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Murals are helping to save Mexico's turtles

25/01/2010

Murals depicting marine life can be found in most towns on the Baja peninsula in Mexico – on restaurant walls, the facades of schools, or the sides of gas stations. They include large illustrations of endangered sea turtles in a variety of scenes. All have been inspired by a conservation group formed in 1999. Now, a decade later, a careful research project has shown how successful this experiment in public education has been in changing attitudes towards the conservation of these endangered creatures.

The seeds of preservation were first planted in community consciousness with the formation of Grupo Tortuguero in 1999, a marine conservation organization set up with the goal of enhancing public understanding and community participation in the issue. Grupo Tortuguero is made up of concerned fisherman, scientists, and NGO representatives from across North America. It has received international attention and has led to the formation of other community groups around Mexico, all encouraging civic engagement in the protection of Baja's marine resources. Several years ago, Grupo Tortuguero initiated a sea turtle mural project that would span the Baja peninsula. It began with an anonymous, self-taught artist who said, as J. Nichols, the founder of Grupo Tortuguero, recalls, "Just buy me some paints, brushes, and food, and I'll make beautiful turtle murals all over." Mural painting in Baja continues to this day by a variety of local artists and the occasional student group.

Long history
What were once drab, white block walls now feature large illustrations of endangered sea turtles in a variety of scenes: a grinning anthropomorphic turtle recycling a bag of plastics, a bale of turtles feeding on shrimp; a group of citizens releasing "Adelita", a famed local equipped with a transmitter to track her migration. In nearby Magdalena Bay, their real-life counterparts slice and row through the waters of their breeding ground with large teardrop-shaped shells, rubbery flippers, and little, blunt heads. These endangered turtles, including the East Pacific green, olive ridley, hawksbill, and the rare loggerhead, are the flagship species of conservation in Baja and murals act as one tool of a larger movement to protect marine species and habitats.

Last spring Alyssa Irizarry, a Tufts University senior earning a degree in art history and environmental studies, began research into the impact of these murals on environmental awareness and behaviour among the residents of Baja California Sur. It was conducted as part of her work experience at The School for Field Studies (SFS), an environmental research and study abroad programme with headquarters in the United States. The School presented Irizarry with its annual Distinguished Student Researcher Award as her research not only broke ground in academic circles but also reinforced the mission of this conservation movement in Mexico.

Irizarry's project contributed to a component of the SFS Center for Coastal Studies' Five Year Research Plan, which investigates the outcomes of the sea turtle conservation movement in Baja California Sur. Her work posed the question, "Can the artist as well as the scientist make a contribution to toward developing this environmental ethic?"

In her paper Irizarry outlined a history of public art in Mexico as a platform for protest and social commentary. Jose Guadalupe Posada, whose early 20th-century prints, often depicting skeletons living the high life with fancy hats and drinks in hand, not only mocked bourgeois attitudes at a time of social strife but also conveyed ideas that were both accessible and easy to understand. Irizarry cites McCaughan (2002, Gender, sexuality, and nation in the art of Mexican social movements).

According to Irizarry, the sea turtle has acted as an icon of conflicting cultural values throughout Baja's recent history. Since Spanish colonization, sea turtle meat has been heralded as an important food item, which continues to the present day. Beginning in the mid 1900s, they were commercially harvested in Baja for trade in the international market. Overexploitation caused the collapse of turtle populations in the 1980s. And, despite a federal ban in the 1990s on the extraction, capture, and pursuit of all sea turtle species, their consumption remains an important cultural tradition in many communities. Furthermore, economic activity of Baja depends on marine resources and fishing, in spite of decreasing productivity and overexploitation.

More turtles
While global turtle populations have been largely declining in the past three generations, local populations of turtles have increased since the conservation movement began a decade ago. Responses to Irizarry's survey, carried out under the direction of SFS professor A.J. Schneller, indicates a local shift away from the consumption of sea turtles and an "increase in the desire to care for them". Sea turtles are becoming an icon of preservation rather than nutrition.

All of Irizarry and Schneller's survey results from towns showed that exposure to sea turtle murals are especially effective in developing pro-environmental consciousness among adults and students. Half of the 108 responses indicated a deeper reading and understanding of the artwork which influenced their behaviour. One student said, "The murals taught me to not eat them and to take care of them," while another said, "It inspired me to support the cause in favour of the turtles." Irizarry attributes a greater response from children (76 per cent of children had noticed murals compared to 51 per cent of adults interviewed) arising from exposure to environmental education in schools and suggests that viewing the murals reinforces the message.

Irizarry says, "It is unknown whether or not the actions are realized, but sea turtle murals can provide the motivation for community discussion and participation in turtle conservation." If the murals are teaching, inspiring, and motivating – as shown in responses to her surveys – then there is growing hope in the sea turtle conservation movement. Moreover, conservation groups that seek to change behaviour – by volunteering, stopping the consumption of turtle meat, and spreading the message of the plight of the species – will be able to garner a large support network. As one survey respondent said, "It's a new culture. Murals are forming a new vision for the community, and it's good for the groups who work for the turtles."

Irizarry herself has no doubts abut the power of art to educate and motivate young people. "Encouraging an environmental ethic at a young age is critical if we want an environmentally conscious future generation, which we undoubtedly need. Art can be a way to get students to think outside of the box, see the environment from a different perspective, and build appreciation for it."

This article was contributed by Dr Robin Sears who is Dean of the School for Field Studies. The School, founded in 1980, works around the world to educate students about the complexity of local development and conservation issues through field-based teaching, scientific research and training.

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