Ixtapilla Turtle Sanctuary
In 1994, the 50 or so families of the indigenous Nahua community who live at Ixtapilla on the coast of Michoacan, near the state border with Colima, decided they wanted to take action to save the turtles whose numbers were declining rapidly. Throughout 1994, they estimated that only about 300 turtles had come to the beach to lay their eggs. The numbers had been devastated because people came to the beach in lorries to kill the turtles for their meat, and take away the eggs which are believed to have aphrodisiac properties. The government had passed a law in 1984 banning the killing of turtles and the consumption of their eggs, but like many laws in Mexico, it was ignored.
This year, the numbers of turtles arriving have been very roughly estimated to be around 150,000. This is an extraordinary success story.
On Friday 19th December, I set off at 7am to visit this community for the second time, along with the coordinator of the course in alternative tourism at the university, his wife and three year old son, and two electricians from the university, who were on board to install in the community’s primary school the fifteen computers we were carrying in the minibus.
As always in Mexico, the journey is a key part of the experience. We stopped for coffee at the first pay-booth on the motorway; then for delicious tacos tuxpeños (steamed rather than fried tortillas filled with either frijoles, meat, potato or pork skin and covered, according to your taste, with chopped raw onion, lettuce, lemon juice, green or red salsas (hot or very hot), at a garage just outside Colima; then to buy lemons because one of the electricians had become car sick; then, when we were near the destination, at a hotel on the small town on the beach, where apart from seeing an interesting cactus pictured below, we had what the coordinator described as the best Michiladas (a mixture of beer, chili powder, ice, lemon, and various other secret ingredients, of which the only one I was allowed to know was a powder made up of the ground up worm that lives in the maguey cactus) in Mexico; and a final stop at the last small town before the community to buy the electrical equipment needed to install the computers. We finally arrived at the community at 12am, having told Gil, the president of the turtle sanctuary we would be there by 10am. Nothing unusual in that in Mexico.No pasa nada.
Gil greeted us with the news that an “arribazón”, a large arrival of turtles to lay their eggs had begun that morning. The turtles arrive at the beach steadily from June through to December, but in this period, there are four or so major occasions when really large numbers of turtles arrive. And we were lucky to be at the community at one of these times.
Fortunately, the installation of the computers went relatively smoothly, and we were able to head off to the beach at 3pm to see the turtles. One of the many remarkable things about the turtles, is that they select this small beach, just 1km long, to come to in huge numbers, and do not go to any of the neighbouring beaches. There were turtles everywhere. Swimming in the sea, coming out of the water, going back into the water, walking up the beach, scooping up sand to deposit the 80-120 eggs they lay. As well as the mature females coming ashore to lay their eggs, (a visit which lasts about 45 minutes) there were recently hatched tiny turtles, making the short but risky journey to the sea, as they try and avoid being squashed by the large turtles, or eaten by the predatory birds overhead. It was wonderful to be so close to the turtles and to witness this event.
Earlier, I had talked to Gil about the history of the community’s involvement in the conservation of the turtles. When I had visited the community before, I had been intrigued by a question. Why did this particular community decide to do something to protect their environment, when many people do nothing, even though they are aware that their environment is deteriorating in important ways, whether that is quality of air in the cities, or species, like the sea turtle becoming increasingly endangered? At my earlier visit to the community, the answer I had been given, was that the older members of the community had been concerned that their children and grandchildren might never again see turtles on the beach.
Gil filled in more details of the community’s involvement in this project over nearly 15 years. When they first started, they received no support from the state or federal government. In fact, at first, the government treated them with suspicion, and soldiers tried to stop them patrolling the beach. Later, they finally received government support, and now the navy help them guard the beach and stop people killing turtles and taking their eggs. They have created an area on the beach, where eggs are taken and carefully protected until the baby turtles are hatched, and then people are invited on certain days to help in the task of ensuring that the bay turtles arrive safely in the sea. There is small charge for this, which provides a valuable source of income for the community.
The key point is that all this work over 15 years has been voluntary, carried out by a group of people who, as is the case with many indigenous communities, are marginalised and exploited. For their efforts now, the 50 people involved in the protection of turtles, who give up their time for six months of the year, receive a total sum of 18,000 pesos from the government. That works out at 60 pesos (about 5 US Dollars) per person per month.
One of the main purposes of my visit was to understand the project better, especially what steps the community wanted to take next. These include extending the work they have been doing as a form of environmental education, where people are invited to visit the community and help in the liberation of the baby turtles. Another possible step is to undertake some form of more organized study and measurement of the numbers and behaviour of the turtles. My plan is to help secure further resources by applying to foundations in England and the US. I have discovered one foundation which seems ideally placed to help, the Rufford Small Grants for Nature Conservation, and to which I will be applying. Anyone reading this with knowledge and suggestions of other foundations or grant-giving bodies, please let me know. Also, if anyone wanted to make a donation, I can supply the details of the bank account which has been set up by the community to receive money.
There is one final point about this community which is important. In 1994, there were about 200 people living in the community. Now there are around 400, made up of about 100 families. One important reason why people have wanted to join this community is that the conservation work undertaken has enabled the community to find additional sources of income to the agricultural activity which is their primary revenue source. Apart, therefore, from the extraordinarily successful conservation of the sea turtle, there has simultaneously been an economic benefit to the community which has enabled it to grow and support its members, thus showing that economic and social development and environmental protection can go hand in hand.