By Michaela Mendygral
Sand continues for miles into the distance. Everything surrounding me seems to be a vibrant shade of blue. The open sky stretches over me while the never ending ocean glistens in front. However, I’m not here to simply admire the beauty of the beaches along Nicaragua’s west coast. Rather, there is a group of us here to learn and hopefully help Nicaragua preserve the beaches and their inhabitants.
It is a Thursday in mid-March. As I arrived at the beach in Poneloya I was so taken aback by the beauty of the natural land that I did not at first notice the garbage also there. However, Santos Contreras did. He started walking and picking up items as he went. Garbage along beaches is not an issue specific to Nicaragua, rather it is a global issue. Yet, it is people like Contreras who look to make a difference, no matter the magnitude.
This trip has emphasized the need for me to really see issues that surround me. Often, we choose to look away and not notice things that are less than pleasant in society. Keeping ourselves naive to issues does not make us better citizens, rather it breeds indifference. A lack of action and a lack of caring can ensue when the public looks away rather than taking action. This is an issue I see in America quite often. Many Americans walk past the homeless on the streets, not giving them a second look. We don’t acknowledge that child with a disability or help that injured animal on the side of the road. None of these things are “pretty” to look at. We do not want to deal with some of the difficult issues that face us because they are more easily ignored.
However, I was amazed at how several of the people I met in Nicaragua are eager to make a difference where they could simply look away.
The natural resources along the Pacific coast of Nicaragua have traditionally provided various jobs for the community. And they remain necessary, especially now when there are so many people in the country seeking sources of income. People will fish, harvest oysters, or sell turtles and turtle eggs for quick income. However, all of these things have an environmental impact.
Santos Contreras shares this information with us before we walk to the beach. Contreras has little education, about a second grade equivalent, and does not make a lot of money. However, Contreras saw an issue within his community. He was aware of the impact people were having on sea turtles. While the decline in turtle populations is a global issue, Nicaraguan beaches are some of the most common beaches for sea turtle to lay their eggs on. Contreras explained to us how when turtles mature and are ready to lay eggs of their own, they often return to the very beaches where they hatched to lay eggs once they are 8 or 9 years old. Unfortunately, turtles would become caught in fishing nets, killed for their shells, or their eggs would be taken from where they were buried to be sold as a snack. Contreras considers himself a fisherman, and he will until the day he dies. So, he became aware of these issues through the practices of people of his own trade.
Now, Contreras works with several other men to change some of the activities that are occurring on these beaches. Contreras has developed a system to protect the mother turtles and the eggs they lay. Sometimes, this requires taking turns staying up all night. During the period of time that the turtles come to the beaches to lay eggs, the men keep watch. When a turtle comes to lay her eggs, they are buried by Contreras’ group in burlap bags for safety. They cover the eggs and place them into a grid system so that they know where each set lies. People will come to take the eggs if they are not watched over, Contreras says. This is a source of income for many uneducated and unskilled youth. Contreras’ group understands this and still want to help their people. They offer the poachers rice and beans as an incentive not to take the turtle eggs. After about four to eight weeks the eggs will be ready to hatch. Contreras will check to see if the eggs are ready to be unburied by sticking a single finger into one of the grids in the sand, and when they are able to feel a shell, he knows the turtles are ready to be released into the ocean.
The work Contreras is doing is nonprofit. Instead, his only source of income is his job working at a hotel restaurant doing a lot of grunt labor. Yet he still finds the time and energy to work with several other men to preserve the turtle eggs and maintain the mangroves, another important element in the areas ecosystem.
Contreras understands the importance of the mangroves. He plants trees in the area to help the rest of the ecosystem thrive.
“The vision is always to teach the children,” he said. “[This way] they can learn how to preserve the eggs from the turtle for posterity and how to preserve the forests, so they can start learning that if a forest is ruined, everything dies.”
Unfortunately, some of the hard work Contreras and the men he works with do goes to waste. When we spoke with Julio, an older man that Contreras works with to protect the mangroves and the turtle eggs, he told us about some of the challenges facing the group.
“Some people were given this land to harvest the oysters and then they sold the land [for commercial purposes],” he said. “And that is not right because that land was not meant to be sold.”
The plot of land Julio was referring to had been reforested by his group with the help of some foreigners and the support of environmental agencies in Nicaragua. Julio had to watch all that work go to waste when the land was sold. As he told the story, Julio suggested that government officials may have been bribed to approve the sale.
“Of course everybody wants to preserve the environment, but it is the government who makes the decisions here,” he said.
Perhaps this is why so many people have helped Contreras and his group to pursue their efforts. Nicaraguans have given the group money to carry out their vision and this has allowed them to purchase the necessary materials for some of their other projects.
The group of men also work to change some of the fishing practices. A fisherman himself, Contreras saw how sea turtles would become trapped in fishing nets. Unfortunately for a lot of species these fishing nets lead to a decline in population numbers. However, measures can be taken to prevent this, such as using different fishing nets. The safer fishing nets are made so that they will not trap sea turtles or harm them. The netting is small and black in color, preventing the issue of “ghost nets,” where sea turtles often become entangled because the netting is clear in color with large holes their fins often get stuck in. Many other small fisheries are using lights on their nets to prevent sea turtles from becoming bycatch.
One of Contreras’ other projects involves the practice of breeding fish in barrels. This has been a method used by people who cannot readily fish in their area but are still looking to develop their own food source. Contreras had big blue barrels set up where he would place the fish.
Contreras is also looking to grow his efforts. In an effort to find more money for his endeavors, Contreras has built two ranchos where he hopes to sell food and beverages on the beach. The ranchos are large and beautifully built with palm roofing. Contreras has already started to develop his vision of the ranchos and has slowly been adding things to them. There is already a fridge and hammock in place with a small bathroom to the side. It was clear that Contreras still had a bit of work to do of this project and perhaps could use a business model. However, when you put everything into perspective you cannot help but to be in awe of what this man has done.
The last issue Contreras looked to tackle was the garbage. Not only is the garbage along the beaches unsightly, it impacts the sea turtles greatly.
The simplest way to prevent human impact on aquatic life is to reduce waste, but in Nicaragua that is an especially tough challenge. Garbage and the lack of resources to manage it is a national problem that has hit León especially hard. In the city, which produces 300 tons of garbage a day, the local government has purchased additional trucks for garbage collection. But the beach areas continue to be neglected.
So Contreras, with the help of organizations including Quinnipiac University and Alianza Americana, created signs to place along the beach. The signs were a bright blue and beautifully depicted. They were written in English and translated into Spanish with various warnings. The signs asked people to not litter, watch their kids, and to be mindful of the current. Many signs were carefully placed in noticeable locations throughout the beach.
Contreras took great care in securing the signs and making sure they could be visible to any beach-goer. As we walked along the beach Contreras picked up any rubbish he saw, including plastic waste , broken signs and pieces of glass. It’s a common problem on beaches everywhere. However, the difference here was that Contreras noticed the garbage--one of the issues affecting his community--and looked to do something about it.