November 1, 2005

Cape Verde’s fragile paradise on the brink

By Emmanuel Braun

BOA VISTA, Cape Verde (Reuters) - Loggerhead turtles flock
to Cape Verde's quiet, white beaches to lay their eggs but the
tranquillity that draws them may be under threat as the West
African islands try to lure more sun-seekers.

Environmentalists warn that plans to boost tourism on the
volcanic isles off Africa's Atlantic coast do not take account
of the need to protect fragile species, like the turtles who
nest on the shores of Boa Vista island each year.

Around midnight on Ervatao beach, scores of tiny loggerhead
hatchlings break through the sand after days of digging and
begin a madcap dash under cover of darkness toward the waves.

Clambering over the feet of Spanish research students to
reach the surf, the tiny turtles will swim for 24 to 48 hours.

"This is known as the swimming frenzy where the young
turtles try to reach deep waters as quickly as possible to
escape the predators around them," said marine biologist Ana
Liria, from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

But the greatest risk to the turtles -- and other
indigenous species -- may be from the islands' tourist

In a report called "Paradise on the Brink," the World Wide
Fund for Nature (WWF) said plans to increase tourist arrivals
on Boa Vista to as many as 1 million a year were not supported
by coherent environmental studies or infrastructure projects.

"Cape Verde's biodiversity is of global importance as it
includes many endemic species of plants, birds, insects as well
as marine species," the report said.

Cape Verde's coral reefs are among the world's most
important and most threatened, and the islands' waters are also
a feeding ground for humpback whales, WWF said in its report.


The arid Cape Verde isles, some 300 miles from the coast of
Senegal, were uninhabited when Portuguese sailors discovered
them in 1456.

The archipelago became a major center for the slave trade
and later, the parched soils encouraged a diaspora. Today, the
islands' 500,000 inhabitants are outnumbered by Cape Verdeans
living overseas, mainly in the United States.

A model state for international donors since independence
in 1975, Cape Verde began privatizing its economy in the 1980s.

Since 2000, growth has topped 4 percent a year but problems
persist: unemployment stands at 16 percent and international
officials say crack cocaine consumption is rising as South
American traffickers use Cape Verde as a route into Europe.

In the early 1990s, the government decided to go for
tourism growth to boost the economy. In the last decade,
visitors increased seven-fold to more than 180,000 a year. The
government aims to increase by five the number of hotel rooms
by 2012.

Environmentalists are worried about the effect the planned
developments will have on the island's rich marine life.

Around 3,000 loggerhead turtles nest annually in Boa Vista
and the neighboring isle of Sal, making these areas the second
most important nesting site in the Atlantic Ocean.

The turtles swim from as far away as Mauritania and
Guinea-Bissau before excavating a shallow nest on the beach
with their rear flippers to lay around 100 eggs.

"It is a very important responsibility for Cape Verde's
government to conserve a species along the whole of Africa's
Atlantic coast," said Luis Felipe Lopez, zoology professor at
Las Palmas university.

The government has named 47 protected areas but opposition
politicians and ecologists say planning is haphazard and major
resorts are being approved without proper environmental

Mammoth resorts have already sprung up on Sal and the
government is targeting Boa Vista for development, hoping to
draw foreign investors with hefty tax breaks.

"Sal started to grow in a rapid and spontaneous way ... It
was our first tourism center and we do not want to repeat the
same mistakes," said Filomena Ribeiro, head of tourism
development on the islands.

"Now we are aware that it is necessary to control, to plan
... We would like all our tourists to be eco-tourists."


One development that has raised concern is the Global
Project to build a major marina and tourist village catering
for up to 15,000 visitors in a protected marine area on Sal

"We are a country with a fragile eco-system and we have to
reconcile that with sustainable eco-tourism," said opposition
politician Luisa Fortes.

Tourists aside, authorities also have to persuade
residents, who have an average annual income of around $1,800,
that protecting the environment and marine life is worthwhile.

"There are people here without work. Sometimes, to survive,
they cannot help but kill a turtle. They have children to feed
at home," said Mario Lima, a young man in the town of Joao
Galego on Boa Vista, seeking shade from the midday sun.

Other residents resent efforts to save the turtles.

"The turtles will never disappear. There are lots of them
every year," said Ricardo Pontes, crossing the island's arid
rock-strewn interior on his donkey.

To change attitudes, the Las Palmas university research
project has launched a "turtle day" to educate local children.

"There is a conflict with the local population in the sense
that they have always used the turtle as a source of food,"
said Lopez. "As time passes, the population will slowly start
to realize a live turtle is worth more money than a dead one."