Farming Company Poisons Turtle Wildlife Refuge – Harasses Pretoma Volunteers
(San José, Costa Rica-August 5, 2010). Aerial applications of a powerful poison inside the Caletas-Arío National Wildlife Refuge, Guanacaste on July 20th and 31st by the farming company Agropecuario Caletas S.A. have lead to widespread fish kills. The chemical applications also threaten one of Costa Rica’s most productive turtle nesting beaches where 4 species, including the critically endangered leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), lay their eggs and pose serious health risks to sea turtle volunteers living in the refuge.
The poison application on July 20 began at around 7:00 am, and lasted for about an hour and a half. During this time a small airplane, or “crop duster”, made repeated trips above the refuge’s wetland and adjacent agricultural fields, releasing a white cloud of chemicals.
The poison was then picked up by the morning offshore breeze and blown into Pretoma’s volunteer camp and onto the beach. “There was a strong poison smell and most of the volunteers ran to get t-shirts to cover their noses and mouths” said Costa Rican Ana Ventura Pozuelo, the project’s coordinator. The next morning the camp’s volunteers awoke to find the beach at the mouth of the Rio Bongo littered with dying fish (some up to a meter long), crabs, and shrimp. Ana and the rest of the volunteers, the majority of whom are biologists, immediately took pictures and water and tissue samples of the animals. They also noted how vultures and crocodiles were feasting on the carrion, thus ingesting the poison themselves.
Ana and her team then called the Costa Rican Environmental Ministry (MINAET) and told officials about the poisoning. MINAET employees arrived a few days later to investigate but promptly told the volunteers that turtle volunteers were not accredited in Costa Rica to take biological samples. Officials also warned the team of sea turtle biologists that another spraying was scheduled and that the volunteers would be notified of the exact date and time.
Concerned about the health risks of another poison application, volunteers continually called Minaet but received no more information before the second application on the morning of the 31st. “We were worried about the chemicals because we didn’t know what it was, only that it was probably harmful to humans because of the way it killed other animals in only a day,” said a concerned and disappointed Ana. “We called MINAET many times to obtain information on the next spraying, but never got an answer.”
Ana was able to take some video of the second spraying and in her shots one can see the poison application and the lingering white cloud. Agropecuario Caletas’ systematic destruction of the Caletas-Arío Refuge has been happening for 4 years. The company’s first strides we to construct barbwire fences inside the refuge to block public access. The company then brought in backhoes and tractors and began plowing, draining, and burning the wetland and surrounding brush to make way for planting fields. To date, its efforts have successfully damaged the wetland to a point where very little water is left to support migrating populations of birds and other animals. Pictures from August 2008 show tractors driving through the water and sucking the life out of the habitat. Ana’s pictures and video from last month reveal no water.
In response to the environmental atrocities, Pretoma filed sute against Agropecuaria Caletas S.A at the Environmental Tribune of the MINAET. In 2009 the Tribune not only ordered the company to pay US$24,000 in environmental damages, but also ordered the damages to be repaired. But Agropecuario Caletas scoffed at this slap-on-the-wrist, never paid the fine, and has since gone about with its plan to destroy the refuge and harass Pretoma volunteers, spraying them with poison if necessary.
Pretoma sea turtle conservation volunteers are a mix of Costa Ricans and international travelers who support the economy of small coastal towns and villages by paying money to protect the region’s beaches. Now, they are being sprayed by poisons by a company that turns up its nose to court rulings and environmental laws. Some of these volunteers have left the project because of the health risks and will take home the message that sea turtle volunteering poses serious health risks in Costa Rica. As for Ana, she was asked by her family to return early to San José.
“This is the message that Costa Rican’s want to send potential tourists and biologists who are thinking about visiting this country,” asked a disappointed Randall Arauz, President of Pretoma. “There are laws that protect wetlands and public health in Costa Rica, but Agropecuaria Caletas S.A. disregards them all, and no official entity seems to be able to stop them”.
Curious Note: Agropecuaria Caletas S.A. is owned by Sylvestre Feichtinger, a US-Austrian Citizen, who also happens to own and operate the “eco lodge” Casa Caletas located nearby the wetlands of the Caletas-Arío Wildlife Refuge. Ironically, he sells the natural surroundings as the main attraction.
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