From turtle predators to anonymous heroes – Responsible voluntourism in Mexico
In the community of Escobilla (Oaxaca, Mexico), the beach is 25 km long and is the favorite nesting spot for two species of sea turtles in danger of extinction: the green and the leatherback turtles. This beach is also important for the olive ridley sea turtle, which is almost constantly spawning. It sounds exciting, right? Well… not so many years ago at this same place, around 30,000 sea turtles per year were hunted to provide a livelihood to the local community. This was the reason why many of the families of La Escobilla admit that not so long ago they were turtle predators. However in 2002, the government declared the beach a Protected Natural Area, promoting its conservation but also eliminating the livelihoods of many families – without giving them any alternative source of income.
In fact, the beach was monitored 24 hours a day by the federal government, forbidding any public use, including leisure. However, this new use of the land did not end up protecting the turtles as there was not a proper conservation programme in place. The community was discouraged but decided to join efforts and create a cooperative to set up an ecotourism project that would become a coherent conservation programme for their resources. Using some external support, they were able to reinvent themselves and now have an activity to be proud of. In words of Sóstenes Rodríguez, one of the community members: a predator turned into an anonymous hero. “We started the cooperative with 97 members”, he explains. “We were provided with a public grant and built cabins, designed a canoe tour in the lagoon that leads to the beach and applied for the turtle release license, that arrived 3 years ago”. Memories are still bright in Sostenes’s eyes. Things have changed a lot since those beginnings. Proof of this is that by the end of 2017, only 13 members of those initial 97 continue supporting the project.
Today there are still poachers, even within the community itself. However, with the efforts of many members of the community and the daily night patrols, they have drastically reduced the number of hunted turtles. “It is harder now, because we have to fight against the most stubborn smugglers”, points out Sostenes, “but our goal is to reduce this number to zero in the near future.” The hardest time for the community are the mass nesting events, or as they call it “las arribadas” or “arribazones”. During a period of one week around the full moons from May to February, more than a million turtles each season come to nest in the beach where they were born, creating a natural phenomenon unique to only a handful of spots in the world. During these weeks, the safe breeding area runs at full capacity, and staff are busier than ever trying to provide safety for as many eggs as possible. This is very complicated to do for them, so they always search for volunteers who want to stay at the community and help in the night patrols and daily turtle release activities. Indeed, this is a great opportunity for voluntourism in Mexico!
“The human being has the power to change”, Sóstenes adds. “I did a lot of damage to nature. I was a predator of turtles, crocodiles, iguanas… I also had to leave my house at the age of 7 because I became the head of my family and had to bring money home. But I think it is never too late to change if you really want to give back to nature what we took away from it in the past”.
This posts was a contribution from our trusted local tour operator in Mexico. Do you want to get involved? They offer a 13-day sea turtle volunteer trip with the Escobilla community in Oaxaca every year. The next one runs from August 20th to September 1st, and you can visit our Mexico Holidays page to enquire.
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