A decline in worldwide travel since Sept. 11 is putting in jeopardy Costa Rica's careful balance of preserving biodiversity through ecotourism. Poachers-turned-nature-guides may be forced to return to illegal hunting and harvesting in the country's last remaining wild places.
TORTUGUERO, Costa Rica -- Cesar Padilla used to poach protected sea turtles before he was hired as a tour guide, making more money helping to protect them. Now, having lost his job as a result of a crashing ecotourism industry, "it's become an option again," he says.
Padilla is like others in this small, rural town on the Caribbean coast, where four of the world's eight species of marine turtles nest on the beaches. He depends almost exclusively on the tourist buck to make ends meet. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, however, business has been horrible.
Having seen its banana and coffee industries dwindle in recent years, Costa Rica reinvented itself as a haven for tourists interested in exploring accessible and affordable biodiversity. The country is considered the national poster child for ecotourism.
Protecting the environment while exploiting it for tourists is tricky, of course. "There is no true ecotourism," says Fabrizio Chiodini, a guide at Ecole Travel, which leads eco-tours to Tortuguero, a small biological reserve called Rio Sierpe and other more remote areas. "We bring people in on boats and planes and buses that run on gas and sometimes pollute the air and water."
But the promise of ecotourism convinced the Costa Rican government that preserving the country's natural beauty and biodiversity was important. Instead of exporting its natural resources as decorative furniture or construction material, it invited people to pay and come have a look.
Padilla, hired by the national park service six years ago, is like others in parks around the country who logged and hunted illegally for a living before being essentially bought off by the park service and given guide positions. His expert knowledge of turtles' breeding and nesting habits -- skills learned while poaching -- impressed park administrators. He claims not to have harmed a turtle since he was hired.
"It's an easier living, and I make more money," he says. And what if the tourists don't come back to watch the turtles? "I don't want to think about it, but I'll do what I have to do."
The dilemma of Tortuguero today -- locals' need for survival versus the global need to save wild places and diversity of species -- is a small reflection of a continent-wide problem. Latin America's huge gap between the few rich and a poor majority means the landless and hopeless move continuously outward to harvest forest, beach or jungle.
Since the end of the Central American insurgencies in the early 1990s, huge swaths of regional rain forests have come up for grabs. Peacetime makes roaming about in the jungle safer, timber companies take advantage, and the poor follow on the new roads. Farther south, government corruption and the pressures of poverty mean the Amazon looks more than ever from the air like a moth-eaten carpet, gnawed at the edges and here and there in the middle, no longer a pristine, breathing green lung of the globe.
Places like Tortuguero are special. Only a little distance north on the same beach, for instance, on the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua -- not a popular tourist destination -- hapless turtles are still seen roped under flimsy houses, captured and held as a living food supply.
Currently, Costa Rica's largest moneymaker is North American tourism. About 350,000 come from the North each year and the tourism industry has steadily grown 10 percent annually in the last five years. Officials at the country's tourist board say business is picking up a bit. Tour operators report they have somewhat recouped losses from massive cancellations and layoffs in the weeks following the attacks. But since the New Year, in the height of the high season, foreign traffic is still undeniably low compared to years past.
It's a rough start to 2002, dubbed the International Year of Ecotourism by the U.N.
"If people don't go to see the Eiffel Tower this year, France won't feel the impact that much," says Giovanni Calderon, a public affairs officer at Costa Rica's tourist board. "It's different here."
Chiodini worries about the environment as well, explaining that tourist dollars help fund important national conservation groups and protection agencies.
"That land will have to make money somehow, and if it can't be done through tourism, they'll find a way to do it," he says.
In the mineral-rich Southern Caribbean, U.S. oil companies -- especially Houston-based Harken Energy -- were granted the green light to start drilling almost five years ago. Padilla and others are concerned that if things don't pick up for the tourism industry, there will be greater incentive to sell off more land in the region, 80 percent of which currently enjoys some form of governmental protection.
"You have to look at the larger picture," Chiodini says. "If tourism can't work here, Costa Rica collapses."
PNS contributor Jamie K. McCallum (email@example.com) is a freelance writer currently traveling throughout Central America.
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