While Costa Rica’s land conservation efforts are exemplary, its seas are among the most contaminated in the region and its coral reefs have been depleted over the last twenty years despite the efforts of leading technical experts who directed massive government investments into marine conservation. Omar Rodríguez has demonstrated that community fishermen—until now major polluters of the sea—can become its most effective protectors by introducing important new actors into this maritime drama: Local teachers and children. Omar has achieved demonstrable success in one region of Costa Rica and is spreading his approach through ten different Latin American countries, as well as the rest of Costa Rica.
The New Idea
As a marine biologist involved in earlier government projects to save the seas, Omar saw that the missing ingredient needed to improve the deteriorating marine environment was the involvement of coastal communities and fishermen. He identified local schoolteachers as a means to educate the community and promote practices, both on land and in the sea, to protect the ocean’s marine life and coral reefs. He translated the complicated technical description of the problems into practical, common sense explanations that he explained to primary school teachers in coastal towns. The teachers incorporated this material into their curriculums and began to incorporate reading about the sea into their daily classes, use seashells in math class, and introduce class projects about the sea. As teachers became more committed and children learned more, they gradually became important new actors in their communities, promoting healthier practices and opening new dialogues with their families and local fishermen. Omar holds festivals in the communities to celebrate the best student projects and teaching techniques, which broadens and deepens the communities’ recognition and understanding of the issue and has helped spread his ideas to neighboring communities.
Government officials noticed the groundswell of local support and began sponsoring these innovative school and community programs more substantially. In response, enthusiasm has grown and communities have begun to clean their beaches, implement more sanitary practices to reduce seawater contamination respect fishing regulations, and mitigate the harvest of undersized clams. Eventually, many ecosystems in the Gulf of Nicoya began to show signs of improvement.
By converting the local community members and fishermen from substantial polluters to protectors of the environment, Omar has proven that community involvement is a critical component in reversing marine life degradation. Furthermore, Omar has planted the seeds to spread this approach to ten countries in Latin America.
Although Costa Rica literally means “rich coast”, the government and citizens of Costa Rica have historically turned their backs on their coasts and seas. Despite Costa Rica’s long Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, 80 percent of its people live and focus their attention on inland areas. Government investment and education have focused on Costa Rica’s protection of its forests and parks, now a benchmark for progressive environmental practices and positive results. Nearly 27 percent of Costa Rica’s inland areas are officially protected in adherence with international agreements. Meanwhile, Costa Rica has ignored its deteriorating marine life. For example, since only 1 percent Costa Rica’s marine areas are formally protected, 80 percent of its fish have died or disappeared in recent decades, turtles have completely disappeared and the dolphin population has been reduced by 50 percent; the remaining dolphins have dangerously high levels of chemicals in their bodies. The coral reef, one of the largest in Central America, has been dying despite major government investment twenty years ago, an effort that was constructed by leading technical experts and won major prizes for its sophisticated technical approach. The failure of that flagship project and a recent study showing that the coral reef is in a terminal stage of death has proven that traditional technical approaches to marine protection have failed.
While part of the problem is that the pollution and destruction of the seas is literally underwater and therefore, not visible, there are other major problems. First and foremost, the local community and fishermen have ignored technical recommendations and continued to pollute the seas—their fishing practices have led to dramatic declines in marine life. Having technical experts exhort the community to protect the seas and explain the impact of their destructive practices on marine life did not change behavior. The experts said they tried but “it is easier to work with the dolphins than with the community.”
While experts have continued to study and analyze the problems, no new solutions have appeared in the past twenty years and the seas have continued to deteriorate.
Omar, a trained and experienced biologist, participated in one such unsuccessful project, and became convinced the community had to become part of the solution and not the problem. Omar has a unique ability to translate obscure, scientific information into practical, common sense explanations that many people understand. However, he decided this information would be more credible if it came from local teachers than from yet another technical expert. He began teaching the teachers about the sea and worked with them to translate his information into course material that primary school children could understand and discuss. In 1998, he formed Edumar (Education about the Seas) on a shoestring budget to turn teachers and students into the promoters and protectors of the marine environment.
Omar held over 100 hour-long workshops with interested teachers. Next, he reached out to coastal teachers of math, art and literature, and within a few years, more than two thousand schoolteachers in Costa Rica’s three major coastal regions had incorporated the sea into the classroom. The school children, supported by their teachers, became important actors, as they would ask, “Daddy, why are you going fishing today if it is out of season?” or “Mommy, why are you and your friends collecting baby clams that don’t have a chance to grow up?” The teachers took the lead in turning education into new behaviors through school projects that involved the community.
Omar then began to institutionalize his progress. He held festivals in each coastal village of the Gulf of Nicoya to celebrate the best student projects and best teaching techniques and to create enthusiasm among the community. He also spread his work to other communities via the teachers, their workshops and annual Sea Camps Omar held. Omar organized discussions between technical experts and the teachers on a regular basis so they could understand and learn from each other. In 2002, the Ministry of Health formally sponsored his program and later the Ministry of Education officially approved his program and incorporated it into the national education system. Edumar has made knowledge about the ocean part of the Costa Rican education system.
In the Gulf of Nicoya, clam harvesting began to change, over-fishing declined, marine waste dumping dropped, and sanitation practices improved. The teachers and students sponsored projects involving the community to clean the beaches and nearby everglades and there is now clear evidence that major ecosystems within the Gulf of Nicoya have begun to improve, even though the overall health of marine life in the Gulf is still threatened.
Edumar’s strategy is to remain a small organization, but to have a network of 10 to 15 core organizations that support them in addition to hundreds of schools and thousands of participating teachers and students. They now have strong core institutional partnerships, strong financial assistance from the Ministry of Health and Education, and Omar has begun to involve local government officials into his program by having the government provide use of government buildings and installations so that Edumar can set up Education and ecotourism expositions or workshops to promote healthy marine practices and provide a new source of income for Edumar.
Omar began spreading his idea throughout the Americas four years ago and has already established a network in ten countries, extending from Chile to Oregon. He approached existing local organizations involved in marine education, which were usually led by technical experts. He brought his Costa Rican teachers to these meetings, began teacher exchanges three years ago and has already convinced program leaders in Chile and Peru that using teachers as new environmental leaders is a strong strategy.
Omar’s emerging track record of success in Costa Rica, combined with the failure of technically driven and expert-led projects to protect the seas throughout Latin America, is beginning to prove that using teachers as catalysts for proactive community involvement in the protection of the seas is a powerful and timely idea.
While Omar was born and raised in San Jose, the inland capital of Costa Rica, he has always lived with one foot in each of two different worlds. From an early age he loved the sea and his hobbies were surfing and scuba diving. In school, he was a star athlete but also a science enthusiast, especially when it came to underwater worlds. During university, he studied biology and worked on various marine projects after graduation, even though marine biology wasn’t recognized as a full-time profession and lacked well-paying jobs outside of academia.
Omar knew about the major project undertaken in 1985 in the Cahuita reef on the Caribbean coast which started with such high hopes and that won a national prize for a leading biology professor, but he witnessed its failure and the now irreversible decline and death of the reef; Omar wanted to be involved in a project that would be successful. He joined a team designing a project in the Gulf of Nicoya led by the private sector and key environmental COs but he soon saw that it would not be successful without community involvement. He argued in vain for the project to adopt a stronger and deeper community focus, but his ideas were ignored and the entire project was eventually dropped. Omar knew he couldn’t walk away from his work, for which he had been preparing himself since high school, so he decided to start Edumar in 1998. Edumar has become Omar’s life project and he will continue to expand in Costa Rica and replicate throughout Latin America for many years to come.