations of information are recorded.
from the moment the first eggs hit the beach until the last have hatched (roughly late february to late august), there are operators standing by 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. people from plaplaya participate here; the night shift gets money, the day workers work for food: US government surplus donated to the project. this is the project involving the community - nearly all of the 80 families in plaplaya partake somehow.
there is also on-site technical assistance; lauri boxer and her husband ethan macomber are the peace corps team currently assigned to the region. lauri is the assigned turtle project "assessora" - a kind of administrator. for some people this is an excuse to order people around, which is really what you have to do, if you want to do things (or be frustrated trying). either lauri has had good training, or she is still idealistic; when i first saw her in action, she was decidedly rocking back and forth, sitting up laterally in a hammock at the head of the little beach bungalow - home of the project. she was listening to adolfo and two other members of the committee bemoan the absence of others. who's talked to them? let's have a taller (meeting, workshop) where you guys can share what's bugging you. okay, this Saturday. at her house? in the bungalow. next order of business, there's a report due. there's no funding for next year, and some of the people feel left in the lurch without confirmed support for the project. mopawi and donors need a report, with estimates for next year. lauri wants them to work on the report with her.
as i watch, each of their dodges and complaints and excuses (and they are litanous), is met by laui's pragmatism. she is unflaggable - not getting bogged down in the gossip and griping, but still compassionate and listening. eventually she convinces them to go along with her plan of coworking. later i will hear that it mostly fell through - no one told anyone else to show up - but she was unphased, and regathering the troops to attack report writing again.
evaluating your own labour and presenting it to a larger audience is a skill cultivated in college. it's not the way people down here are used to thinking. writing is not something they are used to doing. most all of these folks don't have education beyond the sixth grade.
what lauri proposes is certainly an exercise in patience. she will have to be more than just an expert on ecotourism and environmental education, she will have to facilitate their learning process. because that skill of writing is exactly what they'll need for the future: if adolfo wants to have more turtles, more nests, more vigilantes, more tools; he'll need more donors, more experience, more communication skills.
lauri has other ideas for the project. she doesn't have much background in biology; she comes to the project, at the age of 23, having written her college thesis on indiginous ecotourism in costa rica. she gets fired up about environmental education here - since she's arrived in early July, they've had over 800 schoolkids come from along the coast, finger neonatal baulas, dig up expired eggs, receive lectures on turtles life and birthing cycles. lauri hopes that the kids that visit the turtle project today will be the volunteers of tomorrow. her plans include more on site protection for the turtles; that's the kind of stage they're at now - the kids tromp around the nests, the pick up and big kids threated little ones with air paddling baula babies.
it's part of being more conscious of visitors - lauri wants as well to train the workers on the turtle project to be better hosts. when she was new to the job, she started a guest book for the people that were already stopping by, and requested a small donation of support. already in one week, the farm raised 160 lempiras: that's a few flashlight batteries. in the future, the egg scouts can bring visitors out on night walks. this is already happening on turtle farms in costa rica - visitors pay some to help the project for a short time; participatory tourism, ecotourism.
visitors visit the local garifuna culture as well - plaplaya is a locus for some garifuna tradition, hosting a punta dance week long grand fete in july. whether stopping at a pulperia for a coke, or staying longer at a hospedaje, visitors to the turtle project have already begun to increase the tourist revenues of the town; more resulting jobs.
soon the idea is to export the project across the coast - from palacios to platano. once the operation is operating smoothly, plaplaya becomes a training center for other turtle projects.
right now, the largest problem with the turtle project may be those pursestrings. in the hut on the beach the voices raised in unison to decry late checks, and late food-pay. mopawi responds that they don't have their reciepts and reporting down in a timely fashion. for example, mopawi could send the budgeted funds to the treasurer at the beginning of the month, and have them distribute the pay; but there's not that level of responsibility and infrastructure. everyone in the community would know who had the money, and there's no such thing as banks.
the farm currently runs on donations. the operating costs are around $7000. currently, the british embassy and USAid are the major supporters - mopawi channels their money and offers their expertise. lauri is helping the project to apply for grants; when they learn to write proposals, she thinks they'll be more independent.
the project is asking for more money: adolfo wishes to work year round (he is currently paid only during the turtle egg gestation period), and they want to expand the facilities to accomodate more visitors, and develop educational materials. they need mopawi's expertise and reputation to attract experts and large private environmental donors; they have lauri's pragmatist patience, and adolfo's scientific zeal.
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