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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Afro-Mexican communities and the defense of the sea turtle in Chacahua

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Hector Lopez
Hector Lopez
Héctor nació en la Ciudad de México. Viajando por el continente americano, ha desarrollado diversos proyectos comunitarios enfocándose en la protección y regeneración de sistemas ecológicos locales con la finalidad de reforzar el tejido social. Héctor migró a los Estados Unidos en 2010 y en 2019 se mudó con su familia a Durham, Carolina del Norte donde tiene una pequeña granja en la que practica y enseña todo lo relacionado con la siembra tradicional, libre de agro tóxicos. Actualmente estudia la carrera de Letras Hispánica en la UNAM. Amante de la naturaleza y apasionado de la música, sigue descubriendo las maravillas de la diversidad cultural.

With the swaying of the waves crowned with white crests
I will climb into your shell of stone, tiondo nducha1
Rocking I’ll sleep a deep sleep.

Take me to the sea where I will refresh my memory
I will touch my black roots thirsty for freedom
There, all the children will dance again.

On the small coast of Oaxaca, wonderful beaches bathed by the Pacific Ocean extend. Tourists from all over the world come to this place to enjoy its waves and the warmth of its inhabitants. Among the many paradisiacal places in this fascinating state, is the Lagunas de Chacahua National Park.

To access the beach you have to cross the lakes by boat surrounded by intensely green mangroves inhabited by crocodiles, herons, and iguanas, among many other forms of life. This ecosystem is protected by sand dunes; mangroves in turn protect inland populations when hurricanes hit the coast.

To this area, like others on the western coast of Mexico, enslaved people were brought from Africa, who arrived after exhausting and traumatic journeys to serve the Spanish crown in its American domains. However, their rebellion led them to seek the freedom that they achieved by fighting and escaping from their executioners. In this region they mixed with the local indigenous Mixtecs or ñuu savi, in fact some people call themselves Afromixtecas as well.

There are currently around 2.5 million Afro-descendants living in the country who have historically been made invisible. However, despite the systematic racism exercised for centuries, they keep their culture and traditions alive. They actively seek to be recognized at the constitutional level to have access to government support.

Chacahua, in the ñuu savi language means: Place where shrimp abound. It is in this fertile ecosystem where for centuries sea turtles have come to lay their eggs, especially the olive ridley and the leatherback. Unfortunately, their arrival at these beaches is increasingly sporadic.

But in the small town, where the palapas provide welcome shade, there is a group of local environmentalists who have dedicated themselves to protecting them while defending their African roots. At the head is Berta who has worked in the protection of turtles for the last fourteen years. With the support of Areli, a biologist who contributes her scientific knowledge, they maintain a space to take care of the eggs to help new hatchlings be born. They do it without government assistance and with the contributions of some businesses or tourists.


After 10:00 at night I get on the ATV together with Berta and Antar, a small 9-year-old volunteer to travel twelve kilometers of the coastal strip that divides the sea and the lagoon. Without a moon, accompanied by thousands of stars and the waves breaking on the sand, we enter the darkness in which crabs and fishing birds actively search for food. Immediately a group of tourists near an arbor observe fascinated a spawning turtle. Berta approaches asking everyone to remain silent and avoid using lamps or cell phones so as not to distract the turtle. Berta stands behind her skillfully digging a hole to access the eggs she is removing while Antar places them in a bag while counting them; On average, a turtle lays 80 eggs in one night.

Following our route and as we move away from the last palapas, Berta, with experienced eyes, identifies the tracks on the sand left by the turtles when they come out of the sea in search of a suitable place to lay their eggs. Suddenly we see two dogs running when they hear the engine of the four-wheeler; It’s too late, they just attacked a turtle. Some local people have pets that they do not take care of and end up killing these amazing animals.

But we have to continue, so we find other turtles spawning or newly covered nests to repeat the ritual of digging and removing the eggs, taking the measurements of the turtles, taking the eggs to a fenced space to “plant” them, that is; make a deep hole where the newly collected eggs are placed to incubate them. At the same time, it is checked if there are nests with newborn turtles, if so, they are gathered in a tray to take them to the beach so that they can enter the sea. It is an exhaustive process that ends around 3:00 in the morning.

The next day I interview Berta and Areli to hear what are the main problems that affect the turtles: The lights of restaurants and businesses next to the beach confuse the newborn hatchlings because they use the light of the sun, the moon or the stars to reach the sea so they end up lost in their attempt to reach their goal. Because this place is growing, there is more construction, therefore more noise, garbage and obstacles for the turtles. Sometimes they get caught in the fishermen’s nets and drown. But perhaps most worrying is the direct predation by humans, who under cover of darkness steal the eggs with the intention of selling them for human consumption. A practice that has dramatically decimated the turtle population.

Fortunately Berta, her husband Miguel, their children, Areli, Antar and several volunteers teach the children in schools or through events, the importance of protecting the sea turtles that come to lay their eggs in this place. There I was able to verify that it is they, the adults of the future, who guard the arrival of the turtles so that, together with local traditions, they can survive.

For more information: Instagram: @tortugaschacahua
Fb: Chacahua Bay Tortuguero Camp

1 Tiondo nducha: Sea turtle in the ñuu savi language


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