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by Patricia Baum Grupo Tortuguero’s Tenth Annual Conference (GT10) in Loreto this past January 18-27 was a landmark for the grassroots turtle conservation network. Apart from celebrating ten years of struggles and triumphs in Baja’s coastal fishing communities, and hosting the 15th annual meeting of RETOMALA, the Latin American consortium of turtle specialists, they invited The International Sea Turtle Society (ISTS,) the prestigious worldwide organization of scientists, academics, field biologists, indigenous peoples and volunteers to also hold their 28th annual meeting in Loreto. It was a great honor to host a conference of such magnitude and prestige. One merely had to step back and look at the diverse group, many who had come halfway around the world, to appreciate the significance of this gathering. All of Loreto welcomed the visitors with open arms, clean streets, friendly taxi drivers, a wide range of hotels, and a generous look-the-other-way attitude toward room occupancy. Speedy service in selected restaurants made it possible to enjoy a delicious hot lunch and make it back in time for the tightly scheduled afternoon presentations. Rain didn’t dampen the mood of over one thousand attendees who arrived by plane, bus, and car, filling the cobblestone streets and plazas of this historic pueblo. The GT10 conference began with an opening speech from founder, Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D., considered the catalyst holding this loose, diverse group together. “J” as he is known, prefers to give credit to Baja Californias’ fishermen and their families who he has embraced and included in his vision. “We envision sea turtles fulfilling their ecological roles on a healthy planet where all people value and celebrate their survival. We empower people and their communities to conserve sea turtles, inspiring a revolution in our relationship with the ocean. We accomplish this by building a diverse conservation network to expand knowledge, develop innovative solutions and share them widely.” J. rode a tandem bike around Loreto, waving to all as he traveled sustainably from event to event. It was almost eleven years ago on a sultry July afternoon that J. jumped out of a beat up 70’s International Scout on Cerritos Beach in Pescadero and informed me that I lived on an endangered sea turtle nesting beach. A seed was planted in my mind that summer day; if there really were turtles nesting here, then people needed to stop driving on the beach and something had to be done about all the garbage littering the beach and dunes. J. visited many coastal communities that year and in subsequent years, his success was based on taking the time to connect with fishermen and their families. What he planted back then took root and became Grupo Tortuguero. The harvest is reaped every time a child experiences the joy of seeing a live sea turtle in the wild. As a GT member since 2003, I know many fishermen, community members, local and international biologists and young people who represent Baja California Norte and Sur’s fishing communities. They are a generous and hospitable bunch. I know I will always be fed (undoubtedly fresh fish) and put up in any GT house on the peninsula, and I extend the same “mi casa es tu casa” invitation to them. The network goes beyond hospitality; emails circulate announcing specific projects and invitations to local festivals. Members help when mega-projects threaten a community’s natural resources; safety in numbers clearly has it advantages in good times as in times of trouble and strife. This year’s GT conference advance message sent via e-mail by the festival’s co-organizer, the San Diego based NGO Pro Peninsula, was simply: bring your own mug and water bottle; leave an invisible footprint in Loreto. Recycling bins were everywhere and participants were instructed on how to recycle in México, very different from the U.S. and Canada, by recycling coordinator Cecelia Fischer. A solar- powered trailer was parked outside the event’s various venues and when it did show, the sun powered laptops, modems, projectors, coffee pots and tea urns. Participants walked between the sports arena cum auditorium and the two central plazas, brandishing festival t-shirts and speaking Spanish, English, French, Italian, and Portuguese. They ate in local restaurants, slept five to a room, absorbed the “buena onda” (good vibes), and deliberated until late in the night about their collective passion to save the world’s sea turtles. One of the goals of GT has been to expand horizontally, and twenty- five community-based groups from the Mexican Pacific coast and Gulf of California states of the Baja California Peninsula, Sonora, and Sinaloa are now represented. Part of the responsibility of each group is to present their year’s work via PowerPoint, photo slide show or video. My favorites are the orally delivered inspirational messages, often given by someone who has never spoken in public. Many have brought the house down describing their community’s struggles and triumphs with humble sincerity. This year’s conference theme was Native Oceans, “honoring indigenous communities, their proximity to natural environment and their close cultural ties to sea turtles.” GT has a long-term relationship with the indigenous community Comcaac, known to outsiders as the Seri Indians of Sonora, an autonomous community whose traditional lands are on the central coast of Sonora near Bahía Kino and include Isla de Tiburon. Reptiles are significant, specifically the green and leatherback turtles in Seri culture. Since 2005, the Comcaac’s presence at GT conferences has sought to merge biology with indigenous practices; honoring thousands of years of sustainable living and looking to Comcaac elders for direction in managing scarce coastal resources. This year, thirty-one Seri came to GT10, from iPod and cell phone wielding youths, to elders in traditional dress, presenting a four-day ceremony in Loreto’s Plaza Salvatierra. Hundreds watched intently as the multi-generational Comcaac celebrated, which includes passing on traditions to the younger generation. In sharp contrast, later in the week a Comcaac youth presented a video featuring shots of Seri life juxtaposed with scenes from the successful tour of a Seri rock band in Mexico and in the U.S. This new generation of Seri will use modern technology to disseminate their message and we will continue to look to them for leadership. My first GT meeting in 2003 was a one of the most inspiring events I’ve ever attended and I’ve come back every year since then to recharge my batteries after a year of intense field work. It is difficult for a casual observer to grasp the essence of Grupo Tortuguero except to say the people who stand in the shade of its large multicolored umbrella have dedicated their lives to bringing the sea turtles who feed and nest in the coastal waters of Mexico back from near extinction. www.grupototuguero.org www.propeninsula.org
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