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Violence plagues Costa Rican conservationists

Poachers are becoming increasingly hostile towards ecologists in the central American nation.

Last updated: 12 Apr 2014 13:24
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Stencils of murdered conservationist Jairo Mora are painted on walls in the city of Limon [Lindsay Fendt/Al Jazeera]

Limon, Costa Rica - The police are late. Dressed all in black and balancing a baby howler monkey on her hip, a frustrated Marielos Morice checks the time on her mobile phone for the third time in five minutes. It's just past 8:30pm, and the police should be here to pick her up for a joint beach patrol.

Located on Costa Rica's Atlantic shoreline, Moin Beach is known as a hotbed of criminal activity. But for Morice, a co-owner of a nearby wildlife refuge, it is also the most important leatherback sea turtle nesting ground on the Caribbean coast. While police patrol for drug runners, Morice will seek out nesting turtles, gather their eggs and rebury them to protect them from poachers.

Morice only let herself half-hope that the police would agree to come. Maybe their compliance would show that Jairo Mora's murder last year had actually changed something.

Mora's murder

Leatherback turtles are increasingly becoming hunted down along Costa Rica's beaches [EPA]

Mora, a 26-year-old sea turtle monitor, had been Moin Beach's most dedicated conservationist, but his commitment to saving as many eggs as possible didn't sit well with poachers. He started receiving death threats, then, in May, police found Mora's naked and tortured body face down in the sand. The eight suspects arrested in the case belonged to a well-known band of poachers.

Morice watches as the clock ticks further past 8:30pm. She listens for the patrol car's horn as the clock strikes 8:45pm, and takes a break to put the baby howler monkey to bed at 9:00pm. Finally, at 9:47, she gives up.

Morice's wait is indicative of a growing problem for conservationists all over Costa Rica. Lacking police support, Costa Rica's park rangers and environmental protectors must face dangerous criminals on their own.

The rising violence has brought the country's internationally renowned commitment to conservation into question, and some activists such as Morice say that, if something does not change soon, Mora's murder may only be the first.

Death threats

More than 500km from Costa Rica's Pacific shores, park administrator Geiner Golfín's crew of 27 park rangers are the only thing protecting Cocos Island National Park from an onslaught of poachers. Each night, at least 18 illegal fishing boats enter the park, Golfín told Al Jazeera. Usually there are more.

There are more attacks than I can count. We are completely unequipped to deal with these situations.

- Roberto Molina, National System of Conservation Area's Workers Union

Along with the coast guard chatter and other official communications, what the park rangers hear most on their onboard radio are death threats.

"They know all ranger's names," Golfín said. "They say they know where to find them when they're off duty. They say they have guns."

Costa Rica's national parks have become almost as dangerous for park rangers as it has for the parks' hunted animals. By sea or land, poachers and hunters don't need to look far to cash in. Endangered sharks are killed for their valuable fins, while scarlet macaws are often trapped to sell in the exotic pet trade. Other animals are hunted for food by the dozens of illegal miners and loggers that can reside in a park for weeks at a time.

Often armed, poachers can present a real danger to park rangers. According to records from the National System of Conservation Area's Workers Union (Sitraminae), last year rangers were attacked with everything from machetes to homemade guns. In one incident, a ranger was tied up by hunters and repeatedly cut with knives.

From his dank basement office next to the parking garage in the Environment Ministry, Roberto Molina, the president of Sitraminae, attributed the challenges to a lack of government support.

"There are more attacks than I can count," Molina told Al Jazeera. "We are completely unequipped to deal with these situations."

Under Costa Rican law, park rangers have no recognised police authority. If a ranger is attacked while on duty and fights back, their case is looked at with the same scrutiny as any self-defence case. If a ranger injures or kills an invader, the Environment Ministry does not provide them with legal representation.

While poachers and hunters could be considered trespassers in national parks, park rangers also have to contend with drug runners. According to park administrators, the incidence of drug trafficking within protected areas is on the rise.

"These narcotraffickers come in with $2,000 machine guns slung over their shoulders," Molina said. "We have small 32mm pistols and no legal right to use them against anyone. We are extremely vulnerable if we run into a group of drug runners, and it happens all the time."

The invasions are taking a toll not only on park rangers, but also the parks themselves. Corcovado National Park, the country's most biodiverse protected area, has seen drastic declines in observed wildlife coinciding with an increase in illegal hunting and mining. Other parks have lost large swathes of land to squatters, hunting encampments and marijuana cultivation.

"There is a general feeling from those close to the parks that they are not being run properly from the protection side," said Alvaro Ugalde, a co-founder of Costa Rica's national park system. "It's just a matter of time before the parks start collapsing."

Costa Rica's 'green image'

The problem extends beyond public land. Even with their limited authority, park rangers remain armed and trained. Outside of Costa Rica's protected areas, lone conservationists are left vulnerable, and violent incidents against them outside of national parks are mounting.

Costa Rica is gaining a reputation as a place where criminals can brazenly threaten to kill, or actually murder non-violent activists while the government turns a blind eye.

- Jeff Greenwald, a researcher for the US non-profit group Ethical Traveler

In 2011 Kimberly Blackwell, a Canadian environmentalist, was murdered after filing complaints of illegal hunting near her home. In the months following Mora's murder, a group of illegal hunters stabbed an Environment Ministry volunteer and - though charges were later dropped due to lack of evidence - another activist said he was shot at after filing criminal complaints against poachers.

The rising danger is starting to affect Costa Rica's green image abroad. In March, the violence spurred US non-profit group Ethical Traveler to exclude Costa Rica from its list of the world's most ethical travel destinations. The country had made the list every year since 2010.

"Costa Rica is gaining a reputation as a place where criminals can brazenly threaten to kill, or actually murder non-violent activists while the government turns a blind eye," Jeff Greenwald, one of the report's researchers, told Al Jazeera.

While no government groups keep numbers on reported attacks against environmentalists, the increase in perceived violence is already taking its toll. Turtle conservation groups across the country saw marked decreases in the number of foreign volunteers entering their programmes, and hotel and tour operators in the Caribbean say they have seen volume decreases as well.

Meanwhile, conservationists within Costa Rica's borders have jumped on the international mood shift to point to what they say is a long-standing misrepresentation of the country's green policies.

"Costa Rica paints its face green to cover up what is really happening," said Mario Buzo, one of the country's first vocal environmentalists and a co-founder of the national park system. "They promote the amount of 'protected areas' we have, and they make us look good without actually protecting environmentalists or the environment, " he told Al Jazeera.

Government response

The Costa Rican government disagrees with that assessment. Following Mora's murder, everyone from the country's vice-president to the vice-security minister characterised the incident as a regional security problem in the Caribbean rather than part of a widespread assault on environmentalists. According to Environment Minister Rene Castro, only radicals were dissatisfied with the country's environmental performance.

"What we have in Costa Rica are a bunch of green crazy guys," he said. "Most people think we are doing a great job, the others are very small groups of people, in the city, who have never done work in the field."

Whether or not Costa Rica's green image is a facade, no-one will deny the fact that the perception of the country as eco-friendly is critical to its booming tourism industry.

"The environment is our fundamental competitive edge," said Leiner Vargas from National University's International Center for Economic Policy for Sustainable Development. "Losing that reputation due to negligence is like killing the goose that laid the golden egg."

While the country's image may hang in the balance, back at Moin, police seem uninterested in making turtle conservation a priority.

"We serve the public first and foremost," said Erick Calderon, the police chief for the city of Limon, which encompasses Moin. "We also need to protect turtles, but that's a secondary priority" he told Al Jazeera.

While there is talk in the capital of making the beach into a national park, nothing will be finalised by the peak of the 2014 nesting season. Turtles are already arriving again on Moin, and without Mora or a security detail, they are largely unprotected.

"Jairo [Mora] was like a son to me and I miss him terribly," Morice said during an afternoon walk down the beach. "But when he died we thought things might change. The worst part of all of this, is that it seems that he may have died for nothing."

Follow Lindsay Fendt on Twitter: @LEFendt

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