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Community Develops Sustainable Solutions

Today is Earth Day, with its slogan, “Think Globally, ActLocally.” Showing how this can be done are residents ofCuajiniquil, a small community on Costa Rica’s northernPacific coast, just south of the border with Nicaragua.FROM huge factory ships, able to stayat sea for weeks at a time, to trawlers withdragnets that scrape the seabed catching allcreatures in their paths, to individual diverswith spearguns – overfishing in the world’soceans is a serious problem.At national and global levels, manyorganizations are pressing for changes toprotect nature’s biodiversity and the supplyof fish for human consumption. But theproblem also has local consequences – andlocal solutions.The community of Cuajiniquil is anexample. Once, lobsters were plentifuland easy to catch for divers with spearguns,until overfishing caused the lobsterpopulation to collapse. Fish, too, wereplentiful, until more and more boatsmeant fewer fish.For the families dependent on fishing,incomes have been in decline for the past 10years. However, several biologists workingwith the communities here have started projectsaimed at reversing that trend.CUAJINIQUIL, a vacation destinationfor many Ticos, offers beautiful beachesand proximity to two national parks.Located in the northwestern province ofGuanacaste, it is about a six-hour drivefrom San José, and one hour from theprovincial capital of Liberia.The town of Cuajiniquil is midwaybetween two beaches. The beach atJunquillal Bay flies the coveted EcologicalBlue Flag, showing it meets tough environmentalstandards. Cuajiniquil, the otherbeach, is in the process of qualifying forthe flag. One of the pleasant features of thearea is that little trash litters the ground, asgroups of local teens volunteer their timeto try to keep it cleaned up.Just to the south, the Murciélago andSanta Rosa National Park occupies theSanta Elena Peninsula. Santa Rosaincludes a 43,000-hectare (106,000-acre)marine sector comprising islands, coralreef, rock reef and ocean. A conservationarea set aside to allow fish to reproduceand grow, the marine sector is officiallyoff-limits to fishing. Yet fishermen – workingharder and longer for fewer fish – continueto violate the ban. A new law isdesigned to help protect Costa Rica’smarine life and enforce the fishing ban (TTJan. 14, Feb. 18).As in so many parts of the world, theefforts in Cuajiniquil to restore and protectthe environment appear to be in conflictwith the residents’ need to feed their families.However, this community is provingthat sustainable solutions can be developedto serve both ends.BIOLOGIST Frank Joyce, an instructorwith a University of California programin Costa Rica, became interested in thearea through his research here, and hashelped start projects in Cuajiniquil aimedat developing economic alternatives tofishing.These projects involve scuba diving, amariculture project for raising snapper incaptivity, helping local women start theirown micro-businesses, and encouragingyoung people preparing for college.One diving effort involved acquiringscuba-diving equipment and trainingyoung people to participate in underwaterresearch, education and tourism. A localconservation group, Peces para Siempre(Fish Forever) was formed, modeled afterthe Monteverde Conservation League,which owns and manages the Children’sEternal Cloud Forest in Monteverde, in themountains of Costa Rica’s north-centralregion. The Cuajiniquil group used grantmoney to buy an air compressor to fillscuba tanks. Although the training projectwas suspended because of setbacks, it ishoping to start again this year.Minor Lara, a former fisherman, ownsReef del Norte, a business that equipstourists, students and researchers for divingand takes them out to dive sites, wherethey can see and photograph colorful reeffish and black coral. Lara is a member ofPeces para Siempre, and his contacts withJoyce and other biologists have helped himestablish his business. To dive with Lara,call 679-1093 or e-mail Saravia is the coordinatorof the mariculture project. He and JorgeBoza, a marine biologist with UniversidadNacional, are developing a method for cultivatingfish in captivity.The project uses two large, nettedenclosures in Cuajiniquil Bay, where spottedrose snapper are contained, fed, studiedand selected for reproduction. These fishare known as red snapper on menus inrestaurants on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.The project is still in the research stageof developing the best method to raise thespecies organically, without added chemicalsor antibiotics, and currently employsthree local fishermen. The goal is to eventuallytrain and equip 45 fishermen to farmthe snapper for market.ANDREA Watson receives room andboard as a volunteer project coordinatorworking with a group of women and agroup of teens. She helps local women –some single parents, some fishermen’swives – develop micro-businesses to reduce the community’s dependence onincome from fishing.With a population of approximately2,500, the town of Cuajiniquil has a supermarketand a restaurant on the main roadand a few bars scattered in various neighborhoods.However, it does not have otherinfrastructure or businesses to meet theneeds of tourists or encourage their spendinginto the local economy.Agustina Reyes, a member of the groupMujeres Forjando Su Futuro (WomenCreating Their Future), has a story typicalof this area, where few jobs are available towomen. She has two young children andlives with her parents. Her father is ill, andher mother cares for him and the childrenwhile Agustina is working.Until recently, Reyes traveled by busfor an hour each way to work in a store inLiberia, where she earned just over a dollaran hour. Sometimes, unable to afford the$2 round-trip bus fare, she had to spend thenight in Liberia away from her family.Now, she is building a small restaurant thatwill offer food and beverages to tourists,who will be able to eat in her wooded picnicarea or take the food to the nearbybeach or campground.“We want a better future for our children,”said María Campos, another womanin the group. She is starting a handicraftsstore, where she plans to sell locally madeproducts, including her own hand-painteditems.THE beach at nearby Junquillal Bayhas a campground that attracts many Ticosand is crowded at peak vacation times,leaving some would-be campers withoutplaces to stay. Sonya Lechado, a mother oftwo, is using a small grant to developcampsites next to her house in town.When Watson became aware that mostof the women in the group had never gonecamping or traveled on vacation, she realizedthat the lack of experience made ithard for them to know what tourists expectof a campground or restaurant. So shearranged a trip to Monteverde, where moreexperienced groups received the womenand shared what they had learned fromyears of running businesses catering totourists.THOUGH most of the peopleinvolved in these projects have little formaleducation, like most parents, they realizeits importance. Until this year, schools inthe area only extended through sixth grade.Now, two teachers staff a teleconferencingfacility for 70 seventh-graders in thetown’s community center, as part of CostaRica’s effort to make secondary educationmore accessible (TT, Feb. 4). To continuebeyond seventh grade, students must travelto La Cruz and compete for seats in overcrowdedschools there. Often, the cost isbeyond the reach of local families.While attending and completing secondaryschool presents so much of a challenge,going to college is even more difficult.For the first person in a family to go tocollege, it is hard to learn the skills neededfor scholastic success, such as preparing forentrance exams, budgeting money and practicingdisciplined study habits.Watson works with a group of determinedteens in their last year of highschool, providing them with encouragementand the practical know-how to realizetheir dreams. Calling their group JóvenesOrganizados Forjando Su Futuro (YoungPeople Organized to Create Their Future),they are hoping to be among the few studentsin the community to go to college,Watson said.WHEN the students speak of theirhopes, they all use the Spanish termsuperarme, which means improving oneself,not just by earning more money butalso, in a deeper and broader sense,becoming better people.Tatiana Lara wants to study manythings, including literature, theater andwriting. She is currently writing a book ofpoetry. Her sister wants to become a journalist.Another youth, Marvin García,talked about wanting to improve hisEnglish and study biology to protect theenvironment and increase tourism in hiscommunity. Tatiana Espinoza plans tostudy biology because of her love of natureand desire to create a better life for herselfand her family.The students explained that the organizationis teaching them how to be moreresponsible. It is also teaching them how towork in a group, which, as Lara pointedout, is a new experience for people in hercommunity.“Sometimes there are differences,”Lara said, “but you have to learn to workwith them. Every person has ideas, andfrom one idea many things can come.”SOME of the women also commentedon the difficulty of working in a group.Initially, Watson thought the women woulddevelop a business together, but when sherealized that individual projects were moresuited to them, she began to help themthrough one-to-one contacts. With both thewomen’s group and the teen group, shetaught the conflict-resolution and communicationskills needed for future success.She found the teens to be more receptive toworking together.Campos expressed genuine appreciationas she explained that she neverthought she would be developing her ownbusiness. She credited Watson for her supportand her help with resolving problems.To contribute to any of these projects,e-mail Andrea Watson at


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