Historically, people have viewed economic growth and environmental conservation as being at odds with each other. Our project proposes a different perspective. We believe that sustainable livelihoods can co-exist with conserving natural resources, and that the most effective people to implement these initiatives are those who rely on the environment the most. People and the planet can, and must, co-exist, and our project seeks to re-establish a natural balance in the ecosystem, where people take only what they need and are invested in the sustainable management of their natural resources.
This project seeks to maintain traditional livelihoods that depend on the viability of the coastal ecosystem by placing communities in positions of power and decision-making over their own resource management. We work with local, grassroots organizations that are at the forefront of community organizing, youth empowerment, and women’s leadership in conservation. Through a multi-faceted approach that places women and youth in central roles, we aim to conserve dwindling sea turtle populations and promote sustainable alternatives to environmentally destructive practices.
This project specifically targets sea turtle populations that nest along the beaches and brackish inlets of coastal El Salvador. These include the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill, Eretmochelys imbricata, along with the Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), Green (Chelonia mydas), and Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea). All four species are included in Appendix I of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), meaning they are species threatened with extinction.
Sea turtles are considered keystone species, a species which an ecosystem depends on to maintain a proper biological balance. The loss of such a keystone species would result in drastic changes to the ecosystem. As keystone species, sea turtles play an important role in both ocean and land-based ecosystems. They keep the population levels of other species in check, including jellyfish and sponges, which helps maintain biodiversity and balances the complex ocean food-web. Nesting females improve nutrient-cycling processes on beaches and provide a food source for an array of flora and fauna. Sea turtle grazing on seagrass beds maintains the overall health of this delicate ecosystem. The conservation of sea turtles is not only essential to a healthy ocean and planet, but also to the sustainable livelihoods of communities that rely on them for tourism revenue. According to a World Wildlife Fund survey from 2009, tourism initiatives around sea turtle conservation bring in at least three times as much revenue as the sale of turtle products, including eggs.
Unfortunately, sea turtle populations across the globe are under threat. Facing overwhelming pressure from the illegal egg trade, destructive fishing practices, habitat loss, and a lack of environmental education, sea turtles found in Central and South American waters are on the verge of extinction. Sea turtle populations and their seasonal nesting habitat face continued threats from climate change, deforestation, pollution, large-scale agricultural development, and overexploitation of natural resources. The persistent socioeconomic conditions within many Salvadoran coastal communities exacerbate these threats, and sea turtle egg poaching continues to serve as a primary and important secondary source of income for many individuals and families. In addition, a reliance on nondiscriminatory local fishing techniques that employ explosives and industrial chemicals continues to intensify mortality rates observed among endangered sea turtle species.
This project will mitigate these threats observed in several key communities on the Salvadoran coast. By directly engaging sea turtle egg poachers and fishermen in the conservation of resident sea turtle populations, and providing greater access to alternative livelihood techniques, this project will increase local capacity and attitudes toward conservation, as well as improve incentives for communities to protect the natural habitat they rely on for long-term survival.
The practice of collecting sea turtle eggs from nesting beaches and selling them for human consumption has long been an economically important livelihood for many generations of traditional egg collectors. Since 1998, the sale of sea turtle eggs has been banned in El Salvador, but for communities facing extreme poverty and with no alternatives available to them, the practice continues to this day as a thriving black market has emerged that trades in illegal sea turtle eggs poached from protected beaches. This practice has contributed to the marked decline in sea turtle populations and, along with harvesting sea turtles for their shells, loss of critical habitat, and unsustainable fishing practices, the sea turtle populations in El Salvador have declined dramatically, with several species on the brink of extinction.
By employing former sea turtle egg poachers as sea turtle conservationists, we will be able to maintain traditional livelihoods, increase environmental awareness, and help protect a dwindling species critical to the coastal ecosystem. Additionally, promoting alternative income-generating initiatives that are less harmful to the environment will ensure the long-term sustainability of the program. Placing women and youth in leadership roles will not only increase agency among under-represented segments of society, but also ensure greater community participation in conservation activities. Through the empowerment of women and youth and by establishing local infrastructure and a knowledge base of sustainable conservation techniques, this project will provide local communities with the tools necessary to affect long term conservation behavior, supported by viable livelihood options in the local fishery as an alternative to sea turtle egg poaching.
EcoViva partners with three grassroots organizations in Central America, the Mangrove Association, the Organization for Youth Empowerment (OYE) and the Barra de Santiago Women’s Development Association (AMBAS). OYE provides youth leadership training, AMBAS provides women's empowerment experience and the Mangrove Association provides sea turtle conservation and sustainable fisheries knowledge. EcoViva brings all three organizations together and provide expertise, field staff, oversight, program evaluation and financial accountability to ensure the success of this project.
EcoViva, along with marine biology and conservation researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, conducted beneficiary feedback by interviewing 17 members of AMBAS and an additional six male community members involved in varying degrees with AMBAS and their current conservation initiatives.
Interview participants expressed that the projects conducted by AMBAS have raised the level of environmental awareness in the community of Barra de Santiago and contributed to more conservation-minded attitudes in this region overall. Interviewees expressed their concern for the state of their local natural resources and how the exploitation of resources is directly linked with the lack of steady sources of work.
They were in agreement that the community needs capacity building workshops and education initiatives that encourage women and men to learn and utilize alternative skills that will take pressure off of the natural resources, especially sea turtles. Additionally, interviewees and subjects had ideas for better ways to utilize tourism in the community. These ideas included guided eco-tourism experiences and educational signage that would provide jobs and give tourists from outside of Barra de Santiago a better understanding of the estuary's status as a Ramsar Wetland Site of International Importance and a greater respect for local wildlife.
Below are some quotes from the feedback sessions:
“If the town can rely on business from tourism rather than [overexploiting] natural resources, this will be better for both the environment and the people.”
– AMBAS member Evangelina
“In the last two years the fishing yield has decreased creating more poverty and lack of work. More resources should be dedicated to monitoring fishing practices and raising awareness regarding resource depletion.”
– AMBAS member Evangelina
“Overall the hatchery is an asset to the community because they see how it is helping the sea turtle population and allowing the tortugueros collecting the eggs to earn a stable income. Before people only took the eggs for money, now they are collecting them for a cause.”
– AMBAS member Dora
“People view sea turtle conservation as a benefit to future generations… we won’t see the impacts, but our grandkids will and they will be able to know the turtle.”
– AMBAS member Dora
“I wish the hatchery could be open for longer than the six-month season. Sea turtles continue to nest even in the off-season. I would also like to see hatcheries on all nesting beaches in the country.”
– AMBAS member Dora
“AMBAS supports the whole community of Barra de Santiago. They’re the ones who supported us and led the process of establishing these sustainable resource use groups and protected areas [for crabbing in the mangroves].”
– Oscar, fisherman and sea turtle egg collector
AMBAS member Veronica told us that, “If there were no hatchery there would be no turtles.” and, “They [the community] wouldn’t have turtles or mangroves if it weren’t for AMBAS projects.”
“Women have a unique understanding of the issues in their community and have the willpower to join together to make a difference and share the work.”
– AMBAS member Rosa
“My vision for the future includes more capacity building workshops for women and young people so the community can learn skills and create more jobs that do not rely so heavily on exploiting natural resources. I would like to see more jobs in tourism, and for this we need to conduct more cooking classes and workshops to learn how to make handicrafts and souvenirs. I envision a future where people do not have to sell sea turtle eggs, but can instead depend on other stable sources of work, such as ecotourism, for their livelihoods.”
– AMBAS member Rosa
“I hope to see more young women join the organization to keep it going in the future.”
– AMBAS member Rosa
“I remember sea turtle populations being more abundant in the past now sea turtles wash up dead on the beach regularly. I know that unsustainable fishing practices are causing the deaths. This type of behavior will not change until people have access to steady work. I hope in the future AMBAS will be able to offer more projects for people to participate in that will lead to sustainable work.”
– AMBAS member Ana Maria