Karlie Galarza: IDEAS, Guatemala

Last summer, I had the pleasure of going to Oaxaca, Mexico, to study geopolitics and Spanish for two months. I studied at a local organization called Servicios Universitarios y Redes de Conocimientos en Oaxaca A.C. (SURCO). We had classes about politics, resistance movements, environmental justice, history and Spanish classes. The program was about 8 weeks long, with the last two weeks dedicated to research. The coursework was broken up into equal parts classroom time, and equal parts field trips. Often we would learn about an event or topic, then travel within Oaxaca to where the event took place. We were also taught how to properly interview people, observe events, and how to formally do participant observations. All of this was to help prepare us to choose a research topic, and then conduct our own research individually. I chose to do my research project over sea turtles and ecotourism on the coast of Oaxaca.
I knew I wanted to research this topic after our field trip to the coast. We went to a local pueblo for a couple days, but after that we ditched the professors and went to the beach for the weekend! While we were there, we went to a sea turtle release. The organization protects eggs until they hatch, then tourists can pay 100 pesos ($5 US dollars) to release the baby turtles. After we watched that, I started to wonder if this type of organization is really helping the sea turtle population. I decided to research ecotourism and the sea turtle population. Not only did I get to research a fascinating topic, but I also got to spend eight more days on the beautiful coast.
Once our two weeks started for our research projects, a fellow student and I journeyed down to the coast once more. We were both studying ecotourism, so we ended up helping each other with interviews and research. Our first stop was Puerto Escondido to revisit the sea turtle release organization called Vive Mar. We were able to get in touch with the head of the sea turtle release organization, Hugo. He invited us to help him search for sea turtle eggs one night. We scoured the beach until one in the morning, but our vigilance paid off! We found eighty-four eggs that night! Hugo showed us how to find the nests, collect the eggs and the “turtle camps” where they are kept until they hatch. He also gave us a lot of information about sea turtles in general. The next day we went back to the sea turtle release to officially observe the tourists, as well as interview another volunteer, Kike. Kike told us that there has been a spike in the sea turtle population since the organization opened eight years ago. It’s easy to track, because female sea turtles go back to the beach where they hatched to lay their eggs. He said that they are having more and more sea turtles return each year. After hearing this information, I started to feel some hope that maybe this wasn’t just about money after all.
Our next stop was about an hour away, in the sleepy little beach town of Mazunte. Mazunte has a dark history with sea turtles. Until 1990 it was legal to capture sea turtles for their meat, skin and shells. That market basically depleted the sea turtle population. Then in 1990, the federal government stepped in and banned the trade of sea turtle products. Mazunte had a huge sea turtle processing factory and most of the town worked there. Once that was shut down, many people were out of a job. The government funded a sea turtle center to provide alternative work for people, as well as help the sea turtles recover. We went to tour this center, and found it to be more of a turtle zoo. There were a few sea turtles in tanks and many kinds of land turtles in tanks outside. This wasn’t what we were expecting, but we decided to interview a worker to gather more information. After closing, we went back to interview Miraye. Miraye has been working at the center since 1995. She reiterated that the center was a way to help people that lost their jobs because of the ban. The center also has educational programs designed to inform people about endangered turtles and the harmful effects of plastics. She agreed with Hugo and Kike that the population has started to bounce back.
After interviewing both organizations and researching the different effects of ecotourism, I concluded that the sea turtle population is benefiting from ecotourism.
The program allowed me to complete this amazing research project, but it also allowed me to do so much more. I got to go shop at local markets, learn how to negotiate with taxi drivers, tour mezcal distilleries, and so much more. This trip was truly life changing, and I’m so grateful for the Honors College for making this opportunity happen.