Every year on June 5, the United Nations Environment Program sponsors World Environment Day to raise global awareness about the need to protect our planet, from global warming to pollution to animal species facing extinction.
This year’s World Environment Day is especially bitter in Costa Rica, following the horrifying murder of turtle conservationist Jairo Mora. People like Mora, 26, who stood up to death threats and continued protecting endangered turtles and their eggs on the northern Caribbean coast, live every day, hour, minute and second as if it were World Environment Day.
The conservationists, biologists, animal lovers and activists who are battling in Costa Rica and throughout Central America (and the world) to save the planet deserve our attention and unwavering support.
It is particularly noteworthy that the reaction from Costa Rican conservationists to Mora’s slaying isn’t one of shock and surprise, but outrage. They know that facing threats from powerful forces in Costa Rica is nothing new. It could be easy to brush off their cynicism as a type of radicalism that is a byproduct of their profession. That’s what President Laura Chinchilla did in 2010.
But there’s more to their story. While the investigation into Mora’s death is ongoing and officials have promised to see the case through until arrests are made, the threat of heavily armed turtle poachers and drug traffickers is something that residents of the Caribbean region have been living with for decades. Environmentalists have worked under increasingly difficult conditions in that area and others for years.
And the threat is growing.
So why did it take a biologist’s murder to get the public security institutions and the administration to act? And why does it appear that pleas for help from conservationists are largely ignored until Costa Rica’s reputation is placed at risk in the international community? And what guarantees are there that current and future administrations will continue providing the support environmental groups need once this story has faded from the front pages?
We hate to politicize Mora’s death in this time of great national sorrow, and foremost on our minds are his family, friends and colleagues as they endure immense grief. But we would be irresponsible if we didn’t point out an obvious takeaway from this, which is that any doubts that the threat of violence from drug trafficking has reached Costa Rican shores are now washed away with Mora’s blood on the beach.
U.S. officials are quick to point out that Costa Rica has made tremendous progress on strengthening judicial institutions, although they acknowledge that a lot of work remains. But Mora’s death reveals that despite progress, the drug traffickers are winning. Limón is battling out-of-control crime, and despite incredible efforts by local residents and business owners, and a small improvement in the amount of law enforcement resources dedicated to the area, the bad guys operate with near impunity.
Mora reached out for help before he was killed, and no one came to the rescue, no matter what political spin is put on it.
Costa Rica’s tremendous environmental successes now face the risk of being lost to encroaching criminal elements. The only thing that can protect those accomplishments is a committed effort by the administration of President Laura Chinchilla and future administrations to provide the resources – financial, legal and judicial – to conservationists, who every day are out there fighting in the mud, rain and heat to preserve this planet for future generations.
There is a presidential election coming up next year, and so far, the National Liberation Party’s Johnny Araya, current mayor of San José, is a shoo-in. But before we blindly vote anyone into office, let’s make sure to ask them the tough questions, among them, “What will you do to ensure that Costa Rica continues being a world leader in environmental protection (and protecting the people who protect the environment)?”
Costa Rica está de luto (is in mourning) this World Environment Day. If we really want to celebrate, let’s make sure Mora’s death wasn’t in vain. One way to do this is to maintain pressure on officials to ensure that justice is served on the perpetrators.
Another is to support environmental groups that, despite being starved for funds, keep working no matter the obstacles.
And a third way is to re-evaluate our own personal beliefs on environmentalism and the need to protect the planet. Because not only will it serve our own interests, but more importantly, it will serve the interests of our children and their children.
Let’s leave them some good news for a change.