Community Puts Conservation First
The Earthwatch Community Fellows program helps locals get actively involved in our expeditions, enabling them to conserve the habitat in their own backyards. It builds and nurtures trust between the scientists and the community—an invaluable step that can go a long way in fragile environments.
Community Fellows Pilar Bernal (right), Allan Castillo (Left) and Jonathan Abellan (standing at center) log data with Lenin Oviedo (sitting center)
Community Fellows in the “Sweet Gulf”
One such fragile environment is Golfo Dulce, a rainforest-framed patch of ocean on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. This rural area in the Osa Peninsula—population 17,000—is still relatively untouched by major tourist attractions, but that’s set to change. A plan for a luxury marina is currently in the works.
In 2013, 16 local people joined our Safeguarding Whales and Dolphins in Costa Rica expedition to find out exactly what the costs of such development could be. With support from Earthwatch’s Community Fellows Program, Dr. Lenin Oviedo, who leads this project, recruited budding high-school biologists, university scholars, local entrepreneurs, media personnel, and government officials to help him learn about the whales and dolphins that depend on Golfo Dulce. He reached people who have the power to shape environmental policy in the area, as well as people who will be directly impacted by these policies.
Oviedo, a marine biologist from Venezuela, leads a team that collects data on humpback whales, spotted dolphins, and bottlenose dolphins in Golfo Dulce.
The geography of this ecosystem lends itself perfectly to scientific research. The gulf is small (750 square kilometers) with a wide variety of seascapes. It has a deep inner basin that is connected to the Pacific Ocean through a shallow corridor, which restricts water circulation.
Earthwatch volunteers help record whale and dolphin behavior.
Oviedo says, “All these characteristics allow the population [of dolphins] to settle in and establish a diversity pattern that is very interesting. When you leave Golfo Dulce, you see very different marine fauna—pilot and sperm whales, other oceanic dolphin species.”
The Dangers of Development
Golfo Dulce is a foraging habitat for spotted and bottlenose dolphins and a critical nursing and courtship area for humpback whales. The main threat to this important habitat is the unsustainable coastal development of properties like luxury hotels and marinas.
Plans to build a luxury marina on Golfo Dulce are in the making, and Oviedo fears the impact of this development on whales: “If you prevent a mom and a baby from establishing a proper area for nursing, you are preventing the population from growth,” he says. The results could be even worse for the gulf’s bottlenose dolphins: “We believe that the [entire] population of coastal bottlenose dolphins in Costa Rica is found in Golfo Dulce, so we believe that if we wipe out the population for coastal bottlenose dolphins, we wipe out the native population for the entire country.”
Coastal development also threatens the livelihoods of people living in the area. Locally run whale- and dolphin-watching tours rely heavily on Golfo Dulce’s rich wildlife. If wildlife declines, they're out of a job. A luxury marina could also hurt people who depend indirectly on wildlife-based tourism. As Oviedo puts it, “Do you think that the old lady selling empanadas can compete with Subway or McDonalds in the luxury marina?”
Involving community fellows in his research helps Oviedo work toward balance. “The idea is not to put a stop to coastal development,” he explains. “We want to put both coastal development and conservation into a serviceable framework. If we can conserve the critical habitats, we are guaranteeing that the communities are going to survive.”
Building Community with Earthwatch’s Help
“Half of our team is local people,” says Oviedo. Many of his research collaborators hail from towns on Golfo Dulce, including co-scientist and ace wildlife photographer David Herra-Miranda and boat captain Taboga, a well-respected local entrepreneur. Oviedo says that during boating incidents on the gulf, people turn to Taboga (who he calls “the great-grandfather”of Golfo Dulce seafaring) for help instead of the actual coastguard. “He’s a very important ally as a community fellow. Everybody knows him; everybody loves him.”
Marcos Loaiciga, alias “Taboga”
With support from Earthwatch’s Community Fellows program, Oviedo has not only brought in people who already understand the importance of the Gulf’s diverse wildlife. He’s also reached influential Costa Ricans who might never have gotten a first-hand glimpse of threats to the gulf’s natural world otherwise.
When these fellows take a boat out on the gulf, they see fishermen, tour operators, small hotel owners, and others who need the gulf’s cetaceans for their businesses to thrive. “If [these fellows] feel like their community members are earning an income through this research and are protecting the local area while they do so, that is a very powerful message,” he says. “The research is producing information to preserve what it is theirs.”
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