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Indigenous Colombians shun turtle meat to save dying species

by Staff Writers
Punta Agujas, Colombia (AFP) Nov 3, 2010
Indigenous Wayuu people living on South America's northernmost tip are dropping their age-old tradition of eating turtle meat as a main protein source because the reptile is dying out.

"This really is rejecting the culture of my ancestors," 72-year-old Olegario Choles told AFP. "I grew up eating turtle, and raised my kids on the money I make hunting them.

"But now the turtles are scarcer and scarcer. The nets come back empty," he said.

"The time has come to save them, in order to save ourselves," conceded Choles, the leader of the Wayuu on Colombia's impoverished La Guajira peninsula, one of the poorest regions in South America according to the website of The Wayuu Taya Foundation, an NGO helping the Amerindian group.

Choles, standing next to his canoe, watched as a group of local children released 200 Caguama turtles, also known as Caretta or Loggerhead sea turtles, though all six kinds of sea turtles native to the region are endangered.

This mass release took place at a beach on Bahia Hondita, one of the outcomes of months of negotiations by hunters, restaurant owners and cooks who all agreed it was time to take turtle meat and eggs off restaurant and home menus.

Some efforts are being handled by volunteers. Selected by the community for their understanding of the task, one group will make rounds at local beaches three times a day to monitor nests and protect baby turtles from natural predators.

Other volunteers will visit local restaurants that serve turtle soup -- often for about 12 dollars a bowl -- and try to persuade them not to serve the dish, to help save the species.

But it is not all easy, in a region the website of the Wayuu Taya Foundatiion, a non-governmental organisation helping the Amerindian group, says is one of the poorest in Latin America.

-- 'Dramatic situation' --


Lina Baez, an environment analyst at the multinational coal concern Cerrejon -- which sponsors the campaign -- said "the Wayuu eat the meat of almost all the animals in the area, yet changing their customs is a major effort and requires reaching deals with them."

The ethnic group numbers about 430,000, according to The Wayuu Taya Foundation website which said about one-third live in Columbia and the rest in Venezuela, though migration between the two countriesis common.

Baez said turtle catchers, who agree to stop catching the sea turtles, are offered compensation of about half what they would get for selling turtles to local restaurants. In addition, funds are channelled to programs that benefit their communities, such as helping schools or libraries.

"Only one out of 100 hatchling turtles makes it to reproductive age due to their animal predators, including humans," Baez explained.

"This is a really dramatic situation that led us to warn the indigenous people that they need to either change their traditions, or the species will die out."

Gabriel Bustos, an environmental management expert with the mining concern, says local children have embraced the educational campaign aimed at them with gusto.

"Wayuu children are starting to use their influence to have turtle meat taken out of their diets. They refuse to eat it and back it up with a conviction that is really surprising," said Bustos.

Environmental groups have been supportive. "It is really moving to see former turtle hunters and their children working to safeguard a nesting place for an adult so that she can lay her eggs and the hatchlings can make it out to sea," said Maria Claudia Diazgranados.

A biologist with the oceans program at Conservation International, Diazgranados said the drive to get Caguama turtles off local menus has made some progress. Yet local artisans remain keen to use the turtle shells for crafts, and need an alternative.

Indeed all along the Caribbean coast, locals and tourism businesses have long used the turtle shells to make jewelry and other crafts to sell to visitors, which can also lead to indiscriminate hunting.

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