Community Solutions for Sea Turtle and Coastal Protection

By Eliot Levine

Junquillal Beach in the north Pacific of Costa Rica is a representative example of many places in Latin American and the Caribbean where wildlife and communities are already feeling the impacts of climate change. In 2005, with the support of the community, WWF started the project “Conservation of Pacific Leatherbacks” (in Spanish, Conservación – Baulas del Pacífico (CBP)). The CBP Program includes the monitoring and protection of sea turtle nesting sites, community education and training programs, and the development of flooding maps for the Junquillal area.

In this three part series, Gabriel Francia, Ana Fonseca, and Valerie Guthrie from WWF’s Latin American and Caribbean Program will discuss their efforts to work with communities and integrate the latest climate science and mapping technologies as part of a multi-faceted sea turtle and coastal adaptation project in Costa Rica. A previous entry on ClimatePrep featured a video from Junquillal.

In this entry, Gabriel Francia discusses the community’s efforts to adapt – both for the turtles and themselves.

The community of Junquillal is a small coastal village situated along a strip of land which is home to just 250 people. Despite it’s small size, Junquillal’s beach is one of the most important nesting sites of the critically endangered Pacific Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), as well as Olive Ridleys (Lepidochelys olivacea) and Pacific Greens (Chelonia mydas agassizii), and yet is not under any government protection. Apart from the typical threats of poaching, coastal development, and light pollution, these nesting beaches are highly vulnerable to the changing climate.

By monitoring turtle nests and measuring sand temperature, we’ve shown that on only a few areas of the beach with remnant patches of native vegetation does the sand temperature stay cool enough for nests to survive during the torrid dry season. We were also able to see that after seven years of stability, we lost between 8 and 15 m of vegetation-covered beach to the progressive advance of the sea in the last two years. This was a cause for concern among the Junquillal community, as the continued loss of beach, apart from eliminating turtle nesting areas, would soon compromise infrastructure such as roads and buildings. Meanwhile, a study carried out by WWF showed that the lowest zones of Junquillal are associated with the mangrove forest that lines the coast for a distance of 200 m and along the river estuary that runs behind the village and empties into the sea. Under conditions of sea-level rise, the most flooded area would be in this estuary, on the inland side of Junquillal. An additional vulnerability is that 60% of Junquillal is built on an old sand bar whose highest point is on the coast, a situation that would further increase the risk of erosion and flooding during spring tides and other extraordinary swells.

Rather than shrink from these challenges, the community and the CBP decided to take action. While we continued to monitor the beach to track the changing environment, in 2008 we built upon a socio-environmental assessment and began a process of public outreach and training for Junquillal and neighboring communities. This process culminated in a participatory workshop with everyone from business leaders in the hotel and construction industry to homemakers and CBP staff. Together, they developed an integrated focus on marine turtle conservation, climate change, and community well-being. At this meeting it was agreed to implement a three-year restoration plan for the native coastal forest which was deforested during the last century. In 2009, following various training and strategic planning meetings, a group of 50 community members accompanied by a technical team and government employees, began planting 1,400 native trees along 650 m of the beach. While they protect these trees, the community plans to plant 1,000 more trees in 2010. We’ve also developed a dedicated nursery for native coastal trees and we process organic waste for the production of organic fertilizer to be used in this year’s planting.

Adapting to Climate Change: From Kids to Adults

The turtle nests are now transferred by a group of young people who patrol the beaches (known locally as the “Baula Boys” [Baula = leatherback turtle]) to a nursery protected from high tides and the hot sun with artificial shade. This ensures a successful incubation of the eggs and a balanced sex ratio in the young turtles. Likewise, various groups of students trained by the CBP have developed research projects focused on the planting and growth of native trees, the effect of temperature on incubation, and evaluating the turtle conservation strategies that are applied in Junquillal – projects that advanced to the final round of the National Science Fair. [for more info on education and capacity building, stay tuned for Valerie Guthrie’s piece on ClimatePrep.org]

In another initiative, The Junquillal Development Association (ADIJ) and the CBP are working out a land use planning regime that considers setbacks in areas vulnerable to flooding in Junquillal as well as neighboring coastal communities. At the same time that two contractors from the implementing agency BID-Catastro are drawing up coastal and county regulatory plans for the province of Guanacaste, representatives from the ADIJ and CBP are being trained in the design of regulatory plans and participating in workshops to create such plans. In meetings with the contractors, we have contributed technical information derived from nine years of research to be incorporated into land-use planning. With this contribution, we hope to prevent the negative impacts of the advance of the sea and avoid the ultimate loss of the beaches, as much for the turtle nesting as for people’s enjoyment.

The Junquillaleños’ understanding of the effects of climate change encourages them to take action to reduce the harm caused by these effects such as reforestation and land use planning. The threats to Junquillal are not exclusive to this beach; nor are the methods to deal with them. The search for effective responses to climate change from within the community itself and through a conservation project will make a great difference in the future, and in this sense, Junquillal can serve as a regional model to be replicated in other localities.