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Saving The Leatherbacks… And Costa Rica’s Parks
By Jacob Scherr

Last night I spoke with Randall Aruaz, the winner of a 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize, about the challenges of conservation work. Randall is from Costa Rica, a country which in many ways has done a lot to preserve its natural treasures and has created an extensive system of protected areas.

But even in what is considered by many to be a green paradise, there are still growing pressures including mining, excessive coastal development and expanding pineapple cultivation. That is why last year NRDC designated the entire country as a BioGem. In recent months, my colleague Carolina Herrera has taken the lead for NRDC in focusing on the dangers to one of Costa Rica’s marine species, the critically endangered leather back turtle.

The leatherbacks, or baulas as they are known in Costa Rica, are the world’s largest marine turtles weighing up to 1,100 pounds. Every year they swim across the vast Pacific Ocean and between the months of October and February, the females lumber onto the beaches of Costa Rica’s Las Baulas National Marine Park to lay their eggs. These extraordinary creatures have been swimming in the ocean for more than100 million years.

Development near nesting beaches can be deadly for marine turtles. When young turtles hatch they must dash to the safety of the water guided by only instinct and the reflection of the moon. Nearby lights and sounds are disturbing and can lead them astray, making them easy prey for predators. Adult turtles trying to navigate to the nesting beaches are also at risk of becoming disoriented.

Last summer we learned of a looming threat to Costa Rica’s leatherbacks. The Environment Commission of the Legislative Assembly was considering legislation to downgrade the Baulas Park. The proposed bill would allow development on the sensitive lands near the nesting beaches --- endangering the future of the leatherbacks whose numbers in the eastern Pacific Ocean have plummeted by 90%.

In response to the proposed bill NRDC’s BioGem Defenders sent the Environment Commission more than 16,000 messages in opposition to the plan to downgrade the Baulas. Many other environmental groups and concerned citizens also wrote to voice their deep concern. Late last year it appeared that support for the bill was waning. Yet the current Administration, which is leaving office in two weeks, recently listed the bill as a priority for a special session of the legislature. Alarmingly, some legislators have come out in support of the bill.

So NRDC is once more asking our BioGems Defenders to call on the Environment Commission to reject once and for all the downgrading of the park.

Down grading the park is contrary to the advice of Costa Rican public institutions, scientists, and community associations. International and Costa Rican environmental NGOs, including Randall’s group Pretoma, the Salvemos Baulas campaign, and many others have spoken out against this bill. Thousands of concerned citizens in Costa Rica have also voiced their concern, including former Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco who today will be at the next session of the Environment Commission to oppose this bill

Downgrading the Last Baulas National Marine Park would have dire consequences for the leatherbacks. It would also be the first time Costa Rica lowered the status of any of its national parks. This could open the door to further weakening of the park system and place even greater pressure on Costa Rica’s prized biodiversity. This action would damage Costa Rica’s reputation as one of the world’s environmental leaders.

Instead of reducing protections for the leatherbacks, the current and future Costa Rican government must work with local stakeholders to strengthen the park lands. Conserving biodiversity is no easy job, but Costa Rica has shown in the past that with enough political will and perseverance it can be done. Now is the time for Costa Rica to once more demonstrate it is a true environmental leader and act to save the leatherbacks.

Jacob Scherr is NRDC Director, International Program, Washington, DC


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