Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Progress Towards Protecting La Tortuga Island

CARACAS, Sep 1 2008 (IPS) - A legislative modification would help protect the uninhabited Venezuelan island of La Tortuga, which holds rare Caribbean ecosystems.

Species adapt to extreme conditions on Venezuela's La Tortuga Island. - José Voglar/Fundación La Tortuga

Species adapt to extreme conditions on Venezuela's La Tortuga Island. - José Voglar/Fundación La Tortuga

Venezuela's second largest island, La Tortuga, in the Caribbean Sea, could become a natural preservation area if efforts by environmentalists and lawmakers continue to make progress.

The island “has strategic, scientific, and geographic importance, with a unique and fragile ecosystem, which could be devastated by commerce or tourism activities,” Alberto Boscari, president of La Tortuga Foundation, an organization dedicated to defending Venezuela's maritime areas, told Tierramérica.

For this reason, there is a proposal “to create an official area of preservation, beyond that of natural monument, in order to protect not only its scenic and geological beauty, but also its ecosystems,” said Julio García Jarpa, vice-president of the National Assembly's (parliament) environment committee.

Declaring La Tortuga a preservation area depends on the Assembly, where the idea does have support. But official status for this does not exist in the Law on Environment, so the committee is awaiting the results of meetings with the various government agencies involved.

La Tortuga, with an area of 155 square kilometers, is located 72 kilometers from continental Venezuela and halfway between Caracas and the northeastern Isla Margarita, the country's largest island. La Tortuga is a formation dating to the Quaternary Period, with a predominance of limestone rocks formed from coral, xerophile vegetation (plants that can withstand extreme conditions), and with no permanent human population.

The island's name comes from the European Conquistadors of the Alonso de Ojeda and América Vespucio expedition, who in 1499 found large numbers of turtles on its shores. Five hundred years later, it is still where sea turtles lay their eggs and seek refuge. From the air, the island itself looks like the shell of a turtle.

Biologist Pedro Vernet told Tierramérica that the four sea turtle species of the southern Caribbean visit the island's beaches: the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), leatherback (Dermochelys coriácea), green (Chelonia mydas) and loggerhead (Caretta caretta) — all of which are in danger of extinction.

Artisanal fisherfolk build temporary shelters for brief stays on the island, which also draws sports fishermen. In contrast, Isla Margarita, Venezuela's main tourist destination with its abundance of green areas, La Tortuga has never had permanent homes, in part because it has no source of freshwater.

The Ministry of Tourism included it in development plans in recent years. In 2005, the tourism authorities brought Giampaolo Bettamio, Italy's vice-chancellor at the time, to the island, hoping to interest him in channeling investment there.

One of the Ministry's plans calls for building a pier, an airport, roads, basic infrastructure, a desalinization plant, storage tanks and a waste incinerator on the southern part of the island, including 50 sustainable tourist units, and 200 rooms in hotels and 100 rooms in guesthouses.

Some officials have talked about the island's potential to hold a golf course.

But Boscari says “that would simply mean the destruction of the island, for having to dynamite or destroy the limestone formations and would hurt the fragile ecosystems, the flora of the surface and coasts and the endogenous fauna, as well as the wealth of sea turtles, fish and shellfish in the surrounding waters.”

Meanwhile, the Ministry has filed away the plan and is not considering it, a source from that office told Tierramérica. Furthermore, the Ministry has a new leader since those tourism studies were drafted.

On La Tortuga “we found 57 plant species, some endemic and limited (like the Opuntia curassavica cactus), which despite the climatic adversities, such as the drying and abrasive winds and the lack of rain, has adapted, flowering and bearing fruit, and providing a habitat to animal species,” Boscari said.

The formation of mangroves is essential for stabilizing the sands (although some areas have so-called living dunes, which are constantly changing), for holding aquatic birds' nests, for producing food for marine species and habitat for sponges, mollusks and fish, states the Foundation in a report to the National Assembly.

Also on the island, 33 bird species have been identified, some of which are migratory, including the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus), and an endemic species, the Tortuga parakeet (Aratinga pertinax tortuguensis). The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) builds its next there during a different season than its continental cousins.

Another biologist with the Foundation, Alfredo Morales, noted that the beaches are “a an unstable coastal marine environment, formed by the accumulation of coral material, pieces of shells, mollusks and stones, with a dynamic that should not be altered” if preservation is truly the goal.

“Any tourism development, with the fragility of the ecosystem, would cause emigration of the fauna and would prevent the arrival of sea turtles. We are against the proposal for tourism because La Tortuga should be exploited for scientific purposes,” he added.

Small-scale tourism using small, recreational boats “could be regulated and monitored with some military presence” on the island, he conceded.

The environmentalists also called attention to the archeological remnants on La Tortuga that bear witness to people who lived there dating back 1,800 years. They also pointed out the excessive fishing they say currently occurs in nearby waters.

The island faces the Cariaco Trench, a depression in the sea bed that extends several thousands of square kilometers and reaches depths of 1,435 meters, where the water lacks oxygen below 250 meters.

The Trench is a unique formation because it acts as a container where it is possible to quantify organic matter and the carbon exchange between the column of water with the atmosphere and the sea bed.

“Our quest to preserve La Tortuga is guided by the notion that the marine-coastal systems are definitively the most affected by human activities,” said Boscari.

García Jarpa, of the legislative committee, is staking his bets that an agreement can be reached with the authorities that will lead to a new regulation for protecting the island.

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