Linking hawksbill and leatherback conservation with community benefits at Chiriqui Beach
by the World Wildlife Fund
Chiriqui Beach in Bocas del Toro province, Panama, is historically considered to be the most important nesting beach in the Caribbean for hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata).
The dramatic reduction of hawksbills at Chiriqui Beach and throughout their entire range was mainly due to hunting, particularly to supply the international trade in tortoiseshell. Nesting has declined 98% since the 1950s.
The hawksbill is currently listed as a critically endangered species by IUCN. On the other hand, the presence of some three to five thousand leatherback nests (Dermochelys coriacea) on Chiriqui Beach every year makes this the second-most important leatherback nesting site in the Caribbean after Trinidad.
Chiriqui Beach is part of the Damani-Isla Escudo de Veraguas Wetlands Reserve, a protected area of approximately 24,000 hectares designated by the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous territory, which includes coral reef, tropical rainforest and mangroves.
The natural resources of the Chiriqui Beach region are important assets for the development of two Ngobe communities, Rio Caña and Rio Chiriqui, located at opposite ends of the beach, which decided in recent years to protect the marine turtles.
In its first two-year phase, this project aims to consolidate the conservation and recovery of sea turtles at Chiriqui Beach, by linking conservation efforts with improvements in the livelihoods of their custodians.
The Ngobe community sees in their natural resources, including the marine turtles, a tourist attraction, but at the same time they are concerned about the negative aspects of uncontrolled tourism. In response to this concern, WWF and partners are facilitating an informed conceptualization of the kind of the tourism that the community wishes to receive.
The approach includes organizing visits to other sea turtle tourism projects, capacity building in aspects related to the operation of ecotourism and the preparation of a feasibility study and business plan.
There is currently no tourism to this locality.
In addition, the project seeks to secure the regular monitoring and protection of the sea turtle populations that come to nest, begun in 2003 by the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (www.cccturtle.org) through permanent community participation.
Thus, this social initiative includes conservation, research and natural resource management tasks. It involves strengthening community organization and preparation of a participatory plan for the conservation and development of the natural heritage associated with the sea turtles of Chiriqui Beach.
After having acquired the informed consent of the local communities, personnel from CoopeSoliDar (www.coopesolidar.org) are leading the design and coordination of workshops with the local stakeholders, to create a work plan that reflects everyoneís knowledge, visions, interests, values, commitments and roles.
Equity will be the ruling principle, in the participation and the preparation of a conservation and development plan, as well as in access to the benefits the initiative might generate.
The alliance between WWF, Caribbean Conservation Corporation and CoopeSoliDar intends for this local conservation and development model, whose cornerstone is the sea turtles, to generate pertinent lessons for other coastal communities in Latin American and the Caribbean.
The social component of this project is funded by the Manfred-Hermsen-Stiftung.