Dead or Alive? The struggle of modern day environmentalists

Ciprian Diaconita

Most of us, when thinking of Costa Rica imagine the exotic beaches, beautiful landscape and rich biodiversity. Voted in 2009 as the world’s greenest, and happiest, country and praised since for its efforts in human development and environmental protection, few would think that volunteers in conservation will fear for their lives in such a place. Jairo Mora Sandoval, a 26 year old biology student, was brutally killed last month in the Limon Province of Costa Rica, while doing what he loved most, protecting a beautiful and gentle creature, the leatherback turtle. Jairo was a volunteer for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), an NGO that is working towards the protection of turtle eggs within Central America.

He was abducted in the middle of the night, along with four other volunteers, while patrolling Moín Beach, an area of interest in the protection of leatherback turtles. Unfortunately, the area is also a hot spot for drug traffickers and egg poachers. While the others were released, Jairo’s faith proved far worse and his body was found the next day on the beach, killed by a blow to the head.

The murder shocked the country and the international environmental community, and exposed the true extent of Costa Rica’s drug related and poaching problems. As yet another item considered a delicacy in some parts of the world, the leatherback turtle’s eggs can fetch as much as £200 per day, providing an attractive incentive for poachers. Not even police presence, although scarce in the area, could dither the trade and Jairo’s death came at the end of several encounters with poachers and drug dealers, some at gun point.

Leatherback turtles are protected by national and international law, however poaching represents one of the greatest threats for a species that saw its numbers decrease dramatically lately.

Unfortunately this scenario is not new, there has been a surge in environmentalists and conservationists being threatened and murdered throughout Latin America, as was the case of José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo, executed while protecting the Brazilian rainforest from deforestation.

Although both cases drew international attention, the reality is that governments are not doing nearly enough to protect environmentalists and volunteers. As of the 07th of July 2013 there were no arrests in Jairo’s case and in the case of Jose Claudio and his wife, the landowner accused of ordering their murder was recently acquitted. This exposes the extent of corruption and lack of will from authorities to deal with the issues. And if you think environmental activists are better off on the North side of the continent, think again. In the US activists may not face death but they are nevertheless chased and prosecuted with every occasion: when Tim DeChristopher disrupted a controversial oil and gas lease auction (later cancelled for breaching environmental laws) he didn’t expect to be sentenced to two years in prison, but he was. And Europe is quick to follow: only recently in the UK – energy protesters narrowly avoided a £5m law suit by an multinational energy firm. But it was only after weeks of campaigning and a public media outcry that the lawsuit was dropped.

Unfortunately there is no good news and no consolation for those seeking justice for Jairo.  In the absence of justice, here are a few things we can all do to put pressure on the Costa Rican authorities:

Sign a Petition: Encourage Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla to ensure that the killers are caught and to ensure the safety of all of the country’s conservationists.

Donate to the Jairo Mora Sandoval Memorial Fund: This money will be used to support his family, create a National Park in his honor, and continue his legacy. 100% of donations will go to the fund (no administrative fees will be taken) and the first $3,000 will be matched by WIDECAST, SEE Turtles, and EcoTeach. The Fund is managed by our partners The Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

More on Jairo Mora Sandoval’s murder:

Petition to the President of Costa Rica to bring justice for Jairo:

More on Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo:


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