The unknown story of Costa Rica
The longer that I am here, the more clear it has become that Costa Rica always has two stories.
One story is the story that the majority of travelers know: the beautiful tropical country full of natural wonders and national parks, whose government is working hard to protect all of its resources. That story is often true, and is as beautiful as it sounds. But there is another story which is becoming more and more real and frustrating to me. This weekend that story kept butting in on my more agreeable story, which I wish were the only one.
My sustainability class left for our field trip at 6 a.m. After a six-hour bus ride we arrived at Playa Ostional, a beach in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
Some people came to Costa Rica to visit the well-developed tourist areas that offer beautiful beaches and a lively nightlife, and have found exactly that. I, on the other hand, found exactly what I had been looking for in this undeveloped nature refuge, called Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre, with a practically untouched beach and mangrove.
I say practically, because, upon arriving we did a garbage pickup along a mile of the beach and collected enough garbage to fill two large garbage bags. When we had our introduction to Ostional later that night I asked why the refuge would be polluted if it is protected, and found out that a lot of the trash washes up from the sea.
That was the other story butting in to remind me that for every place where conservation is very important there are two more places, that tourists don’t visit, where there is a complete lack of education about the importance of proper waste disposal and other environmental topics. I pictured the thick gray trash filled river that runs through San Jose emptying into the ocean and bringing the filth of the city with it.
During the introduction I was blown away by the Ostional community and their simple, sustainable lifestyle.
The Lora sea turtles lay their eggs along the 9-kilometer stretch of beach that is protected under Costa Rican law, and maintained by the community. The turtles come in three waves of thousands at a time, what is called an arrivada, to lay their eggs in holes that they dig on the beach. Before the community was developed in the ’50s, the first wave of eggs was completely destroyed by the turtles who trampled over them during the second and third waves. What the community does is a long process that includes finding the holes, bagging and washing the eggs, then packaging and stamping the eggs to ship and sell all over the country.
They then watch the beach during the second and third waves to protect the eggs from poachers who steal them to sell, and from other animals such as birds and dogs. The eggs are a hot commodity here because they have ten time the protein of a chicken egg and zero cholesterol.
Since the community has started its work, the Lora turtle population has increased drastically.
Every person in the community has a special role during arrivadas, which happens an average of 12 times annually, and they all do other work in the community as well. All members receive full living support, including retirees and those on pregnancy leave. Volunteers are also welcome to come stay in the community and help with maintenance, beach monitoring, and to do any work that needs to be done during arrivadas.
What they are doing was so beautiful to me, I almost forgot there had to be a catch.
After interviewing people in the town who were part of the community, I found that the members seemed to love their lives there and have lots of passion for what they are doing. One 12-year-old boy, Esteban, stood out to me. He attends school and lives in the community and was delighted to answer my questions. He was really well-informed about their missions and the importance of helping the turtles. He said that he wants to be a scientist and help the community in the future. From others, however, I found out that the community has actually clashed with the government over land rights.
The president of the community said that, even though they are doing a service to all of Costa Rica, and the world, they receive no monetary support of any kind from the government. They are fighting to remain on the land, which the government wants to develop for tourism. That was it, the other story. The community was so well developed and important. It is not only helping the Lora turtle populations, but is a lifeline for the community members who rely on the egg trade to support themselves and their families. I couldn’t believe that the importance of what they are doing could be disregarded.
While I left Ostional completely inspired by the community, its mission, and the beauty of Ostional, I can’t forget the obvious government hypocrisy when it comes to nature conservation and social development. With that said, for now, Ostional continues being a beautiful community, and hopeful stays that way for many years to come.