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Turtle Tumult -- Nicaraguans Seek To Kick Out Environmental Group

New America Media, News Feature, Shana White Posted: Sep 06, 2006

Editor's Note: When a U.S. environmental group tried to get Nicaraguans to stop eating sea turtle soup, things went OK at first. But now local activists, fed up with what they call a lack of communication, are trying to end the conservation program. Shana White is on the staff of Silicon Valley De-Bug.

Many countries have an array of foods that a visitor may find either a delicacy, exotic or just plain weird to eat. For example, in certain parts of France and in the Cayman Islands, crabs that live in cemeteries and sewers are cleaned with grated coconut and then eaten on special occasions. In China, shark fin soup is a popular dish. And in Pearl Lagoon, on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast, sea turtle fin soup is a dish that has been eaten for many years. But now, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a U.S. environmental group, is trying to get Nicaraguans to stop.

Central America countries such as Costa Rica have stopped the capture of turtles. In Nicaragua, the distribution of turtles is illegal, but catching and eating turtles is currently legal in the keys and on the coast of Nicaragua, because it is recognized by law that turtle is a staple of the indigenous people's diet.

The Wildlife Conservation Society made a proposal to the coastal communities of Nicaragua to develop a limited season in which to catch turtles so they can have time to spawn. The community in Pearl Lagoon accepted their plan. The only thing they wanted from WCS was some line of communication on how the limitations were affecting the spawning. They also wanted to know how WCS was being funded. When that communication stopped, the people in Pearl Lagoon starting organizing, not to save the turtles, but to get the Wildlife Conservation Society out of their towns.

I traveled to Nicaragua to visit my family, who live in the small towns of Pearl Lagoon. The region is mainly Afro-Caribbean and filled with hard-working people trying to earn a living any way they can. Even though Nicaragua is a Spanish-speaking country, on the Atlantic, the first language is a broken English that has a Creole sound.

Electricity is very scarce in the area, and since there is no running water, people use the wells. Although it is a humble little place, they have an international perspective. The radio, which plays when the electricity comes on in the evenings, has a show that talks about "American imperialism" and "President Bush's corruption."

Since Pearl Lagoon is on the coast, seafood is not only a good way for people to make a living, but also a main source for food. When the season is right -- June or July -- turtles are wanted in many people's soup pot. In Pearl Lagoon, turtles are keeping people alive.

A few years ago, the Wildlife Conservation Society, concerned with the potential extinction of several species of sea turtles, created the Sea Turtle Conservation Program, which works with Nicaraguan community organizations, police and elected officials. The program brought in employees and held presentations on how catching turtles would possibly lead to extinction.

In Pearl Lagoon, despite the local economy's dependence on turtles, the community understood the concern and decided to work with WCS. My aunt Velma, who is part of a village community board, took part in the WCS workshops when they began. She said she didn't mind the workshops, even if the American organization had a tendency to state the obvious -- "They were telling us how there are alternatives to eating turtles -- like fish," she says. Everything seemed to be working well, Velma says, until WCS starting becoming very distant, and not reporting back on the plans. When pressed to see if the number of turtles increased as catching decreased, the WCS was silent. The community also wanted transparency on the funding of the organization, because community members were being asked to buy food from WCS fund-raisers. The WCS would not respond to the requests.

That is when the community began organizing to get the organization out of their region. My aunt Velma, who is also the town's seamstress, became a central organizer.

"We started holding weekly meetings to strategize on how to kick out WCS." Velma says. "In order for WCS to leave, we knew we needed everybody involved in the Pearl Keys." She and other community members are currently doing outreach to towns all over the Keys to get more support for their effort to get rid of WCS.

Based in New York, the 111-year-old Wildlife Conservation Society has a mission of sustaining wildlife around the world. Here in Nicaragua, the WCS building itself tells of the separation from the local community. WCS has a gated-off building located in the middle of town with an emblem of a Sea Turtle on the front gate. It looks a lot more affluent than the houses surrounding it. Inside, they have an office typical of America, not Nicaragua. They have the only computer I had seen in the area. Most of the employees walking in and out of there building are white. Their presence is extremely noticeable, because there are very few white people in Pearl Lagoon to begin with.

When I contacted WCS, Stephen Sautner, who was in charge of media relations for international programs, he would not comment on the situation in Pearl Lagoon.

As for the community in Pearl Lagoon, they are still planning how they are going to deal with the sea-turtle program. But if they succeed in getting Wildlife Conservation Society to leave, which is still the plan, Pearl Lagoon can be a big example of the large power of small communities.

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