The Sea Turtle and the Gold Miner: The story of grassroots sea turtle conservation on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula

Thick jungle lines the dusty roadway as it leads deep into the rainforests of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica’s remote southwest. From the small town of Puerto Jimenez, the road traverses narrow ridgelines and shallow river fords. After an hour and a half’s drive, those who venture this far will see a small wooden sign on the left reading COPROT; Tortugas De Osa. Follow that road a few hundred meters, and a cultivated patch of beachfront land appears. Bustling with activity, an open-air two-story house, a gravel floored kitchen, outhouses, and a decorative hut filled with piles of multicolored sandals, buckets, bottles, and buoys all stand in stark contrast to the wild and uninhabited beachfront. This is the campus of Comunidad Protectora de Tortugas de Osa (COPROT). 

The time is just past 8 a.m., and small groups of staff and volunteers begin to filter into camp from the beach. They are covered in sand, carrying clipboards and plastic buckets. Fresh off their morning beach survey where they monitor and protect the nesting activity of sea turtles, this multinational group of environmental activists, researchers, volunteers, and locals are on the vanguard of an international movement of grassroots conservation work created and funded not by governments or large organizations, but by impassioned individuals who see that many of our world’s wild places and species are on the brink of collapse if action is not taken immediately. 

The Osa
Far to the southwest on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, the Osa Peninsula extends out into the ocean like a great hand. The 700 square mile peninsula is home to over 2.5% of our planet’s biodiversity. Today, it is a mecca for eco-travelers, nature enthusiasts, researchers, and those looking to reconnect with a simpler time. But, a few decades ago, the Osa was a lawless and wild place. Due to its geographic isolation, it served as a de facto penal colony, a place where the young republic of Costa Rica would drop criminals to fend for themselves throughout much of the early 20th century.

Soon after, as the legend goes, these marooned criminals discovered gold in the Osa’s rivers, leading to a gold rush. People, many of whom the type who were unable or unwilling to seek traditional forms of employment, flocked to the Osa to dig and pan the rivers in search of gold. Much of the peninsula’s land was homesteaded and cleared for farming and cattle. But, by the 1970s, Costa Rica was undergoing the first phases of its green revolution, and commercial gold mining was banned by the Costa Rican government. Over 70% of the Osa Peninsula was then set aside as Corcovado National Park. 

The Costa Rican government then began the systemic eviction of people living within the park boundaries, uprooting families and settlers who had homesteaded there. Many of these people continued to dig and pan for gold in the rivers inside and outside the national park, and much of their food was sourced through illegal hunting of wildlife, including sea turtles and their eggs. 

Today, this practice has been greatly reduced through the arrival of eco-tourism as an alternative source of income for locals, but there still exists a number of people who depend upon gold and poaching to survive. This is where COPROT’s unique conservation model differentiates itself from similar organizations. Instead of alienating and ostracizing local gold miners and potential poachers, COPROT gave many of these people jobs protecting sea turtles and their eggs. By creating a regular source of income centered around protecting sea turtles, COPROT is working to create economic incentives to protect these endangered animals.

A Unique Mission
Founder and Project Manager Laura Exley, who cofounded COPROT in August of 2018 alongside biologist Katya Barrantes Salas, when asked what inspired her to start the project, said, “[Katya and I] identified that there was already turtle conservation work being done on the peninsula, but it was kind of all over the place, not very consistent or sustainable. And there were lots of people looking for other forms of income, especially people that were involved with gold mining.” 

Then in early 2018, another organization decided to pull the plug on its own sea turtle project, effectively turning over a half-built sea turtle hatchery to the community. But, without proper funding or training, the community’s efforts to maintain an ongoing sea turtle conservation and hatchery project were quickly in a state of jeopardy.

“It was actually a number of people from the gold mining community that approached me,” says Exley. “Gold mining is just not that profitable anymore, and it’s hard work and dangerous, and I think they were looking for something else.”

Exley had spent the last three years working with the international organization Frontier on a sea turtle project on the Osa, and their work had been noticed by the community. 

With a hatchery already in progress and individuals from the community expressing interest in working on a sea turtle project, “everything just kind of fell into place,” says Exley. 

Within a few months, permits were applied for and received, and work began in earnest to complete construction of the hatchery and begin the hard work of collecting data on the nesting sea turtles of this very ecologically important stretch of beach.

“The mission of the project was to provide training and employment opportunities to individuals in the community who would otherwise be exploiting natural resources, or those who were vulnerable to getting to that point… So, lower-income families and people with limited resources,” says Exley. Local staff was trained in how to conduct beach surveys for nesting sea turtles, collect science data, and in extreme cases, relocate vulnerable nests. 

Shortly after, the call for research assistants and volunteers went out across the internet. And soon, there were young people from all over the world, Americans, Costa Ricans, Colombians, and British, all living and working on the camp full time, alongside the local staff. Some of whom were the very same gold miners who had initially approached Laura Exley about the project’s creation. 

Today, there are about a dozen staff and volunteers living full-time on camp. Though the face of the project centers around sea turtle conservation and the protection of nesting beaches, the heart of the mission of COPROT is the lifting up of the local community by providing educational and employment opportunities. For locals who work with COPROT, this experience can easily translate into future employment opportunities with other conservation projects or in the eco-tourism industry. 

Project Field Coordinator Sergio Andreas Aguilar Rivera, who joined the project back in 2019, says, “Sea turtles are an umbrella species. So, by protecting them, we also protect the greater ecosystem. But it is the work with the community that I find most rewarding. Many of those we work with were either unemployed or mining gold before working with us.” 

Born in Colombia, Sergio has become one of the longtime staffers on the project. With aspirations of working in conservation full-time and eventually pursuing a master’s degree in biodiversity conservation, the project provides him with crucial field experience. Sergio also coordinates directly with local farmers about sustainable farming practices to help further protect the Osa’s fragile ecosystems. 

A Delicate Existence
As 2020 rolled around and the pandemic reared its ugly head, COPROT faced enormous uncertainty. The project depends upon tourism dollars to fund much of their work by providing sea turtle experiences to interested tourists. But, in April 2020, Costa Rica closed its borders, and tourists disappeared from the Osa Peninsula. With over 25% of Costa Rica’s GDP coming from the tourism industry, this decision would exact an enormous economic toll throughout the country.

Casey Chen, an American-born research assistant who just completed her three-month contract with COPROT says, “Ecotourism dollars are what we use to feed our staff, hire more locals, and purchase the materials we need for the project.” As those dollars disappeared, the project was forced to downsize its staff to weather the storm. 

Costa Rica has succeeded in limiting the number of deaths and infections from COVID to date, but the vulnerable ecotourism industry has suffered greatly. Many lodges and guiding outfits have closed permanently or sit empty awaiting the return of American and European travelers. And for organizations like COPROT, whose mission is to protect and research Costa Rica’s unique ecosystems, the shuttering of the borders could have been a death blow. 

Luckily though, COPROT has been the gracious recipient of a number of generous grants and donations that sustain their important work. But, the future will always be uncertain for a solo organization working without government or large organizational support. And though the project could not go on without donations and grants, these funds do not cover all the costs to operate nor to employ as many locals as there could be. 

There has also been an ecological toll from Costa Rica’s economic woes. As businesses and conservation organizations have been forced to cease operations due to the lack of tourism, many locals who were employed by these lodges, conservation projects, and guiding outfits are suddenly out of work. As a result, the number of people vulnerable to being forced back into the exploitation of natural resources to survive has grown significantly, making the work of organizations like COPROT as important as ever. Without opportunities for education and gainful employment, many people will be forced to poach and scavenge for meals and dig for gold. This will wreak havoc on the local species and potentially undo much of the regrowth and rebalancing of the ecosystems that have occurred since Costa Rica’s green revolution began in the 1970s. 

Until the world is ready to return to the wild jungles of Costa Rica to experience nature at its purest, the country’s eco-tourism industry will hang by a thread, which will continue to have enormous impacts upon the conservation of places like the Osa Peninsula. 

The Takeaway
As a writer, nature photographer, and someone who has worked in conservation, it has become the human stories within the greater conversation about wildlife conservation that captivates me most. From the comfort of cushy chairs in climate-controlled buildings in the developed world, it is easy to vilify those who are seen as poachers, illegal gold miners, or exploiters of natural resources. But, what is often overlooked is that those who engage in these activities in Costa Rica and other developing countries often do so out of desperation. Sure, there are those who seek to profit from the killing of rare species for ivory, skins, and rhino horn, but would these people be forced into a life of crime if they had better economic and educational opportunities? 

As the human population continues to grow around the world, conservation is more and more an economic issue. It is only through the lifting up of a local community through education and economic opportunities that true conservation work can begin. Because, as long as people are starving, they will do whatever it takes to survive, even if that includes the killing of an endangered species or the destruction of a riverbed in search of gold. 

This is the essence of COPROT’s mission, to protect an endangered species and its habitat by educating and providing economic benefit to the local community. More nesting sea turtles on the Osa’s beaches equals more tourism money and a better life for the community. It is part of COPROT’s mission to teach this correlation to the local community and how to protect these crucial nesting grounds. 

Field Coordinator Sergio Andreas says, “It is our goal that someday the local community can run the project’s coordination and that [the project] completely funds itself.” 

Want to Help?
If the conservation of our world’s wild places is important to you, always try to engage in ecologically sustainable tourism. This will help by bringing money into the communities that live in these ecosystems and by incentivizing the further conservation of these ecologically important regions. 

For anyone interested in making a donation to CORPOT, you can do so by visiting their website.

For those interested in seeing the sea turtle project firsthand, I encourage you to join me and Backcountry Journeys in Costa Rica, where we will visit COPROT and have our very own sea turtle experience! This can include night surveys for nesting adult sea turtles and hatchling releases in the morning. I hope to see you there!

Ben Blankenship

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com


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